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PUERTO RICO HERALD
2003 In Review: Part II; Winners And Losers
By Kevin Mead
January 2, 2004
The return of former Gov. Pedro Rossello to the island stage and Gov. Sila Calderon's decision not to seek a second term in La Fortaleza dominated local political headlines through the first half of the year. While 2003's second half didn't see as many bombshells, the party primaries and an ill-fated Supreme Court nomination would provide plenty of fodder for political pundits to talk about until the 2004 general election campaigns get under way in earnest after the Three Kings Day holiday in early January. Behind the scenes, the Calderon administration and the U.S. State Department would butt heads over the commonwealth government's increasingly strident moves on the international front.
Things get interesting in a hurry in July when Popular Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Jose Alfredo Hernandez Mayoral sets aside his political aspirations citing health concerns involving his young son. The PDP, already a bit out of sorts due to Calderon's lame-duck status, goes into shuffle mode once again as the official filing deadline for candidates nears. Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila says he won't seek an at-large House seat as he had previously announced, opting instead to run for governor.
Calderon's daughter Sila Mari Calderon announces she will seek at-large seat in lower chamber.
Upset that they did not fall in line behind judicial reform, House Speaker Carlos Vizcarrondo removes Popular Democratic Party Reps. Jorge Colberg Toro, Severo Colbergo Toro and Luis Raul Torres as chairmen of three House committees.
Meanwhile, former Gov. Pedro Rossello officially files his bid to return to La Fortaleza, calling it the first step in giving the NPP "the biggest victory in Puerto Rico's history." He says he will go to the courts if necessary to fight for the full political rights of Puerto ricans as U.S. citizens.
In other NPP news, former Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo says he'll seek the party's resident commissioner nod, a position he held during both of Rossello's terms. By the end of the month, Luis Fortuno becomes the fourth candidate to enter the NPP's resident commissioner primary race. Storied New Progressive Party Catano Mayor Edwin Rivera Sierra says he won't seek re-election citing health concerns.
On a lighter note, lawmakers rally across party lines to back a Puerto Rican Independence Party measure making it illegal to interfere with a breast-feeding mother. The initiative is filed after a woman is reportedly asked by management to leave while she is breast-feeding her infant inside a busy store at the Plaza Las Americas shopping center in San Juan.
A new face joins the San Juan mayoral race when PIP Sen. Fernando Martin jumps in.
U.S. District Judge Daniel Dominguez concurs with an earlier ruling in federal court that the island's notarized-signature rule for upstart political parties is unconstitutional.
In August the PDP San Juan mayoral primary picks up when former Sen. Eduardo Bhatia announces he will challenge Sen. Roberto Vigoreaux for the capital city nomination. After a less than hearty embrace by the PDP initially, Vigoreaux's fledgling campaign looks to be floundering.
The State Elections Commission confirms Norma Carranza as an NPP senator to fill the void left when Sen. Sergio Pena Clos jumped over to the PDP. As the PDP's gubernatorial candidate, Acevedo Vila becomes the party's president further pushing Calderon into lame-duck territory.
Rossello and PIP candidate Ruben Berrios meet to discuss status and the future of Naval Station Roosevelt Roads which looks headed for a shutdown.
Saying her administration's relationship with Washington were "very good," Gov. Calderon and commonwealth Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado downplay talk of State Department memos warning U.S. diplomats about the commonwealth's activity within international organizations and events such as the Ibero-American Summit.
Calderon says Rossello should apologize for the corruption by high officials during his administration. Rossello declines to do so, saying he has no reason to feel guilty.
Meanwhile, it was no work, and all play for Calderon as she announces she will marry a former member of her Cabinet, Economic Development and Commerce Secretary Ramon Cantero Frau.
Former House Speaker Edison Misla Aldarondo's fall continues when a jury convicts him on four counts of committing lewd acts against his stepdaughter over a five-year period beginning when she was 9-years-old.
In September, six of the seven federal judges in Puerto Rico approve a public reprimand of Acevedo Vila for filing a 2000 campaign complaint against then-rival Carlos Romero Barcelo.
NPP founder Luis Ferre appears at an activity to open Fortuno's campaign headquarters. Rossello, part of what Ferre dubs "the winning team," is also in attendance.
Calderon and Cantero Frau wed in a ceremony at La Fortaleza and head to Europe a few days later for their honeymoon.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Jose Andreu Garcia says he'll step down at the end of the month after 11 year's at the top court's helm. Unknown to the newlyweds at the time, his decision will force Calderon to cut her honeymoon short to name a successor and sets in motion a nominations fiasco that will not be resolved by year's end.
Calderon's nomination of Mercado as chief justice meets immediate opposition. While the NPP and PIP positions are predictable, the rejection of Mercado by key PDP senators and Acevedo Vila apparently catches the governor by surprise. Calderon and Acevedo Vila's relationship shows signs of strain. Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora says PDP senators will not face sanctions for not rallying behind Mercado along party lines.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's so-called "action messages" to U.S. diplomats faults the commonwealth government for "false representation" as an entity with sovereign powers on the international front.
