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Orlando Sentinel

Hernández Mayoral Lacks Experience But Hopes That His 'Charisma' Prevails

By Matthew Hay Brown

June 29, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- It began as a summer job of sorts. José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral was back on the island for a few months between college and law school; his father set him the task of devising a plan to revitalize their hometown of Ponce.

A philosophy major at Harvard, Hernández Mayoral arranged for himself a quick immersion in urban renewal, buying books and setting up meetings with experts in the field. Before leaving to study law at Stanford, he handed his father an economic-development strategy that focused on boosting tourism to Puerto Rico's genteel second city.

His father, the former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón, would soon be returned to San Juan for a second term as chief executive of this Caribbean U.S. commonwealth.

The plan would become the basis for Ponce en Marcha -- roughly, "Ponce on the Move" -- the program of government financing that is widely credited with reversing the city's long economic decline.

And Hernández Mayoral would gain an enduring sense of hope for the politically divided island.

"When that plan started, my dad was governor, but the mayor was from the opposition party," he said. "They were able to cooperate for the benefit of the town. So it was also a demonstration that working across party lines can work in Puerto Rico."

It's a lesson he now hopes to take back to La Fortaleza, the mansion that has housed the island's rulers since the 16th century, and in which he lived as a teenager. With the surprise announcement by Gov. Sila M. Calderón last month that she would not seek a second term, the 41-year-old attorney has agreed to succeed his father's former protegee as president of the majority Popular Democratic Party and its likely nominee for governor in 2004.

Part insider, part outsider -- heir to an ostensible political dynasty, his public experience limited to an abortive bid to represent the island in Congress -- he takes over the party that dominated Puerto Rican politics in the 20th century as it tries to define itself and the island for the 21st.

The Populares, who 50 years ago negotiated Puerto Rico's commonwealth status, now want to tweak that arrangement, in the hope of shaking the island free of the economic doldrums that have left personal income about a third that of the United States and restoring it to the phenomenal growth of the first decades.

Their efforts to gain the authority to reject federal legislation and pursue foreign trade independently of Washington have been opposed by the New Progressive Party, whose members want Congress to accept the island as the 51st state.

With support for the parties split nearly evenly, Washington has expressed little interest in change, leaving the political status of the island unresolved and deepening partisan rancor. Swing voters have alternated between the sides, frustrating long-term planning as each new administration dismantles the work of the one that came before.

Before Calderón's announcement, polls indicated she would lose to both her likely opponent, former Gov. Pedro J. Rosselló, and his primary challenger, New Progressive Party President Carlos Ignacio Pesquera.

Enter Hernández Mayoral. Popular personally if still largely undefined politically, he is described by supporters as a unifying figure, a family man with a youth and intellect that evoke John F. Kennedy and Camelot. In endorsing his candidacy, Calderón spoke of entrusting the party and Puerto Rico to the next generation of leaders.

Critics say Hernández Mayoral is running on his father's name. They say he is untested, as a politician or a manager, and predict the initial favorable response to his candidacy will dim when he begins taking positions on issues.

Memorably, former Gov. Carlos Romero Barceló reviewed his résumé recently and reported he had never even run a car wash.

"It is true," Hernández Mayoral says. "And it is undeniable that I have never been in government. But I think it is a little premature for him to claim that that disqualifies me."

He points out that Popular Democratic Party founder Luis Muñoz Marín, the towering figure of 20th-century Puerto Rican politics, had no executive experience before he began his four-term run as the commonwealth's first governor.

"I discard his attack," Hernández Mayoral says. "It is a little misguided, and it points to a view of what governing on the island is. I don't think the people want, at this point . . . a manager. They're looking for a leader."

He speaks in the law offices where he works with his wife, the attorney Patricia Rivera MacMurray, on the seventh floor of the art-deco Banco Popular building overlooking the Bay of San Juan. A corporate litigator, Hernández Mayoral's reputation is for being able to calmly develop settlements between seemingly intractable sides.

