An ardent supporter of statehood for Puerto Rico won the governor's race on the island Tuesday.
Ricardo Rossello, a scientist and the son of a former governor, has argued that statehood would boost an economy mired in a decade-long slump, a belief that resonated with many voters.
“We will establish a quality of life that will allow [Puerto Ricans] to return to the land where they were born," the 37-year-old Rossello said of the more than 200,000 islanders who have left to the U.S. mainland during its economic crisis.
Rosello, of the New Progressive Party, had nearly 42 percent, or 566,000 votes, when his main opponent, David Bernier, conceded defeat with more than 70 percent of precincts reporting. Bernier had more than 527,000 votes, or 39 percent.
Rosello will take office amid a $70 billion public debt that outgoing Gov. Alejandro García-Padilla has said is unpayable.
He also will grapple with a $45 billion deficit in its pension system, as well as ailing healthcare and education systems, among other things.
In a recent interview with Fox News Latino, Rosello said a priority in his administration will be to cut government bureaucracy and remove the many obstacles that dissuade many from doing business with Puerto Rico.
Rossello proposes cutting the more than 120 government agencies to less than 50, and end, in his words, “the territorial, colonial status in Puerto Rico so that we can get parity.”
Rossello recently told The Associated Press that as governor he would draft a state constitution, hold elections to choose two senators and five representatives to Congress and send them to Washington to demand statehood, a strategy used by Tennessee to join the union in the 18th century.
Rossello's win throws into question the future of the party led by Bernier, who has acknowledged that Puerto Rico's commonwealth status — on which his party was built — is no longer viable.
"We fought a hard and intense battle," Bernier said as he conceded defeat. "It's a very difficult moment for the history of this party."
Bernier was hurt by anger over the economy, a corruption scandal involving his Popular Democratic Party and the emergence of two independent candidates who appealed to an increasing number of voters.
Garcia Padilla, a member of Bernier's party, did not seek a second term.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.