|Pedro Rosselló transformed Puerto Rico's political landscape this week by announcing his intention to seek a third term as governor in the 2004 election. The former governor won immediate support from large factions within the
pro-statehood New Progressive Party and stinging criticism from political opponents in the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party.
The race, as they say, is finally on.
Anticipation for a potential Rosselló comeback has been building for months, as the former governor broke a self-imposed political exile and began publicly discussing Puerto Rico issues. For weeks, he had been dropping hints that he would venture another run for La Fortaleza if there were a wellspring of support from the people. Websites and bumper stickers calling on Rosselló to return home have been popping up in the San Juan metro area, as have media reports about the drive to bring the former governor back. But the announcement this week nonetheless caught political observers by surprise.
Why Rosselló picked now to announce his intentions is not clear. It could have had something to do with the steady stream of NPP leaders over the last few months traveling to the suburbs of the nations capital to visit the exiled statehood leader, who has been teaching at George Washington University. What is clear is that his announcement has dashed any chance that Carlos Pesquera ever had of becoming a gubernatorial candidate again, let alone governor. And it means the NPP will put up the best competition it possibly can in 2004 against Gov. Sila Calderón.
Supporters remember that Rosselló took office in 1993 promising sweeping change, and in many ways he delivered. He sold off money-losing enterprises such as a government shipping line and pineapple and sugar enterprises, as well as privatizing the government-owned telephone utility. He revolutionized the huge government health care system, granting the medically indigent a government-sponsored health insurance card that gave them the ability to seek health care at both private and public health institutions.
He also undertook large construction projects, improving the island's highway system, breaking ground on a light-rail mass transportation system in San Juan and constructing a huge water pipe along Puerto Rico's north coast which has eased chronic water shortage problems.
But that was then and this is now.
On the day Rosselló announced his aspirations, Acting US Attorney HS Bert García, perhaps not accidentally, granted a rare interview to local newspaper reporters. He called the briefing to deny local news reports he wanted out, but took time to reassure the reporters that his offices investigations into public corruption were ongoing, and additional indictments were expected in the coming weeks or months.
Rosselló will have to answer the corruption allegations that have dogged the NPP for the past three years or more. Thats good news for the party because its the best hope of putting those charges behind it, and it will force the PDP to continue its anti-corruption campaign, which might actually wear thin with the public by the campaign hits full stride. But the corruption reached into La Fortaleza, with the extortion conviction of Rossellós former executive aide Maria de los Angeles "Angie" Rivera, and involved Rosselló administration stalwart former Education Secretary Victor Fajardo. Will more former associates be implicated in the on-going federal probes into the Superaqueduct project, the alleged extortion scheme at the State Insurance Fund and other government agencies?
The fact that Rosselló addressed the issue in the radio interview when he announced his gubernatorial aspirations shows he is ready to face the corruption charges head on. "I admit that members of my administration betrayed the people," Rosselló said Tuesday, adding that he was "wounded" and "disillusioned" by the corruption of his former associates. "But corruption is not the ill of one party. Corruption permeates society and requires all of our force to combat it." The doctor also said he would engage in "preventive healthcare" to try to stop corruption before it happens in any future administration he would run.
Rosselló recently said that Calderón was such a bad governor "anyone" the NPP puts up as a candidate in 2004 would beat Calderón. He said his return to politics does not stem from any personal ambition but from the "the rapidly deteriorating situation in Puerto Rico" and his ability to make the changes to put Puerto Rico on track.
The truth is unseating the governor will be a lot tougher than that. Much will depend on how well Calderóns administration runs over the next two years, and whether she starts to show concrete results from her programs. A lot will also depend on the United States and global economy and their effect on local conditions.
Its good for Puerto Rico that Rosselló is returning to run for governor. Pesquera served as a Rosselló surrogate in the last election. He took credit for the wave of reform and construction that reshaped Puerto Rico during the Rosselló years, and was hurt by the corruption cases that tainted the administration. It is more appropriate for Rosselló himself to run on his administrations record.
If the 2004 election comes down to a face-off between Rosselló and Calderón, as now looks likely, expect the NPP to paint Calderón as a "do-nothing" governor and expect the PDP to paint Rosselló as the head of a band of thieves. As things stand today, with a sputtering economy, that showdown looks surprisingly good for Rosselló. Many residents long for the economic strength of the Rosselló years and write-off the corruption scandals as the price to pay for a government that got things done.
Although Rosselló wont say it, defending his past record has a lot to do with his return. When May 1 arrives, he will be here to say that he brokered the deal that got the Navy to leave Vieques. When the Puerto Rico Coliseum and the Urban Train are completed in the coming months, Rosselló will be here to say they were his initiatives. But he, too, will have to answer questions about the corruption schemes concocted by the likes of Fajardo and others.
In the end, however, the 2004 election will be about the future and not the past. Rossellós ultimate success or failure in his renewed quest for La Fortaleza wont be about what he accomplished from 1993 through 2000, but what he pledges to do for Puerto Rico in 2004 and beyond.
The former governor is reportedly hard at work on his campaign platform. Much of Puerto Rico will be anxious to hear what new reforms and projects it may contain, as well as to listen to Rosselló talk extensively about the betrayal of the public trust by many of his former associates.
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