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PUERTO RICO HERALD
2003 In Review: Part I; Enter Rossello, Exit Calderon
By Kevin Mead
December 26, 2003
As the Navy's exercises on Vieques were winding down in the first few months of 2003 several political bombshells were taking shape in San Juan and Washington, D.C. that would profoundly alter the island's political landscape for the rest of the year and beyond. Although the dust has yet to settle, by the end of the year several once solid political careers were on shaky ground while others had regained some lost ground.In the fallout, some pillars of local politics over the past decade fell by the wayside as new faces pushed into the picture.
Former New Progressive Party Gov. Pedro Rossello began grabbing headlines again early in the year when several media outlets reported in January he was mulling a return to politics and would make a bid for the resident commissioner post in 2004. Living in the D.C. area and working at George Washington University at the time, Rossello had the experience and the stateside clout to be a formidable candidate. Rossello denied the reports and his potential return was not exactly trumpeted by NPP President Carlos Pesquera who said: "In the end, it will be the NPP supporters who will decide."
Later in the January, Pesquera's still unofficial gubernatorial run gains momentum when the party's governing board voted to back his 2004 bid. Former Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo abstains from the vote.
Also in January, Gov. Calderon takes to the island's airwaves touting the fight against corruption, and boosting economic development and programs to help the poor as the key gains of her first two years in office.
Meanwhile, former House Speaker Edison Misla Aldarondo was convicted in federal court for influence peddling in the sale of a Manato hospital. The year would only get worse for Misla.
A University of Puerto Rico poll in late January showed Calderon beating Pesquera or NPP Sen. Norma Burgos in the 2004 governor's race but losing to San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini. However, Jose Hernandez Mayoral was favored over Calderon by the PDP.
In early February Rossello confirms he is returning to island politics -- as a candidate for governor -- after pro-statehood groups and party leaders publicly push him to get in the race. Pesquera reaffirms his intention to run for La Fortaleza in 2004. A good chunk of the NPP's contingent in the House announce their support for Rossello, while Pesquera makes a play for the party's mayors.
The mud begins to fly immediately as Calderon opens fire -- and launches her re-election campaign -- with a flurry of jabs at the previous Rossello administration. In a politically charged State of the Commonwealth address, Calderon takes several shots at the former governor over the course of her 2 hour televised speech before the Legislature.
Meanwhile, La Fortaleza press chief Jorge Colberg Toro steps down to take the PDP House seat left vacant by the resignation under fire of Alida Arizmendi .
Former Senate President Charlie Rodriguez announces his intention to seek the NPP's resident commissioner nod in 2004.
March got off to an interesting start when PDP Sen. Julio Rodriguez was arrested on obstruction of justice charges after his chauffer-driven official vehicle was pulled over for speeding and driving on the shoulder.
The Arecibo lawmaker refused the traffic ticket arguing he had a green light to reach the Legislature without delay.
Local lawmakers and politicians of all stripes reacted with concern to National Geographic's "Divided Loyalties" article on Puerto Rico, which included images of heroin addicts, santeria ceremonies and anti-Navy protests on Vieques.
In a potentially important legal decision, Chief U.S. District Judge Hector Laffitte ruled that the island's political party inscription rule was unconstitutional. The fledgling Civil Action Party had filed the lawsuit arguing that the rule requiring new parties to gather 100,000 plus lawyer notarized signatures effectively blocked them -- and any other upstart party -- from getting candidates on the ballots.
Gov. Calderon denies any speculation that she will not seek re-election in 2004. Rumors were growing that she would opt against another bid for La Fortaleza due to personal reasons.
Rossello defended himself from charges he should have been aware of corruption by key members of his previous administration, likening himself to parents who are often the last to know that their children have gone down the wrong path.
The PDP ups its attack on the former governor, launching an ad campaign dubbed "Forgetting is prohibited here."
Rossello returns to Puerto Rico where he is greeted by a crowd of supporters at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport. After a meeting with Pesquera a week later, a primary showdown between the two is inevitable. Rossello taps Frances Rodriguez as his campaign director and Juan Melecio to head the "Rossello 2004" committee.
With status firmly on the back burner at La Fortaleza, Acevedo Vila calls for expanded automony for the island. White House official Ruben Barrales, meanwhile, says status "is a problem that must be addressed."
Pesquera calls for a status referendum in 2004. Along with other top NPP officials, he also files a lawsuit saying Calderon is spending public money on political advertising.
In April, Calderon approves electoral reform measures including the public financing of political campaigns and a cap on anonymous donations.
Rossello attacks increased public financing saying it would be funded by hiked excise taxes which hurt the island's middle class. The PDP controlled House and Senate push the bills through which cap gubernatorial races at $11 million -- each political party get $3 million in public funds and allowed to raise a maximum of $4 million in private funds which would be matched by additional public moneys.
Francisco Gonzalez and Wilson Soto gain NPP House seats in a special election.
Calderon reiterates she will run for re-election.
Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora announces plan to refile Spanish-only legislation. NPP opposition and La Fortaleza disinterest ensure the measure will not go far.
Calderon drops the biggest bombshell of the year in late May when she went on TV to announce she was not going to run for re-election on 2004. The surprise announcement came just weeks after she publicly acknowledged her romantic relationship with her former Economic Development and Commerce Secretary Ramon Cantero Frau. The governor cited her desire to devote more time to her personal life in her decision not to seek re-election.
The decision sparks a frantic reshuffling of PDP candidates.
The PDP brass unanimously approve a motion by Carolina Mayor Jorge Aponte backing Calderons choice of Jose Alfredo Hernandez Mayoral to fill the void and run for governor in 2004. Hernandez Mayoral is the son of former Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon, still a force in the PDP.
With Hernandez Mayoral on board, Sen. Roberto Prats, another Calderon pick, is tapped to fill out the 2004 ticket as the PDP's resident commissioner candidate.
The PDP appears more likely to revsit status issue with Hernandez Mayoral pledging movement on that front.
The PDP shows signs of disarray as Acevedo Vila rejects party's call for him to run as San Juan mayor. He opts to seek an at-large House seat instead.
Sen. Roberto Vigoreaux eyes San Juan City Hall.
Meanwhile, Luis Fortuno, former Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Office director under Rossello, says he's not interested in joining the resident commissioner race which by May includes NPP candidates Charlie Rodriguez and Senator Miriam Ramirez de Ferrer.
Rossello officially kicked off his primary campaign with a June 1 rally in Ciales. He also announces he favors the elimination of Article 103 of the island's penal code which says declares sodmy illegal. Rossello becomes first among top names to clearly state his position on the law which was increasingly in the headlines as the Senate worked to revamp the penal code.
Meanwhile, as the month wore on speculation continued to grow that Hernandez Mayoral would bow out of the governor's race to focus on health concerns involving his young son. Calderon says she would not consider running again if he did leave the race.
With the year only half over, 2003 was shaping up as a pivotal one in the history of Puerto Rican politics. A standing governor had tuned her back a possible second term while a former governor returned home to seek his third tenure in La Fortaleza.
But the fun was just getting started in a year that would see commonwealth officials sparring with the U.S. State Department, some surprising party primary results and defections at the top of the Calderon administration.
Kevin Mead is assistant city editor of The San Juan Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org