After Labor Day, Campaign Heats Up

by John Marino

September 10, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. With the passing of Labor Day, the campaign for La Fortaleza on the island is heating up every bit as much as the stateside race for the White House.

Local television, radio and newspapers are filled with political ads, and seemingly anywhere one journeys on the island on weekends, there is a noisy political caravan championing one candidate or another.

The sound bite of the week in the presidential race came from Vice President Dick Cheney, in which he said a "wrong choice" on Election Day would mean "we’ll get hit again and hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States," referring to a Sept. 11-like terrorist attack.

But in Puerto Rico, it belonged to former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, who when asked about allegations of financial improprieties involving his ex-Economic Development chief and chief of staff, did not hesitate when he said: "Yes, my trust in them was well-placed."

The Rosselló comment spurred as much commentary, and criticism from political opponents, as Cheney’s sound bite, which was denounced as "un-American" and "irresponsible." So did the New Progressive Party gubernatorial candidate’s assertion that he had not had time to read reports about allegations by the Government Ethics Office that Romeu had racked up $95,000 on his government credit card while Economic Development chief on questionable purchases, such as dinners at expensive restaurants, hotel stays and limousine services.

The PRIIF investigation promises to be a political circus run by the Popular Democratic House majority, and Rosselló is right to call for a full investigative process. There is not a shred of evidence that Cifuentes was anyway involved in the granting of incentives from the PRIIF fund, other than a contract held by the Washington D.C. law firms at which he works with the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Corp., which ran the fund.

But the allegations against Romeu made by the GEO are of a higher standard, and Rosselló should not so flippantly brush those aside, especially as he tries to convince the Puerto Rican public that he will be personally committed to stomping out public corruption if elected to a third term. After all, former Education Víctor Fajardo was also once a trusted member of the Rosselló Cabinet.

PDP gubernatorial candidate Anibal Acevedo Vilá lashed out at Rosselló for the statements, saying they "completely contradict his television advertisements where he vows to have zero tolerance for corruption. They throw all of the publicity efforts and the clean image he is trying to create of having zero tolerance for corruption out the window."

Rosselló rightfully points out that the PDP is casting unfounded allegations against former administration officials hoping that the mud will stain the entire NPP. He has supported calls for both Cifuentes and Romeu to testify, but added that the Calderón administration’s first Economic Development chief Ramón Cantero Frau, now the governor’s husband, should testify as well on his role in a questionable $5 million investment that failed to produce the new jobs pledged by the recipient. As the House committee wants its probe to go in chronological order, it probably won’t call Cantero Frau to testify until after Election Day.

There’s no doubt that the PRIIF investigation probably has some legs. After all, the FBI is investigating. But the probe at the Capital run by PDP politicians is designed primarily for political effect and has been delivering as much heat as light. For example, lawmakers keep saying that the decision to waive tollgate taxes for companies which invested in the fund cost the Puerto Rico taxpayer $961 million in taxes that would have been paid by the firms. But it’s clear that if the PRIIF deal had not materialized, the 936 companies would have brought down their tax burden by leaving their profits deposited in island financial institutions.

So far, the campaign has been brought down to two essential issues. The PDP is honing in on the past corruption in the Rosselló administration, while the NPP is attacking the lack of large public works projects and the administrative failings of the Calderón administration.

In that sense, the campaign is a throwback to 1996, when Rosselló was reelected with more than 1 million votes. In that race, the PDP tried to taint the Rosselló administration with charges of corruption, while the NPP attacked the administrative record of then San Juan Mayor Héctor Luis Acevedo. Watching one current PDP ad, which attempts to pin the loss of Section 936 on Rosselló, made me swear it was 1996 all over again.

The PDP certainly has more ammunition this time around, since most of the high profile corruption cases, such as the public schools corruption scandal, have been made public since 1996. But a general dissatisfaction with the Calderón administration, and a public perception that no large public works or government reforms have been undertaken during its term in office, has also given the NPP added firepower.

Recent polls putting Rosselló ahead of Acevedo Vilá by as many as 9 percentage points have also shown that the former governor’s support rests on his past record of public works and administrative achievement.

Acevedo Vilá surely knows this, but is hard-pressed to try to overcome that past record in any other way than playing the corruption card.

That’s because the public seems genuinely dissatisfied with the current administration, one reason perhaps Gov. Calderón has played such a minimalist role in the current campaign.

In this strange political season, perhaps the most astute observation on the campaign quote of the week came from Ferdinand Mercado, Calderón’s former secretary of State, whose Supreme Court nomination was derailed by reports that he might have fled the scene of a fatal car accident in his youth.

Now a political commentator on a local radio station, and sounding positively bipartisan these days, he said Rosselló’s support of his friends was in distinct contrast to the PDP officials, who have thrown their own to the wolves at the slightest hint of corruption. "It shows," Mercado said, "Rosselló’s supreme confidence."

Both the Rosselló and Cheney quotes, amplified by intense media scrutiny, have taken on a life of their own, becoming rallying points for political opponents who hope to halt their surging candidacies.

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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