An ardent supporter of statehood for Puerto Rico won the governor's race on the island Tuesday, after campaigning on a pledge to turn the economically troubled U.S. territory into the 51st state during his term.
Ricardo 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.
A frenzied crowd waved U.S. flags as they waited for the 37-year-old Rossello to take the stage at his party's headquarters.
Rossello, a scientist and the son of a former governor who also sought statehood for Puerto Rico, argues that barring island residents from voting for president deprives 3.5 million people of their full rights. He also says statehood would boost an economy mired in a decade-long slump, a belief that resonated with many voters.
"It's terrible," Iris Highley, 72, said of not being able to vote for president. "Statehood will provide equality to the people of Puerto Rico."
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.
Nestor Montalvo, a 67-year-old retired government worker who voted for Rossello, said the win will likely mean more economic help and stability for Puerto Rico.
"If that's not the case, we'll just keep sinking further," he said.
Montalvo was among the nearly 2.9 million people registered to vote, and lines of up to two hours were reported in some places. Despite heavy downpours, turnout appeared to be heavy amid widespread anger and frustration over an economic crisis that has led to a series of unpopular austerity measures.
In an attempt to generate more revenue, the administration of current Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla has increased utility rates, imposed new taxes and declared a state of emergency at several government agencies. The measures have increased an exodus to the U.S. mainland, with more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans leaving the island in recent years.
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.
Rafael Soto Pacheco, an employee in the island's Treasury Department, said he supports statehood but voted for Bernier because he believes he had the most political experience. However, he said in the end it doesn't matter who wins.
"The federal control board is going to be our next governor," he said, referring to a board created earlier this year to oversee Puerto Rico finances as the island's government seeks to restructure nearly $70 billion in public debt that Garcia has said is unpayable.
Garcia, a member of Bernier's party, did not seek a second term.