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Debate Or Not Debate? That Is The Question

By Kevin Mead

December 5, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The Thanksgiving holiday kicked off Puerto Rico's marathon Christmas season -- which really doesn't wrap up until about mid January -- and seemed to signal a lull in the main political campaigns.

While New Progressive Party candidate Pedro Rossello and his Popular Democratic Party rival Anibal Acevedo Vila did not take any major steps down their campaign planks, they did continue to trade jabs, throw mud and point fingers over who was to blame for their derailed debate.

The proposed debate was called off earlier this week after campaign officials from both camps could not agree on the parameters of the one-on-one encounter. Rossello's team had apparently wanted the event to serve as a stage for the former governor to defend himself from PDP mudslinging. Acevedo Vila's team, meanwhile, argued that the debate was always intended to revolve around education issues.

On Nov. 21, Rossello had challenged Acevedo Vila to a debate on education in order to set the record straight on which administration was responsible for the degraded state of the island's public school system, he said. During a radio interview, the former governor said he was willing to face off with the resident commissioner "so the people can see the real difference of how the [Education] department was then and how it is now. I am willing to face off with him so people can see who is really responsible for the disaster and injustice seen in Puerto Rico today."

The challenge came in response to campaign TV spots and other public criticism by Acevedo Vila over corruption scandals and allegations of other improprieties at the Education Department during Rossello's tenure as governor. Within hours, Acevedo Vila had accepted the challenge and upped the ante suggesting a series of monthly debates on a host of issues leading up to the November 2004 elections.

At press time, Acevedo Vila had sent a note to Rossello urging him to "stop the games of semantics" and again agree to a debate on education or any other issue. Former Senate President Miguel Hernandez Agosto, who is heading the PDP candidate's debate team, said the Rossello camp had shelved any debate until next October and that no agreement had been reached to meet to discuss squaring off before then.

The odd man out continued to be Puerto Rican Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Ruben Berrios. Despite his pleadings, the main parties did not invite Berrios to participate in the initial debate in what PIP electoral chief Juan Dalmau dubbed an "act of political cowardice unprecedented in Puerto Rican history."

Berrios' participation in any subsequent gubernatorial debates appeared likely, but with no first debate slated the PIP candidate remained frustrated.

Meanwhile, Acevedo Vila seemed to be under increased pressure from within his own party to step down from the resident commissioner's post in Washington to concentrate on his gubernatorial campaign. Longtime Ponce Mayor Rafael "Churumba" Cordero went so far as to say that if Acevedo Vila did not quit the post, the PDP candidate would be beaten by Rossello who he said was out on the island campaigning "7 days a week."

Acevedo Vila said he has still not considered leaving the House post and added that because Congress was in recess he would be campaigning in Puerto Rico every day in December in January.

San Juan mayor Jorge Santini, meanwhile, began to map out his 2004 campaign platform, beginning with several sports and recreation proposals. His plans included a $10 million initial investment to create a golf school at a proposed public golf course on the closed municipal landfill, a scientific research center for athletes, a $21 million Olympic swimming complex at Parque Central in Santurce and a center to test young athletes' genetic aptitude for a given sport.

Santini blasted the Environmental Quality Board's stance on the golf project, saying they were withholding their blessing of the plan for partisan political reasons. The EQB said it is still evaluating the proposal.

Santini also said City Hall is ready to host additional Major League Baseball games and is laying the groundwork to land NBA games in the coming years. Among the other events the mayor hopes to lure to the capital city are: The Caribbean Island Swimming Championship in 2006; the Central American and Caribbean Youth Athletics Championships in 2006 or 2008; and the Special Olympics in 2007.

Santini touted the sporting events as avenues for economic development, saying previous events had pumped millions of dollars into the local economy, filled hotel rooms and created direct and indirect jobs.

With less than a year to go before the election, the PDP remained without an electoral commissioner after Luis Santini Gaudier stepped down in the wake of revelations of tax-filing irregularities. Santini Gaudier resigned after admitting he missed personal income tax deadlines by years in some instances. While saying he did not call for the party official to quit, Acevedo Vila welcomed the move as the correct one.

Meanwhile, Gov. Calderon stopped off in Washington for "official meetings" before continuing on to New York for the Thanksgiving holiday. Neither the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Office in D.C. nor La Fortaleza press officials would offer additional details on who the governor met with and what issues were on the agenda.

Former President George Bush was in Puerto Rico to deliver a eulogy during a special Mass in honor of the late former Gov. Luis A. Ferre, the founder of the New Progressive Party, longtime chairman of the Republican Party in Puerto Rico and a staunch statehood advocate. Ferre, known as the island's "Mr. Republican," died in October at age 99. The three living former governors -- Rafael Hernández Colón, Carlos Romero Barceló and Rosselló -- sat together during the Mass for the man Bush called "a great friend who he holds close to his heart." 

Kevin Mead is assistant city editor of The San Juan Star. He can be reached at

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