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Puerto Rico's Flashy New Political Star Wants to Be the 51st U.S. Governor

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I know that I am on trial for the next four years,” says Puerto Rico’s Governor-elect Carlos Romero Barceló. “It will be hard, but I have strong shoulders.” At 44, San Juan’s two-term mayor scored a stunning electoral upset last month when he ousted the favored incumbent, Rafael Hernandez Colon. The victory foreshadows an impassioned debate over whether the island commonwealth will become the 51st state.

Romero and his youthful, liberal New Progressive Party rolled into power on a wave of resentment against political corruption and a listless economy in which unemployment is running at better than 20 percent.

Assuming he can revive the economy in his first term, Romero wants to put the issue of statehood to a referendum. “If a majority of our three million citizens make a decision and say, ‘We want to have our political rights, we want to vote for President, we want to have representation in Congress, and we are willing to pay our income taxes,’ ” Romero asks, “how can Congress say no?”

The shrewd Yale-educated lawyer admits that Puerto Rico’s population may be an obstacle to eventual statehood. “I have no doubt,” he says, “that some congressmen will not be very happy at the idea of Puerto Rico having seven representatives. That means we would have more congressmen than half of the 50 states.”

Romero’s media-wise election blitz, with a catchy ad agency campaign song, also made use of an unexpected political weapon: his 39-year-old second wife, Kate. A onetime secretary from Baldwin, Long Island, she married the divorced Romero in 1966. While the candidate visited even the remotest villages, sometimes by horseback, Kate did her part too. “She took to campaigning,” says an aide, “like an Irishman to whiskey, and Kate is Irish. She was the first wife of a candidate in Puerto Rican history to do this. She insisted on speaking Spanish, which she speaks well. It impressed people.”

Involving their women in politics is a tradition in Romero’s family. His mother, Josefina Barceló, was president of the Liberal Party, a post she inherited from her father, Antonio. Romero’s own father, an engineer, lawyer and supreme court judge, sent his son to exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy, then on to Yale where he studied economics and political science. He received his law degree from the University of Puerto Rico and practiced in San Juan before his election as mayor in 1968.

On Jan. 2, their 11th wedding anniversary, Romero, Kate and their children, Juan Carlos, 9, and Melinda Kathleen, 5, will move from a condominium in the opulent Condado section of San Juan to the governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza, overlooking San Juan Bay. (Two older sons, by Romero’s first marriage, attend college in the U.S. Carlos, 22, is at Yale Law School; Andres, 20, is at Bryant College in Rhode Island.)

Despite the formidable opposition to statehood, especially from Hernández’ Popular Democratic Party, Romero believes that ultimately his cause will prevail. “If Congress were to say no after a valid plebiscite in which a majority of the people in Puerto Rico said they wanted statehood,” Romero asks, “how would it look in the eyes of the world?”