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What’s Cooking As The Race Heats Up?

By Kevin Mead

February 6, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

With gubernatorial campaigns starting to catch fire, the island's status issue continued its steady creep off the backburner. New Progressive Party candidate Pedro Rossello pledged to make it a central theme of his bid to return to La Fortaleza and he has, saying he will hold two status plebiscites if elected in November. His Popular Democratic Party rival, Anibal Acevedo Vila, dismissed the proposal and reiterated claims that the NPP and Puerto Rican Independence are teaming up to kill commonwealth.

Rossello proposed the first of the two status votes to be held in 2005 in which Puerto Ricans would whether to "demand that Congress define viable non-colonial status options to resolve the island's status dilemma."

A second and "final" plebiscite would be held sometime in the second of half of the term.

Acevedo Vila, who backs a constituent assembly to resolve the status issue, said any such plebiscite was bound to fail, pointing to Rossello's failed attempt to get commonwealth off the menu during his previous terms as governor. The resident commissioner also continued to distance himself from Gov. Calderon's hands-off take on status, saying the party "must break the monopoly the other parties have o the issue and put it in the hands of the people."

In an interview with The Associated Press, the PDP leader said the NPP and the PIP were united in their quest to quash the status quo. While there was nothing groundbreaking about his claims, Acevedo Vila went on to acknowledge that he was hoping to lure pro-independence voters as a rejection of statehood.

PIP candidate Ruben Berrios kept up the voter-poaching theme as his campaign kicked officially kicked off in Cayey. Vowing to take his pro-independence message door-to-door, Berrios said his campaign will focus on luring undecided voters, supporters of Carlos Pesquera's failed bid to represent the NPP as well commonwealth supporters who don't back Acevedo Vila.

Off the status front, Rossello said he was drawing up plans for judicial, legislative and municipal reform but held off on revealing many details on the projects.

Meanwhile, Acevedo Vila kept up his calls to regionalize what he acknowledged as the island's bloated central government. The current government structure is "too big, too bureaucratic, ineffective and insensitive," he said.

Introducing his platform committee, which includes Caguas Mayor William Miranda Marin and former Comptroller Ileana Colon Carlo, Acevedo Vila sketched out the seven key planks of his program: decentralizing government; boosting public education, zero tolerance on corruption; fighting crime; improving health care; strengthening families and promoting pride in Puerto Rico.

While the two main candidates seem to agree on key aspects of decentralization, especially in public education, the island's crime problem could be a pivotal issue for undecided or flexible voters. With more than 80 murders logged in January alone, Puerto Rico is well ahead of last year's violent death rate which ended with 780 slayings. A triple homicide at a crowded Yabucoa restaurant, in which 11 other people were wounded by bullets, buttressed the public's fears that deadly violence was not confined to those involved in the drug trade. Bank robberies for the month are also up 300 percent for the year, a point dramatically highlighted by a three-hour hostage standoff during a botched heist at a Banco Popular branch in Bayamon.

People are scared and calls for a Rossello-style "mano dura" anti-crime strategy are likely to find an increasingly receptive audience.

Meanwhile, statehood stalwart Carlos Romero Barcelo announced he would chair the National Puerto Rican Leadership Council, a new group formed to drum up support on the island for Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark. Having "retired" from politics, at least when it comes to holding elective office, the former governor joined the campaign primarily based on Clark's forceful stance on resolving the island's status dilemma.

Picking up a win in Oklahoma this week, Clark has gained a bit of momentum In the race for the Democratic nomination.

Rossello, a prominent Democrat and former head of the Southern Governors Association who has praised Clark's position on status, has yet to formally endorse a national candidate.

PDP residential commissioner hopeful Roberto Prats may have benefited from adopting this more cautious approach. As head of the Democratic Party's arm in Puerto Rico Prats, and the other PDP members of the national party including Acevedo Vila, jumped on Howard Dean's bandwagon early.

Now that Dean's initial momentum has fizzled, Prats and company jumped ship this week. However, his announcement that local Democrats now back either John Kerry or John Edwards was more of an uncomfortable hedge than the soft landing he was apparently seeking. Prats has already blasted Clark over his status plan that leaves no room for commonwealth and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman has dropped out of the race.

Edwards'campaign has gained more solid footing after he notched his first win in South Carolina on Tuesday. But he has yet to establish his position on Puerto Rican status. With frontrunner Kerry on record saying commonwealth would be part of a status plebiscite if he is elected, why make the duel endorsement?

In other matters, the Calderon administration got two new Cabinet members with Jose Izquierdo sworn in as Secretary of State and Agustin Cartagena taking the reins of the Police Department, the fourth top cop of Calderon's three-years in office. Izquierdo, who was a solid Transportation Secretary, was pushed through the Legislature despite a trio of investigations against him still being carried out by the Government Ethics Office. With the GEO reports not due until the end of February minority lawmakers criticized the quick confirmation. Their complaints were not off base, especially in light of the badly bungled attempts to get former Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado on the Puerto Rico Supreme Court.

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

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