The Ponce Lion's Last Roar... The Deflating Dean Effect

by John Marino

January 23, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Rafael "Churumba" Cordero Santiago died suddenly last week, the victim of a dual cerebral hemorrhage that ended the career of one of Puerto Rico's most powerful politicians.

He was intensely political, a strong opponent of statehood, and an equally strong advocate of granting the commonwealth government more autonomous powers.

But his big legacy is what he left behind in Ponce, one of a handful of Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities that has been able to achieve a level of autonomy that allowed it to spur economic development, undertake large infrastructure projects and streamline government bureaucracy with a one-shop-stop permitting process for new businesses.

Sure he might have been willing to confront the federal government over the island's political status. But he was just as willing to confront Puerto Rico over Ponce's interests.

Cordero Santiago won a court battle with the administration of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló to force the central government to honor its commitments previously made under the Ponce En Marcha development program.

And he won a political battle with the administration of Gov. Calderón to start spending the cash to get the projects rolling. Just as importantly, the Calderón administration has vowed to make Ponce the center of its plans to establish a mega-transshipment port dubbed the "Port of the Americas."

Cordero Santiago was not the kind of politician to go around kissing babies. He used other skills – fiery rhetoric, a flair for the dramatic, and a true interest in public service and sound administration – to win support, and win it he did.

The 61-year-old, four-term mayor had recently announced that he would seek another term, and few doubt that he would have gotten it. Such was his popularity in his native Ponce that his widow, attorney Madeleine Velasco, is the Popular Democratic Party’s best shot to succeed him.

The emotional funeral, which brought tears to PDP leaders, including Calderón, hit a high point when hundreds of Ponce residents were allowed within the cemetery gates following the formal ceremony. They ran through, singing bomba y plena, and chanting "Churumba," the affectionate nickname for their beloved mayor.

Cordero Santiago should be remembered for what he did for those residents, and if his death serves for anything, it should be to prompt all parties to commit to far greater powers of municipal autonomy for island towns.

Velasco, pending her doctor’s OK, said she would take her husband’s office and run for election in November. The attorney, and cancer survivor, said she would continue fighting for greater municipal powers, and continuing to improve the use of current ones.

She has already shown her oats as far as her political spunk. A day after burying her husband, she said Rosselló should have stayed away from the funeral and sent a card. She also suggested that he, and political enemies within the PDP, contributed to the health problems that took her hubsand’s life.

Rosselló campaign platform chief Charlie Rodríguez shot back: "She needs a shrink."

The campaign, as they say, is on. Churumba, I think, would have liked it that way.

The Deflating Dean Effect

Local Popular Democratic Party Democrats lunged on to the Howard Dean campaign bandwagon early on. And while some prominent New Progressive Party Democrats, like Senate Minority Leader Kenneth McClintock, have done the same, the NPP support has been splatter-shot, rather than targeted, in the Democratic presidential primary.

That’s a conscious party decision, McClintock told reporters this week, and a good one, now that the outcome of that race is so unclear. NPP President Rosselló has yet to publicly endorse anyone.

The Rosselló-Clinton connection is still evident in the statement this week by Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark, the Clinton’s preferred choice. He said he would work to resolve Puerto Rico’s status through a federally mandated referendum and extend the island federal aid and other benefits on par with what it gives the states. It must have been music to Rosselló’s ears.

Not only did the PDP – from party stalwart and former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón to PDP gubernatorial candidate Aníbal Acevedo Vilá to Sen. Roberto Prats, the local Democratic chief and the PDP resident commissioner candidate – support Dean too early. The party has also bashed current front-runner Sen. John Kerry over his opposition to the PDP’s 956 economic development plan.

Acevedo Vilá and the PDP have been able to pick up strong support from Democratic Congressmen who once supported Rosselló, such as Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. But they have clearly slipped up early on in the presidential primary.

The NPP is clearly zeroed in on the presidential race. President Bush and Republicans across the board are sure to support NPP resident commissioner candidate Luis Fortuño, the only Republican running for major office in Puerto Rico. And by avoiding endorsing candidates so early on, Rosselló may be in a better position than his rival to court whomever it is who wins the Democratic nomination.

John Marino, Managing 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

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