In October, the rift would only widen as Calderon stubbornly pushes ahead with the nomination only to pull it and renominate Mercado as associate justice. Informed that no vacancy actually exists at the associate justice level, Calderon again files Mercado's name for chief justice. When it becomes clear Mercado lacks enough support from her own party's senators, Calderon yanks his name from consideration. But the saga was far from over. The only winner in the debacle appears to be Acevedo Vila who solidifies his hold on the party. Later in the month, the Hispanic, Black and Asiatic caucuses in the U.S. House would endorse him for governor.
Meanwhile, President George W. Bush inks legislation calling for Naval Station Roosevelt Roads to be closed by April 2004.
A poll finds Acevedo Vila and Rossello running neck and neck if the gubernatorial elections were held then.
NPP Electoral Commissioner Thomas Rivera Schatz files a measure calling for all voters to sign party affiliation papers before voting at polling stations in the NPP primaries in early November.
The First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston upholds a lower court ruling on the unconstitutionality of the SEC's notarized-signature requirement for upstart parties.
A team of 300 auditors from the Comptroller's Office pour into the Capitol hunting for "ghost employees."
The month takes a sad turn when former Gov. Luis Ferre died on Oct. 21at age 99. The NPP founder and the island's longtime "Mr. Republican" did not live to see his dream of statehood become a reality. However, as the year went on it became clear that status was again finding its way onto the front burner in island politics and in Washington. Thousands of people came to the Capitol to pay their last respects as the pillar of Puerto Rican politics, culture and philanthropy lay in state. Thousands of others would greet the late governor's funeral procession as he was returned to his beloved hometown of Ponce to be buried.
In the Nov. 9 primaries Rossello easily dispatches party rival Carlos Pesquera in the voting for the gubernatorial nomination in 2004. Fortuno wins big in the NPP's resident commissioner's race, apparently closing the final chapter on Romero Barcelo's storied political career. After licking their wounds, Pesquera and Romero Barcelo announce they will campaign for the Rossello-Fortuno ticket which looks formidable from the outset.
A meeting between Calderon and Acevedo Vila apparently does little to ease ill will sparked by the Mercado nomination fiasco. It is the first meeting between the governor and her resident commissioner in over a month. In other PDP news, Bhatia beats Vigoreaux for the San Juan mayoral nod and will face NPP an Juan Mayor Jorge Santini in the 2004 balloting.
The PDP also complains of alleged election-day irregularities involving the movement of ballots between SEC headquarters and NPP polling stations by Schatz and other statehood party officials. The complaint goes nowhere.
After the primaries, the PDP wasted little time on letting the mud fly. Acevedo Vila, touting educationa issues as the key plank in his 2004 platform, rips Rossello in ads touching on the Education Department kickback scandal under convicted former Education Secretary Victor Fajardo. Acevedo Vila visits Puero Rican troops in Iraq over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Spanish-only legislation dies of neglect in the House.
Tiody de Jesus, the widow of Gov. Ferre, is tapped to replace her late husband at the helm of the island's Republican Party.
Meanwhile, Calderon's Blue Ribbon committee on corruption says it will disband by the end of the year.
As the year entered its last month, Rossello and Acevedo Vila had still not nailed down a date for a debate. What looked to be an imminent meeting dissolved into acrimony and finger-pointing with both sides blaming the other for scuttling debate plans. At issue was what topics would be covered, with Rossello saying he wanted a chance to defend himself from Acevedo Vila's mudslinging. For now, Rossello's camp says debates will not be held until he has clearly mapped out his campaign platform sometime in the new year. Odd-man-out Ruben Berrios was not invited to the aborted initial debate and it was unclear if he would get a chance to take part when and if the two maim candidate finally face off.
A series of high-profile slayings had kept Calderon on the defensive since August. The crime issue rears its ugly head again when Police Superintendent Victor Rivera announced he was resigning b y the end of the year.
With political campaigns solidly on the backburner until after the holidays, it was Mercado and Calderon who again dominate the headlines as the wild ride of 2003 came to a close. Having tapped Associate Justice Miriam Naveira to fill the vacant the chief justice spot, Calderon again nominated Mercado as an associate justice. Critics again cried foul, charging the move was a transparent attempt to get Mercado back in the top seat because by law Naveira would be forced to retie 7 months later when she turned 70. Although Naveira was easily confirmed in a special legislative session, Mercado never went for consideration before the Senate. By month's end his name would again be yanked from consideration and he would be step down as secretary of State, undone by a 1975 police report that says he may have fled the scene of a fatal car accident that claimed the life of one of his coworkers. In a plot worthy of a telenovela, or soap opera, the "missing" police report which was the subject of rumors during the fight around Mercado's initial confirmation hearings in October had resurfaced on the eve of a new round of scrutiny.
As the year wrapped up the fallout from the fiasco had yet to settle with blame being cast in all directions.
Perhaps the unsettled end to 2003 was fitting, a hint of the heated rhetoric and mud that is sure to fly in vast quantities in the next year leading up to the 2004 general elections.
Kevin Mead is assistant city editor of The San Juan Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org