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Orlando Sentinel

I Want To Live Life, Calderón Says Of Decision Not To Run

By Iván Román | San Juan Bureau

May 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Gov. Sila Calderón said that she made her surprise decision not to run for re-election in 2004 last year when this reality sank in: She was not getting any younger, and she wanted to enjoy life.

Calderón, 60, a grandmother of six, said that when she ran for governor in 2000, she was heeding the call of a public eager for an alternative to an administration making constant headlines with corruption scandals. But soon after she made it to the Governor's Office, she said, she started to take stock in her future.

"I took on that responsibility with enthusiasm and with pleasure, but not with the desire to have a political career. But I did it, and today Puerto Rico has clean government," said a relaxed and smiling Calderón, sitting on an antique sofa in La Fortaleza, the 16th-century Governor's mansion.

Since she announced her decision in a taped TV address, Calderón has tried to put to rest speculation about illness or fear of what her critics say would have been certain defeat pushing her out of politics. After 17 years in public service, Calderón said she realized that being governor made balancing the office with a personal life virtually impossible.

"Until now, I've had a full and vital life, and I'm healthy, happy, a strong woman, both physically and emotionally," said Calderón, who has been seen around town with her former economic-development secretary, Ramón Cantero Frau. "Well, since that's the case at this stage in my life, I want to use that to my benefit in my own personal life."

Calderón's comments came as her Popular Democratic Party is trying to recover from the turmoil caused by her announcement, which instantly changed island politics.

The party's 300-plus-member general council endorsed what Calderón dubbed a "new generation" of leaders, headed by someone she had shunned as a running mate during her 2000 campaign. Lawyer José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral -- son of Rafael Hernández Colón, a former three-term governor and Calderón's former boss -- accepted the endorsement and quickly began putting a strategy team together.

If finally nominated this summer, Hernández Mayoral is set to campaign against pro-statehood former Gov. Pedro Rosselló -- or the New Progressive Party's current president, former Transportation Secretary Carlos Pesquera. Polls say Rosselló would trounce Pesquera in a primary this November.

Calderón, critics say, is fleeing politics because she knew she would lose. A local newspaper poll had her losing to Rosselló and Pesquera. Her detractors blame her for a flat economy, rising unemployment, increased murder rates and what they call "political persecution" of pro-statehood activists.

"I think she has been the most incompetent administrator we have had in the commonwealth of Puerto Rico," said José Garriga Picó, a University of Puerto Rico political-science professor. "Even her big push to clean up corruption isn't really hers to claim. It was mostly the federal agencies that were able to bring about the cases."

Calderón countered that the recession began the first day she took office and that she spent the first year straightening out fiscal mismanagement left behind by the Rosselló administration.

She is particularly proud of her ambitious $1 billion empowerment project for poor communities and dismisses talk of political persecution as rhetoric to downplay the misdeeds of the Rosselló days, when massive corruption plagued the government.

"My government will be known first and foremost for establishing the contrast between a corrupt government and a clean government, and that's no small thing," Calderón said.

And she said the public's reaction to her decision shows it understands her.

"They thank me, they respect the decision, and they're sorry about it like I am, but they respect it," Calderón said. "They know my decisions are always serious and well-pondered, and I gave this a lot, a lot of thought."

Sila María Calderón Serra

PERSONAL: Born Sept. 23, 1942 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Divorced. Three grown children.

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in political science from Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. Master's degree in public administration from the University of Puerto Rico.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Served as special assistant in charge of economic development to former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón from 1973 until 1976, when the Popular Democratic Party, which advocates commonwealth status for the island, was ousted from power by the New Progressive Party, which favors statehood.

Named Hernández Colón's chief of staff when the PDP regained power in 1984. In 1986, the chief of staff position attained Cabinet ranking.

Named Secretary of State in 1988, when she became the first woman to serve as interim governor.

Returned to the private sector in 1989. Working in the investment business, she was an executive with Citibank and served on the boards of several high-profile corporations, including Pueblo Supermarket and Banco Popular. She also worked in a volunteer capacity to help restore the Cantera Peninsula neighborhood, which had been devastated by Hurricane Hugo.

Elected mayor of San Juan in 1996 after a campaign in which she called for government reform and cleaning up corruption, a theme she eventually carried over into her campaign for governor. As San Juan's mayor, she was known for her attention to improving downtrodden areas, including the city's Rio Piedras section, which had been devastated by an explosion.

Elected as the first female governor of Puerto Rico on Nov. 7, 2000, defeating pro-statehood candidate Carlos Pesquera in a bruising campaign. Her tenure as governor was dominated by her campaign to remove U.S. Navy operations from the Puerto Rico island of Vieques.

SOURCE: Sentinel research

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