Island businessman Thomas Ward, a client for 15 years, used Hernández Mayoral as lead negotiator in the recent sale of his company to a multinational corporation.

"He's very smooth, and he never loses his temper," Ward says. "What José doesn't get upset about, the other guys don't get upset about."

He would need all of his skill as a conciliator to succeed in the goals he has set -- breaking up the island's huge central government, taking politics out of long-term planning, and finally settling status -- in a political arena in which every issue, every position, every initiative is ideologically loaded.

"People are polarized," he acknowledges. "People have fanatical views about things, and they're blind to solutions that are right in front of them, simply because of a prejudice that keeps them from seeing a solution that's good to all.

"I don't have that. I think I have an instinct of trying to put myself in the adversary's position and trying to see the problem the way he sees it and trying to find common ground."

Critics are skeptical. Jose Garriga Picó, a pro-statehood professor of political science at the University of Puerto Rico, shared a radio program with Hernández Mayoral for several months earlier this year. While he enjoyed his broadcast partner, he says, he found him unable to take and defend firm positions on meaningful issues.

"A lot of people are able to be friendly and nice," says Garriga Picó, now running as a New Progressive Party candidate for the island Senate. "It's one thing to do that in a non-challenging environment, and quite a different thing when you try to do it in a political environment. I think that he is really untested in terms of these qualities."

The Popular Democratic Sen. Carlos Hernández López says Hernández Mayoral has all the intelligence, the character and the support he will need to succeed.

"It's better to have a governor with no experience than a governor with all the negative experience you could ask for," Hernández López says in a swipe at Rosselló, whose eight-year administration included several high officials now imprisoned on corruption convictions.

"José Alfredo is the kind of man Puerto Rico needs right now. He has a special charisma that comes along very few times in the history of a nation. He has the intelligence, the character and the right attitude to be a new leader, the kind that this new generation of Puerto Rico has been waiting for."

Hernández Mayoral, for his part, has embraced the role of generational standard-bearer.

"This could be the first time that a generation of people born after Puerto Rico modernized will go into power, and we have a different attitude," he says. "Things that a previous generation would see as sacred, as dogma, are not that meaningful to my generation.

"I can understand that someone who grew up in the 1950s and is a commonwealther might view the current commonwealth status as a huge achievement -- and it was for the time -- and might be a lot more conservative about changing it.

"Well, my generation grew up within the commonwealth, was not there when that process of obtaining the commonwealth status occurred and never saw pre-commonwealth Puerto Rico, so we see defects in the commonwealth status. We still believe that our foreseeable future would be better following that type of relationship. But we also see that it needs terrible improvements."

Island residents are U.S. citizens, but they do not vote for president or pay federal income tax. The population of 3.9 million is subject to federal law, but its voice in Congress is limited to a single resident commissioner, a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives.

The government enjoys fiscal autonomy, meaning it raises its own taxes and spends the revenues as it sees fit, but is prohibited by Washington from pursuing its own foreign relations or international trade.

To many, these are arguments for statehood, under which the island would gain the presidential vote, two senators and perhaps eight representatives.

Hernández Mayoral favors rethinking commonwealth status. Instead of getting votes in Congress, he proposes giving Puerto Rico the authority to reject federal legislation. In exchange, the island would pay Washington for access to programs and services.

"That has to be on the table," he says. "One of the criticisms that is made to commonwealthers is that we want the benefits but not the responsibilities. I can't conceive of a permanent autonomous relationship with the U.S. that does not take into account a mechanism for us to object to specific federal laws, and a mechanism for the government of Puerto Rico to pay for the federal programs that are applied to Puerto Rico."

Before taking on such a project, he would need to build a consensus on status. With the electorate divided between commonwealth and statehood -- independence, with single-digit support, finishes a distant third -- Congress has indicated little interest in change.

