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Pataki Visit Roils Island Politics

by Robert Becker

April 13, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

New York’s Republican Gov. George Pataki was campaigning for the hearts of Bronx voters in the most unlikely of places last Monday -- Vieques.

During a two-day Puerto Rico visit, Pataki also played political footsie with his new friend, Gov. Sila Calderón, raised funds at a $1,000-a-plate luncheon at a swanky mansion in the San Juan suburbs, and infuriated local Republican leaders.

Even by the rough-and-tumble standards of island politics, It was quite a visit, replete with political drama.

Pataki has not yet announced that he is running for reelection, but it is obvious that New York’ s 1.3 million Puerto Ricans loom large in his plans.

Pataki has made no bones about his opposition to Navy training in Vieques. By making a dramatic visit to Vieques, with the New York press corps in tow, Pataki hoped to reap a rich harvest of photo ops to beam to the voters back home. He also cemented an unlikely alliance with Calderón, a big-government, big-spending liberal whose Popular Democratic Party has historically allied itself with the Democratic Party. Political observers here expect Calderón to break Democratic ranks and campaign for Pataki in Puerto Rican communities in New York against his likely Democratic opponent, Mark Green.

Pataki’s end of the deal is to use his influence with President Bush to champion the Vieques anti-Navy cause. He is expected to press Bush for a quick departure of the Navy from Vieques. But Bush, who is also under heavy pressure from the Republican right to keep the Navy in Vieques, has said he will abide by the U.S.-Puerto Rico deal engineered by former President Clinton and former Gov. Rosselló. That provides for the Navy’s exit by may of 2003, if the voters of Vieques so choose this November.

Calderón needs Pataki because she has few friends in the Republican Party, which has long been the preserve of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party. She has no direct access to Bush, as chief of staff Andy Card is cool to Calderón but close to NPP leaders on the island.

Pataki’s lobbying clout may be diminished because he ran roughshod over island Republicans, some with close ties to Bush. The island’s top Republicans, including party patriarch Luis A. Ferré and House Minority Leader Edison Misla Aldarondo, were conspicuously absent from the fundraiser at the Guaynabo home of advertising executive Eduardo L. Ballori. Those local Republicans offended by Pataki may neutralize Pataki’s Vieques lobbying.

Miriam Ramírez de Ferrer, a feisty NPP senator and Republican with close ties to the Bush family, was the chief thorn in Pataki’s side. Ramírez attempted to enter a "public meeting" held by Pataki and Calderón Monday in Isabel Segunda in Vieques, but she was physically barred by baton-wielding cops under Calderón’s command. Ramírez and a handful of supporters waving U.S. flags were surrounded by a pushing-and-shoving mob of anti-Navy protesters, creating an atmosphere of violence and intimidation. The mob included pro-independence activists with a decidedly anti-American agenda.

The confrontation grabbed headlines and TV air time, and diverted attention from the Pataki-Calderón photo op going on inside. The spectacle of hulking policemen barring an elected public official from entering a public meeting tarnished the event. Newspapers in Albany and New York City took note of Pataki’s vote pandering. Even Puerto Rican congressional Democrats with strong anti-Navy credentials, such as Rep. José Serrano of New York City, predicted that Puerto Rican voters would stay with the Democrats next year.

The Pataki foray, in short, appeared to have backfired.

Pataki’s sins, in the eyes of island Republicans, were twofold. He publicly aligned himself with Calderón, who statehooders and Republicans regard with loathing. Moreover, Pataki violated protocol by ignoring local party leaders and raising funds in their backyard without so much as a howdy-do.

The coup-de-grace to the Pataki visit was applied by the simultaneous release of a report from the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. The Johns Hopkins team had been asked to review the findings of a Ponce School of Medicine study which purported to show a high incidence of heart abnormalities among Vieques fisherman. In a theory that has been widely ridiculed, Calderón and some of her medical supporters have claimed the purported abnormalities were caused by sonic waves triggered by Navy ship-to-shore shelling -- a distance of 10 miles or more form the nearest civilian population. The hyperbole has engendered virtually no interest in mainstream scientific circles outside of Puerto Rico.

Robert Becker, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at:

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