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Puerto Rico's Election Has Extra Dose Of Drama


July 25, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, P.R. - For political theatrics, you could not get much noisier and nastier than the governor's race in Puerto Rico. The juicy battle has Pedro Rosselló, the charismatic but corruption-tainted former governor who wants his old job back, trading insults, charges and counter-charges with his successor, Sila M. Calderón. They are doing everything but hurling dishware at each other.

Yet Ms. Calderón, the incumbent, is not a candidate - she is the first Puerto Rico governor in decades to forgo a re-election bid. She abruptly announced last year that she would not seek a second term, after Mr. Rosselló, who wants Puerto Rico to become the 51st state, resurfaced.

Mr. Rosselló's opponent, Anibal Acevedo Vila, who is a member of Ms. Calderón's pro-commonwealth party, is earnest but not magnetic, and is starving for attention because of the sturm und drang between the current and former governors.

Governor's races are always impassioned in Puerto Rico, where a mind-boggling 80-plus percent of voters turn out on Election Day. But this one comes at an especially soul-searching time. A spiraling crime rate, fueled by the drug trade, has demoralized people here, as has a sickly economy, battered by the recession and the phasing out of tax breaks for American companies with operations here.

Sometime this year, the number of Puerto Ricans on the mainland is expected to surpass the roughly 3.9 million here, a juncture that surprises no one on the island but is a poignant symbol nonetheless. The candidates call it a reminder that life holds little promise here, and that Puerto Rico must offer more in the way of career advancement, home ownership and even smooth commutes to stem the exodus of young families to New York, Hartford and Central Florida.

Ms. Calderón's surprise announcement in May 2003 that she would not seek re-election slowed whatever progress was under way, though she was already having a hard time getting things done because of tangles with the Legislature and disinterest from Washington.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Rosselló, who left office in 2001 under a cloud even though he avoided the corruption charges that plagued members of his administration, looks refreshing to many here. A recent poll in El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico's largest daily newspaper, found Mr. Rosselló to be seven percentage points ahead of Mr. Acevedo Vila, suggesting that the new accusations bombarding him week after week are not seriously hurting him.

Among the recent allegations: that Mr. Rosselló falsely said he worked summer jobs here as a college student in the 1960's, which helped him qualify for the $52,500 annual pension he has received since leaving office. Though he has insisted that he worked at a psychiatric hospital here those summers, his critics say he was competing in tennis tournaments overseas.

He says he has offered affidavits from his supervisors during his hospital employment, but the island's retirement administration wants pay stubs. In June, it reduced his pension to $29,900 and ordered him to return $81,000 in past payments.

His critics have also challenged his eligibility to run for governor, given that he lived in Virginia at points after leaving office and declared himself a nonresident of Puerto Rico on two tax returns. When he applied to run for governor again, Mr. Rosselló said he had been a resident for the last five years, as the island's Constitution requires for political candidates. A court case on the issue was dismissed in May because the plaintiff did not file his complaint properly.

"He will not win this election because the people of Puerto Rico respect themselves too much," Ms. Calderón said in an interview. "The people of Puerto Rico are an honest people and he does not represent the values that we embody."

Of Mr. Acevedo Vila - who became her party's candidate only after Ms. Calderón's own choice, the son of a former governor, dropped out of the running - Ms. Calderón said: "He is a very capable young man, a very serious man, hard working. He is going to do a good job."

In an interview at his campaign headquarters, Mr. Rosselló said his critics were dragging him through the mud unfairly, emphasizing that he had never been charged with any wrongdoing.

"After all these investigations, including hearings in the State Legislature, they have been unable to charge me with anything," Mr. Rosselló said. "So in a sense they are validating my position that during my eight years in office, I governed in accordance with state laws."

Mr. Rosselló said the real concern to Ms. Calderón's party, the Popular Democratic Party, was not his character, but his promise to push for statehood as soon as he won election. His campaign mantra is "Estadidad, Seguridad, Progreso" ("Statehood, Security, Progress"), and he has proposed several ways to achieve statehood, including a possible court fight.

Mr. Rosselló said his other top priority was reducing crime, pointing out that Ms. Calderón has had four police superintendents in less than four years while he had one for all eight years he was governor. He said he would also create an anticorruption council that would meet with him weekly, so that if a member of his administration "with his whole family and a bunch of people are in Vail, Colo., skiing and it seems a little bit out of touch with reality," he could immediately crack down.

But he said Ms. Calderón was so worried about corruption that she had micromanaged to the point of paralyzing the government.

"This time around I will not change my management style," Mr. Rosselló said. "Unless you're willing to delegate and trust, you will not get any proactive action."

Mr. Acevedo Vila, whose brochures emphasize "Youth, Experience, Capacity" (he is 42; Mr. Rosselló, 60), said that by focusing on statehood, Mr. Rosselló would ignore more pressing issues, like the economy and public education.

"We are not running on an ideological platform," Mr. Acevedo Vila, Puerto Rico's resident commissioner in Washington, said. "We are running on a pragmatic platform that will bring solutions."

Statehood proponents say that Ms. Calderón's embrace of commonwealth status, which grants Puerto Ricans American citizenry but keeps them from voting in presidential elections or having a vote in Congress, has stalled economic progress and alienated the island. But islanders have not uniformly embraced the statehood option: they rejected it, though narrowly, in referendums in 1993 and 1998. And Congress, which must approve any change for the commonwealth, has stalled on the issue, unable to get past questions about the political and economic costs of incorporating a Spanish-speaking state.

Ms. Calderón, who unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to grant the island more control over foreign trade, has lately tried another tack for influencing Washington: a voter registration drive for Puerto Ricans on the mainland, which she said had signed up more than 250,000 new voters, mostly in Florida and New York.

"If there are issues that affect the island," she said, "it's important to get their support."

Ms. Calderón, 61, has dismissed the talk that she opted out of running again because she was frustrated by her lack of progress and did not want to face Mr. Rosselló. She was merely ready to enjoy life outside politics, she said.

"I would have loved four more years, and if I was younger I would have done it," she said. "But at this stage I would like a more balanced life."

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