|Pedro Rosselló proved himself a gutsy politician last week, but the new federal indictments against two key former political allies have weakened his candidacy, and thrown the shadow of corruption over his shoulders once again.
As head of the commonwealth government at a time when official corruption blossomed, he has to shoulder his portion of the blame, even if its true as he says that he had no knowledge, let alone encouraged, corruption during his eight years at La Fortaleza. As head of state, it nonetheless happened under his watch, and his campaign will have to address that lapse.
No one should have been surprised by the federal indictments last week against former Rosselló campaign manager René Vázquez Botet and former New Progressive Party Secretary General Marcos Morell in relation to a $2.4 million corruption scandal surrounding the construction of the North Coast Superaqueduct. The local press had been reporting on the grand jury probe for months.
Yet the indictments have brought the corruption issue anew to the 2004 gubernatorial campaign. They capped several weeks of attacks on Rosselló over questions of whether he met the residency requirements to run for governor, appropriately filed his taxes during his three-year sojourn off Puerto Rico and qualified for the government pension he now enjoys.
The indictments came just as those attacks were beginning to sound shrill, hollow and petty. Now the opposition is energized anew.
Returning from an Easter vacation stateside, Rosselló addressed the Puerto Rican people in a paid public televised address, calling the "unfounded" allegations against him the cross he has to bear. It was a bold statement by a politician whose followers have taken to calling him a "messiah." And a risky one in predominately Christian Puerto Rico, where the Catholic Church and evangelical preachers hold great sway over the local population.
In short, it summed up the heady challenge that Rossellós attempt to come back for a third term as governor has always represented.
A veteran observer of the island political scene, in a snap judgment, reckoned the indictments ate into half of whatever lead Rosselló once had over his main opponent, Popular Democratic Party President Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, but was quick to add they did not represent a knock-out punch.
Another student of Rossellós political career wondered aloud whether the former governor would remain in the race until November given the current scenario, but also believed that if he did, he would likely win the election.
The NPP, on the whole, stuck behind their candidate, but also acknowledged the indictments hurt his campaign. Running mate Luis Fortuño chalked up the effect of the indictments as a "bad week" in the campaign, perhaps the best description to the incident yet mustered by the NPP.
Carlos Romero Barceló and Carlos Pesquera, both alternatively close allies and adversaries of the former governor, were conspicuously absent this week from the NPP governing board meeting, suggesting they could be contemplating life in a post-Rosselló statehood party.
Meanwhile, statehood columnist Maxime Cerrame Vivas called on Rosselló to drop out of the race for the good of the party, and Rep. Edwin Mundo told reporters that Rosselló, while governor, appeared lax over reports of corruption brought to him by lawmakers, telling them to forward the information to the Justice Department to investigate, without ensuring that it ever did.
But overall, the NPP is sticking to their man, and Rosselló is showing no signs of backing down. Hes a smart guy, and presumably surmised that the troubling events at federal court in San Juan would continue if he returned to Puerto Rico to campaign.
Theres a short-term effect to last weeks indictments as well as a long-term effect, where they add to the previous corruption cases involving administration and party figures during Rossellós eight years as governor.
Immediately upon his return, Rosselló began painting an alternative to that grim portrait, talking about the many achievements of that same administration; he even highlighted gains taking place in the very agencies tainted by corruption.
Theres a formidable record in government reform and infrastructure projects Rosselló has to compare with that of the Calderón administration, whose biggest inaugurations the Urban Train and the Puerto Rico Coliseum, for instance -- will be of projects initiated by Rosselló. And theres a formidable challenge in trying to overcome the damage done by corrupt former colleagues.
Rosselló might not be technically an incumbent, but his opponent will center on attacking his record as if he were one.
Acevedo Vilá will clearly focus on trying to bring into relief the grim portrait of corruption that took place under the former governor; its the best shot he has at being elected. Rossellós job will be to make a believable image of the flip side of that portrait -- that of the enthusiastic government reformer first elected in 1992. Its a task he will have to undertake straight through to Election Day.
Last weeks news might have packed the wallop it did because something similar just might happen again before November.
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