A series of non-binding votes over the years has failed to establish a clear choice. Hernández Mayoral suggests a constitutional assembly to bring the sides together in public debate.

Ultimately, the gathering would come up with a single preference for Congress to consider. If it were accepted, Puerto Rico would hold a referendum for final ratification. If it were rejected, the island would cross the option off the list and convene a new assembly to develop a new proposal.

The challenge, as always, would be in getting all the parties to participate in the process.

"We all want to resolve it our own way," Hernández Mayoral says. "We all want the solution to be my solution, and if it is not my solution, I want to reserve the right to be able to put all sorts of obstacles on the favored solution.

"It would require that we all agree to face reality and to acknowledge that the solution might not be the one that we individually prefer, but that we just have to resolve the issue. I think the independentistas and some statehooders already acknowledge that. At this stage in our history, I think everyone has to take their chances."

In the coming campaign, the New Progressive Party will try to associate Hernández Colón with Calderón. Lauded by Popular Democrats for her anti-corruption crusade and her Special Communities anti-poverty campaign, she is blamed by the New Progressives for the island's economic woes and for strained relations with the mainland over the Navy practice bombing on Vieques.

In a poll published last month, the newspaper El Nuevo Día asked respondents to name Calderón's greatest achievement in office. The leading answer was "none." She will be the first governor not to seek a second term.

New Progressive Senate Minority Leader Kenneth McClintock said Hernández Mayoral needs to distance himself from Calderón.

"In politics, as an alcoholism or drug addiction, you have to admit what the problem is in order to have credibility," McClintock says. "In Puerto Rico, the problem has a name and a surname: Sila Calderón.

He "has not made really any statements criticizing anything the governor has done, leaving the impression that he has supported everything. You can't have gone down the road of Puerto Rico of the last three years and seen all the accidents at the edge of road, and then at the end say you're the Good Samaritan. He's too late."

Hernández Mayoral says he does not plan to criticize Calderón.

"I'm not going to do anything to distance myself from anything specific in her administration, except to stress that I'm a different candidate, I have my own ideas and my own plans, and that's what's going to go into the platform," he says. "This is not a continuation of the Calderón administration. But the fact that it's not a continuation is not a criticism of what she has done. I think she has cleaned up the house quite a bit, she has improved finances, and those are good building blocks for me."

Hernández Mayoral was not planning to run for La Fortaleza next year. He was at San Juan's international airport, preparing to take his 12-year-old son to Children's Hospital Boston for what they hoped would be the last procedure, when the governor called last month.

Pablo José, the older of Hernández Mayoral's and Rivera MacMurray's two children, had suffered unexplained abdominal pains since October. The couple had taken Pablo José to specialists in San Juan, New York and Boston.

"I suspected that I would run for office at one point or another," Hernández Mayoral says. "In my ideal life plan this would have occurred later in life. But one does not always control all the events.

"When [Calderón] informed me that she wasn't running again, all the internal polls showed that I was the preferred candidate of the populares. That really came at a very difficult moment for me. I do understand that if I am the strongest candidate that the party may have, well, that's a responsibility that one has to assume for the party."

Hernández Mayoral held a press conference this month to describe his son's condition and its potential effect on his campaign. He said the procedure last month to remove his gall bladder did not end the pain. The still-unexplained inflammation is not life-threatening but affects Pablo José's quality of life. This month, the boy returned to Boston to have an extension implanted.

"My priority is the search for a cure for my son," he told reporters. "If this arrives at a point that I understand that this is incompatible with the pursuit of a candidacy for governor . . . I wouldn't have the least doubt in withdrawing."

For now, he says, he is pursuing a return to La Fortaleza, as the first governor born in the commonwealth.

"Puerto Rico has all the conditions to be a much better country than it is," he says. "Someone looking at it from the past might sit down in awe and admire what it is that we have achieved. We see that from the present and we feel that we haven't achieved enough."

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