Rosselló Rebuked?

by John Marino

November 5, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Puerto Rican voters appeared to have given a harsh rebuke to former Gov. Pedro Rosselló this week, narrowly choosing his opponent Aníbal Acevedo Vilá for governor, according to preliminary State Elections Commission results.

Make no mistake. The slim margin of victory – some 3,880 votes -- will require an automatic recount that could take a month or more. And the preliminary certification given to the Popular Democratic Party candidate was extended with just over 98 percent of the votes counted. There's still more than 21,000 votes to count, including some 6,600 disputed ballots, a pretty big opportunity for the vote count to swing back to Rosselló.

It was a strange, historic election, with Puerto Ricans (preliminarily anyway) electing a split ticket, with Acevedo Vilá as governor and Luis Fortuño of the New Progressive Party winning the resident commissioner's race against PDP Sen. Roberto Prats. The NPP also took control of the island House and Senate and won a majority among island mayors.

While a sitting governor has faced a Legislature controlled by the opposition before, one has never had a resident commissioner from another party. In this case, that contrast is accentuated by the fact that Acevedo Vilá, who knocked down a number of Congressional endorsements for his candidacy, is a prominent member of the national Democratic Party and Fortuño is a prominent Republican who serves as National Committeeman and spoke at the party convention last summer in New York.

Many are predicting disaster. But many are hopeful that politicians will finally be forced to actually engage in the art of compromise. It might be a tonic for the usual changeover in political power, which usually requires an enormous undoing of much of what was begun by the preceding administration. Tri-partisanship will be required for most major endeavors, which might mean they will last longer, and only be undertaken if truly for the public benefit.

The results of the election may appear muddled, but the message the voters delivered was crystal clear. They rejected the current administration by supporting most NPP candidacies, and they rejected Pedro Rosselló, the only NPP bigwig who was on the losing end of Tuesday night.

Puerto Rican Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Rubén Berríos got 2,843 votes less than its resident commissioner candidate, meaning that most of those voters probably chose to vote PDP in the gubernatorial race in an effort to defeat Rosselló. The PDP candidates openly called for independentista support in the final days of the campaign, and several prominent independence supporters openly endorsed them.

But even without those crossover votes, Rosselló still came up short in the preliminary count. He undoubtedly lost support from within the NPP and among independents. Nearly 5,000 ballots cast in the governor's race were left blank, and another 3,518 ballots included write-in candidates. A good number of these ballots were probably protest votes against Rosselló, and they were enough to keep Rosselló from winning the preliminary vote.

This protest vote may also explain a strange trend in gubernatorial polls. All showed Rosselló enjoying a wide lead early in the race, which increasingly narrowed as Election Day approached. But the number of undecided voters, or those saying they would not vote for any candidate, stayed unusually large, some 10 percent in some polls.

Why would a voter who wanted a change in government not vote for Rosselló? The main reason is corruption, the convictions involving former administration and party officials stemming from his eight-year term in office. During the campaign, Rosselló pledged to fight future corruption and perfunctorily took responsibility for it happening on his watch. But he never spent enough time on the issue to make a real sustained case to the Puerto Rican people on the issue, and corruption, more than any other thing, was why just enough voters could not bring themselves to vote for Rosselló. After all, his Education secretary was among those convicted, and now his ex-campaign manager and party secretary general stand indicted on corruption charges. Rosselló never acknowledged that the wave of corruption when he was in power was unusual in any way, and it was.

The other reason Rosselló appears to have come up short was an erratic campaign, especially in the last stretch before Election Day, and the candidate himself, who polarizes voters into camps of loyal supporters and rabid opponents.

The former governor had limited his access to the press for at least the last month. He stormed out of one youth radio station interview when he was asked about "that crook Fajardo," just days before the election. And weeks before the vote he openly warred with Catholic leaders after proclaiming himself a "Protestant-Catholic." Meanwhile, attack dog and NPP Electoral Commissioner Thomas Rivera Schatz was allowed to offend gay groups though his use of slurs, many PDP members by referring to Rafael Hernández Colón as "an old man" and half the island in his verbal jarring with reporters.

I talked about Rosselló's "De La Hoya strategy" weeks ago. He was doing what Oscar De La Hoya did when he lost his belt to local boxing hero Felix "Tito" Trinidad. Safely in front through most of the fight, De La Hoya opted to try to dance around a surging Trinidad in the final rounds instead of confronting him. A few good shots were enough to turn the fight around for the judges. That too appears to be the case with Rosselló. His campaign officials tried to avoid press coverage in the days before the vote by trying to keep his public appearances under wraps, while Acevedo Vilá was campaigning 24/7 for votes, and doing everything possible to get press coverage.

Rosselló, and his handlers, tried to end the fight just a bit too early. Rosselló, too, appears to have come up short in the final tally.

The voters also expressed support for much of the Rosselló political platform by giving political power to the NPP in Washington and the island Capitol, as well as in town halls across the island. Voters seemed to say that they could take up Rosselló's plan, while rejecting the candidate himself to be governor.

If the election results hold up, the NPP will cite that as a mandate in trying to push through key aspects of its governing program. And Acevedo Vilá may have to sign off on a number of those initiatives if he wants any hope of passing any of his own. That is, if the PDP candidate can keep his lead through the rest of the count, and then the recount.

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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