Like all students in the final months of the course, anxious to earn a passing grade even though they have missed assignments and flunked important tests, the "lame duck" Governor of Puerto Rico, Sila Calderón, is "cramming" for her final exam. She is working hard to gain "extra credit" from islanders by a flurry of decisions and announcements of judicial appointments.
This week, Herald readers may grade these efforts, helping to decide if the first female Governor of Puerto Rico will "graduate" with honors or just barely get by. One thing is for sure, she cannot repeat the course.
Her most recent gesture to report card graders was her move in mid-July to activate the Puerto Rico National Guard to assist police in containing one of the more pernicious violent crime waves in island history. Recent police data for this year list 444 homicides on the island, 30 more than during the same period last year. Many shootings were dramatic and generated island-wide publicity, one a shooting in a shopping center and the other a drug dealer shoot-out in a San Juan public housing project during which 3 were killed and 5 wounded, including a child.
The Governor had resisted calling up the Guard, both because she had criticized her predecessor, Governor Pedro Rosselló, who used the troops for the same purpose during his administration and also because it signaled failure of her oft-repeated promises that the situation could be contained without National Guard units working the treacherous streets of the islands cities. Also she had to be aware of the damage being done by her to the Popular Democratic Partys (PDP) effort to repeat in La Fortaleza. PDP gubernatorial candidate and Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá had been urging her to make the move, although others in her party criticized the decision.
In his campaign for a return to the Governorship in 2004, New Progressive Party (NPP) candidate Pedro Rosselló has held up the PDPs handling of the swelling violent crime rate as an example of the Calderón administrations ineptitude. He pointed out that there have been four Chiefs of Police in the 3&1/2 years of the Calderón administration, while boasting of his single "top cop" serving during his entire eight years as Governor.
In any event, "student Calderón" did complete the National Guard "assignment," although she slipped it under "the professors" door rather than present it eye-to-eye. She announced the move through an aide when she was away from the island on a 10-day "private visit" to the mainland. In this case, her "professor" appears to be her nemesis, Pedro Rosselló.
A previously "near failing grade" for the Governor had been her inability to smoothly fill vacancies to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. After a series of debacles in 2003, this week Calderón took a "make up exam" to erase her slate of past rejected nominees. On Monday, she advanced two names to fill vacancies precipitated by the imminent mandatory retirement at age of Chief Justice Miriam Naveira Merly.
Incumbent Associate Justice Federico Hernández Denton, Calderóns choice to succeed Naveira Merly, will likely survive the confirmation process in the Senate and be comfortably seated in the high court before the end of the Governors term.
The nomination of Calderons Secretary of Justice, Anabelle Rodríguez, to fill the Associate Justice chair that Hernández Denton will vacate if he moves to the courts top spot is another matter. Once again, the Governor is attempting to leave one of her loyal cabinet members in a life-time job before she leaves office, a mistake she made last year with the nomination of her Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado, who withdrew when long past police records were produced accusing him of leaving the scene of a fatal automobile accident. Like Mercados, the Rodríguez appointment is being characterized as crassly political by opponents. Her nomination is being debated this week in the Senate and she has become the subject of street protests opposing her perceived support of gay rights.
The retiring Chief Justice was the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court when she was nominated in June of 1985 to be an Associate Justice by then PDP Governor Rafael Hernandez Colón. Although an outstanding jurist, her appointment as Chief Justice with just seven months left before mandatory retirement age was a stop gap measure by Calderón when Ferdinand Mercados nomination to the post met a firestorm of protest, even within Calderóns own party.
Her trouble with the Mercado nomination became a comedy of errors that began when her proposal to name him as Chief Justice appeared doomed and she withdrew it, thereafter to nominate him as an Associate Justice, only to be scolded by the Senate that the move was unconstitutional since only the Chief Justice position was vacant. To cure that little detail, she advanced the Naveira Merly nomination to the Chief Justice position to open up an Associate Justice spot for Mercado, blithely claiming credit for having placed a woman in the courts top spot for the first time in Puerto Ricos history.
When Mercado withdrew after the police report surfaced, the Governor appointed a woman to fill the vacant Associate Justice spot, Appellate Judge Liana Fiol Matta, a well respected and non-controversial choice.
If this weeks nominations are approved by the Senate, Calderón will be remembered as the Governor who nominated three women to positions on the Supreme Court, an accomplishment she hopes will "raise her grades" a bit, if, of course, the "professors" forget how it all came about.
The "term paper" that Governor Calderón expects to rate an "A" grade is her effort to register to vote Puerto Ricans resident in the United States, an effort begun in 2002. The project is administered by the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) out of twelve regional offices, some in the so-called "battleground states" being contested in the 2004 presidential election, ones in which a handful of votes could be the difference between victory and defeat for a candidate. Called "Que Nada Nos Detenga" ("Let Nothing Stop Us"), Calderón claims that it is "the largest nonpartisan Hispanic voter registration campaign in the nation."
PRFAA Director Mari Carmen Aponte speaks to this point, "Many Puerto Rican communities represent swing votes that could potentially decide elections across the nation. It is essential that we begin to recognize the value of this resource and utilize it to make a difference," Aponte added.
Controversial in its early stages, because the money allocated (a reported 6-million dollars per year) comes from the Puerto Rico treasury and questioned by mainland politicians especially Democrats alleging that it favored Republican candidates, the project has matured into an impressive and successful civil rights effort. The target -- to register 300,000 voters before the 2004 election -- is but 50,000 votes short of meeting that goal, according to PRFAA press releases.
Clearly successful in politically empowering mainland Puerto Ricans, most of the project's early critics are now silent. On the island, however, there is still the question of franchising the 3.9 million American citizens residing there who, duly registered in Puerto Rico, are not represented in the U.S. Congress and who have no say in who will be the nations next President.
Perhaps her final grade should take into account her efforts to achieve civil rights for those folks. After all, it is from them that she was elected in 2000.
Finally, there is the question of "attendance." With her many trips to foreign capitals to "negotiate" treaties later repudiated by the U.S State Department, her protracted forays on the mainland stumping for candidates in the 2002 elections, her endless lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill in pursuit of mostly failed legislation and her numerous "private absences," it is questionable if she has been sufficiently in attendance to be qualified for a final grade.
Herald Readers! What final grade should Sila Calderón receive for her four years as Governor of Puerto Rico?