|The Aug. 1 deadline for political candidacies still looms, but most pundits have finally settled on the current prevailing version of the governors race as the likely contest in 2004 Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá of the Popular Democratic Party against former Gov. Pedro Rosselló of the New Progressive Party, with Rubén Berríos of the Puerto Rican Independence Party rounding out the field.
Its been one of Puerto Ricos strangest political seasons so far, witnessing first the surprise return of Rosselló, the unexpected exit of Gov. Sila Calderón and the sudden rise and fall of attorney José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral as her successor.
Heres a pre-game look at the field, and some of the issues that will likely rule the debate, while keeping in mind that more surprising twists and turns may yet take place.
After a painful month, the PDP has finally selected a gubernatorial candidate Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá.
Puerto Ricos sole non-voting member of Congress is not the most charismatic figure, and one would be hard-pressed to link his name to a memorable legislative initiative during his eight years as a representative in the commonwealth House of Representatives, or some other substantial action during his more recent stint since 2001 in the U.S. Congress.
But the apparent glee with which the New Progressive Party is greeting his nomination as a pushover is misplaced. Acevedo Vilá may not be the "fresh new face" that PDP top had been hunting, but he is a politician who has never lost an election, and he has shown himself to be an astute strategist and a campaign bulldog when the odds are against him.
It is also somewhat fitting that it is Acevedo Vilá who will lead the PDP into the 2004 election. As the man who has willingly picked up the pieces for the party at its lowest moments, he deserves the shot. Such party loyalty may yet to ingratiate him with the party base, which instantly embraced Hernández Mayoral as its new leader.
The party has repaid Acevedo Vilá in the worst possible fashion setting him up immediately as the understudy by first unanimously backing attorney Hernández Mayoral for its new leader. After the son of the former three-term Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón dropped out of the race because of the health problems of his 12-year-old son, Acevedó Vilá suddenly found himself, instead of going for his comfortable chair at the local House of Representatives, running for La Fortaleza, the hottest seat on the island.
But its to his credit that he immediately accepted the challenge of running for governor; indeed, he began quietly lobbing for the post right after Hernández Mayoral announced he would drop out. He might have felt betrayed when he was looked over by party leaders who anointed Hernández Mayoral their gubernatorial candidate, but he never publicly complained about it when he had the right to.
One of his first moves as a candidate was to announce that he would be much more aggressive on decentralizing government, granting more power to town governments and pressing the United States on status, which for populares means improving commonwealth.
He will also hammer away at the corruption issue, as the commonwealth Justice Department will continue public corruption investigations involving former Rosselló administration officials even as federal prosecutions of public corruption appear to be tapering off.
But strategically the party is worse off than it might have been with a face that was not such an integral part of the Calderón administration at a time when the economy is sluggish and crime is on the rise. The turnover in the Cabinet is now exacerbated by the governors lame-duck status, which might bring on more resignations and a weaker control of the Legislature. This will likely cause a further deterioration in its public image.
Acevedo Vilá also suffers from the perception of being a part-time Congressman. Even supporters say he never wanted the Washington, D.C. job but would have preferred to stay in San Juan. This month, he was caught off-guard by a Republican move to allow the Navy to shut down Naval Station Roosevelt Roads in six months, selling the land to the highest bidder, rather than giving priority to local economic needs as usually occurs. The move may yet still happen.
Acevedo Vilá, however, can still point to substantial benefits Puerto Rico won on his watch such as the decades-long fight for parity with states in federal education spending.
The biggest sign of former Gov. Pedro Rossellós strength as a candidate may be the feeding frenzy within the pro-statehood party to be his running mate on the ticket, with an unprecedented four candidates expected to run for the DC post former Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barceló, Sen. Miriam Ramírez de Ferrer, former Senate President Charlie Rodríguez and American Airlines Caribbean Manager Enrique Cruz.
His primary opponent NPP President Carlos Pesquera is swinging way to the right in order to win support within the party, supporting an antiquated sodomy ban and calling for Roosevelt Roads to stay open regardless of the costs. But Rosselló is too attractive a candidate to the party faithful for the strategy to work, and Pesquera has come off as increasingly desperate.
Rosselló, meanwhile, continues to look beyond the primary, painting himself as a government reformer and progressive, pushing such concepts as universal healthcare, citizen empowerment and more public works. He is already playing to the general public in Puerto Rico.
The two-term governor has also sharpened his status strategies, expected to push the issue on Congressional, administration and legal fronts.
Still, to get elected, he will have to convince a majority of the Puerto Rico public that the corruption cases under his past administration stemmed from a few officials gone greedy and wild, rather than a centralized strategy to pad government contracts in order to enrich party coffers.
The PDP will try to make corruption the preeminent issue in the campaign; it has striven to do so since 1996, when Rosselló became the first governor to win more than a million votes. But the strategy was far more effective in 2000, after federal authorities successfully prosecuted several NPP officials, which helped push Calderón to power. And that was before former Education Secretary Víctor Fajardo, former La Fortaleza officials and other administration members. Still, the Fajardo case was a kind of high water mark; since then, the prosecutions appear aimed at smaller, not larger, targets.
If federal authorities dont offer more indictments before the November primary, they are unlikely to before the general election the next year. That would undercut the PDPs focus on corruption. Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodríguez said last week the former governor was not the focus of any current investigation and has not been implicated by any current corruption prosecution.
On a political level, Rosselló is expected to be able to outplay Acevedo Vilá hands down. If public confidence was shaken by the corruption scandals involving former members of his administration, it also seems squarely behind his ability to better handle crime and the economy than the current administration.
By focusing on ideas, and refusing to criticize primary opponents, the former governor is already cutting an attractive path. He will also be emboldened by the public works the Urban Train and the Puerto Rico Coliseum initiated under his administration that are being inaugurated from now until election day. A grassroots poster campaign which claims "the signs are Silas; the work Rossellós" has sprung up outside many of these public works and is already having an effect.
While mortal enemies on many issues, the islands independence and statehood supporters often see more eye to eye with each other on status-related issues than their pro-commonwealth counterparts in the PDP.
The Calderón administrations inaction on the status front has infuriated many PIP leaders. This will work to turn the PIPs campaign at the PDP, giving an indirect lift to Rosselló, who is behaving rather open-mindedly on status these days.
The PIP is also angry over the Calderón administrations campaign finance reform, which they say still allows for opportunism by "political investors" who often expect payback for hefty campaign donations usually in the form of government contracts. The PIP paints both big parties as equally susceptible to corruption as a result.
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