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Orlando Sentinel

Dark Cloud Over Ex-Governor May Dominate His Campaign

Ivan Roman, San Juan Bureau

March 23, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Less than four hours after he got off an American Airlines flight from Washington, D.C., for his "triumphant" return last week, former Gov. Pedro Rossello danced the Macarena before tens of thousands of fans.

He would have gotten to the rally sooner, but the cheering crowds that clogged the streets held him up.

It seemed just like old times, but it sure wasn't. The man who trounced opponents twice and governed Puerto Rico from 1993 to 2000 returned to kick off his third bid for the island's top office under a dark cloud that hit the airwaves as soon as he touched the tarmac.

Grainy pictures of dozens of people tied to his administration appeared on television screens with the word "Convicted" or "Indicted" stamped on them to drive home the point that he presided over what's considered the most corrupt administration in recent history.

"Rossello Never Again" takes up the entire screen. "Rossello dares say he knew nothing about anything," a male voice tells listeners in a radio ad.

He told the 30,000 or so people who welcomed him back March 15 like the island's savior that he expected his name to be dragged through the mud. He's a changed man, he said, and admits he "should have known" about corruption under his nose.

"I come here with my head held high and with a clean conscience," he told the loud crowd that egged him on as he attacked Gov. Sila Calderon and the governing Popular Democratic Party for their own "corruption."

"Progress and social justice has but one name, the New Progressive Party," he said.

Maybe with a clean conscience, but apparently not as changed as he professed to be. In his first news conference in Puerto Rico since he was governor, he dodged specific questions, answered questions with questions and ultimately got defensive.

Just like old times.

Although he admitted in a five-minute television and radio ad before his arrival that he "should have known" about some of the corruption, he refused to say at the news conference exactly what he should have known. That his personal assistant in the next office was extorting contractors? That his education secretary was stealing millions that were supposed to help kids and funneling some of it back to the NPP's election campaign?

No one really knows.

"He's the same Rossello with the same bad habits, the same shamelessness and the same arrogance as ever," said PDP Secretary Fernando Torres Ramirez.

And those observations are not just coming from his critics outside his party. A meeting between Rossello and NPP President Carlos Pesquera, who is also running for governor, went nowhere. The former governor rejected a proposal to hold the NPP primary early -- sometime this summer -- to give the party more time to heal by November 2004.

In fact, Rossello said he is virtually ignoring the primary and setting his sights on Calderon next year. That "arrogance" rattles the Pesquera camp. To avoid a fight, many people pushed for Pesquera to step aside.

But his supporters, still ashamed over the more than 70 corrupt politicians and contractors caught with more still to come, say the NPP should not succumb to Rossello still surrounded by the party's "bad apples" or activists who turn a blind eye.

"We're the conscience of the party, and if Pesquera bows out, the party has no conscience," said Yauco Mayor Abel Nazario. "We're the ones who gave money to lower the party's debt and have to deal with the corruption mess. Not those who waited on the sidelines to now try to stick to Rossello like white on rice and try to get into the House or the Senate again."

Rossello keeps rebuffing questions about who paid for last Saturday's rally and the five-minute television and radio ad, feeding rumors that he's being bankrolled by corporate moguls who got government contracts in the past and hope to again. That is precisely what got his administration into trouble before.

Just like old times.

And also reminiscent of the past, Rossello got out of the vehicle weaving him through San Juan streets and began walking and shaking hands and hitching a ride on a motorcycle through the crowds that adore him.

Once on stage, he took a cup of water someone had handed to him and splashed it over the crowd, a symbolic blessing to a new and tough campaign.

Pesquera had to laugh a little when a radio interviewer asked about Rossello being received like the grand savior of Puerto Rico or, as some said, like the Messiah.

"There is only one Messiah," Pesquera said.

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