|New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera's grip on his position appears weaker than ever as he and the statehood movement he wants to lead enters the pivotal New Year.
The pre-election year of 2003 is crucial because by the time it ends, the NPP will have an undisputed leader to run in the 2004 election against Gov. Calderón. When that happens, no one in the party will dare to openly criticize the party president, and the rank-and-file will be unified in their confidence that the president will triumph in 2004 and retake La Fortaleza for the statehood party.
That has yet to happen, however. Pesquera may just be the NPP choice to run again against Calderón in 2004, but right now, many in the NPP are hotly questioning his leadership skills and his attraction as a candidate. Some of those are his potential rivals and supporters of potential rivals. But many others are simply long-term statehood supporters who are genuinely questioning whether Pesquera, despite whatever attributes he may have, is the best gubernatorial candidate the NPP can put forward to run against Calderón.
Pesquera's relatively precarious position at the NPP helm was thrown into the spotlight following his recent call for NPP Rep. José "Nuno" López to resign.
Pesquera's action followed López's testimony at the extortion and influence peddling trial of his old boss, former House Speaker Edison Misla Aldarondo. He admitted cashing an $8,000 check for Misla, which federal authorities have traced to the alleged payoffs Misla received in exchange for his political influence to help pave the way for the sale of a government hospital to an investment group.
The NPP lawmaker also admitted on the stand that he authorized his bank to make a transfer from his election campaign account to his personally account -- an apparent electoral law violation even if the money was subsequently paid back.
López tearfully complied with Pesquera's order, painting himself as a victim who was following instructions for the good of the party. But soon after, López went straight to work behind the scenes to try and keep his seat. A group of supporters from San Juan Precinct 1 went to the lawmaker's office and asked him to change his mind and not to resign.
A larger meeting with party loyalists from the area over the weekend showed support for López to keep his seat was growing, with all electoral district leaders supporting López to remain in his seat.
Pesquera has refused to back down from his position that López resign, saying the lawmaker showed poor judgment in cashing the check for Misla. The party president said the NPP must make clear to voters that it will not withstand even a hint of corruption within its ranks.
Santini, one of a handful of potential NPP gubernatorial candidates, has been careful not to openly criticize Pesquera's call. But at the same time, he has said that Precinct 1 voters should be the ones to make the decision whether or not López should stay or go.
He is being ever so cautious, but there is a clear sense that in painting a difference between himself and Pesquera, Santini may be making his move to set up a challenge to the NPP president's leadership.
Likewise, Santini said he will go to La Fortaleza for the annual New Year's protocol greeting, while Pesquera has flatly refused. Santini, in these recent actions, has painted himself the diplomat to Pesquera's hard-headed politician.
Santini repeatedly denies any gubernatorial ambitions, saying he plans to remain in San Juan for at least another term. But the tack he is taking over the López issue -- let the voters decide -- will likely be one he will use if he is to challenge Pesquera.
I imagine Santini accepting a run for governor only after a large chorus of voters openly ask him to do so for the good of the party. In that sense, maybe the keep- López-in-his-seat drive is just a dry run for a larger move designed to put Santini at the front of the party.
Another move that has raised criticism against Pesquera from within the NPP was his decision to cancel the results of a vote to pick a new NPP Woman's Organization leader for lack of quorum, or the fact that too few voters participated in the process.
"This is going to bury him politically," one disgruntled lawmaker told reporters. Critics blame Pesquera for attracting too few voters to the events, and they say that the move will open other internal political elections, such as that of the NPP Youth, to challenge because not enough voters participated to establish quorum either.
Meanwhile, many within the NPP are pushing for former Gov. Pedro Rosselló to return to local politics and run for governor again or resident commissioner.
Bumper stickers, saying "Come back, Pedro, Puerto Rico is waiting for you," have begun appearing around San Juan.
While Santini has many supporters, the group backing a Rosselló return believes Santini still must prove himself in San Juan before making a gubernatorial run.
Meanwhile, one lawmaker pushing for a Rosselló return says party supporters are disenchanted with Pesquera because he lacks "charisma" and "political savvy."
Rosselló has been much more vocal on Puerto Rican issues since federal authorities completed their investigation into the Education Department corruption scheme masterminded by former Secretary Víctor Fajardo.
And he says he wants to push for statehood through federal courts by fighting to win the right for Puerto Ricans to vote for president.
Rosselló says "any NPP candidate" can beat Calderón in the next election, and it is a long shot that he will return to run again, although he has not ruled out running if the party base decides to draft him.
As for Pesquera, he has a short time to consolidate his leadership within the NPP so that he can concentrate on the difficult task of trying to unseat a sitting governor.
His January trial on rioting charges stemming from last June's flag-raising incident could provide the opportunity to energize his party leadership.
If it does not, Pesquera won't be running for governor in 2004.
John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net