|Aníbal Acevedo Vilá was the second choice, and in some cases third choice, for gubernatorial candidate among Popular Democratic Party leaders.
Following Gov. Calderón's abrupt announcement last year that she would not seek a second term in office, PDP bigwigs, with the apparent blessing of the governor, anointed José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral to be gubernatorial candidate. It was only after the former governor's son dropped out of the race because of family health problems that Acevedo Vilá arose, after much infighting, as a candidate by consensus. A contingent of the PDP's top leadership was pressing for Sen. Roberto Prats, who would go on to be Acevedo Vilá's running mate in this year's race.
In an interview with reporters and editors shortly after being tapped as gubernatorial candidate, Acevedo Vilá was asked if he had been stung or hurt by the apparent shabby treatment he received by party elders. Not only was he a loyal running mate of Gov. Calderón, he assumed the party presidency at one of the lowest moments of the PDP, following its trashing at the polls in November 1996 when former Gov. Pedro Rosselló was reelected by obtaining more than 1 million votes. Yet the PDP hierarchy was ready to pass him up for an untested attorney who had never held public office, or even spent much time in the public.
In response, Acevedo Vilá simply laughed. "That's politics," he said.
Today, if he keeps his 3,880 vote lead over Rosselló through the excruciating escrutinio process and a subsequent recount, he will be nearly alone among PDP politicians in proclaiming victory following the contentious election battle this year. Not only will he be the undisputed leader of his party but by being elected a governor, with a resident commissioner, Legislature and majority of mayors being controlled by the political opposition, he will have a big opportunity to show that he can be a bipartisan leader, something unheard of in island politics. He will have to if he is to have any success at all as governor in what is looking like a possible historic first: a divided ticket at the top.
If he prevails, he will have the good fortune of working with Luis Fortuño, the NPP resident commissioner-elect who is also quite capable of reaching across party lines to get things done for Puerto Rico. He also has added clout as a rising member of the Republican Party, a good fit with the Democratic Acevedo Vilá, especially from his D.C. post where Republicans rule. But Fortuño would also be the most likely contender to take on Acevedo Vilá in an election rematch in four years.
Critics, including Rosselló, have said that an Acevedo Vilá administration would be disastrous because of the political favors he would owe after the election and the hold on power the NPP would have despite its loss of La Fortaleza.
But Acevedo Vilá has proven an unflappable politician, who has marched almost cheerily into seemingly losing situations. It's one reason opponents have always underestimated him despite the fact that he has never lost an election. He has used the disparaging of critics to his advantage throughout his career.
That was apparent when he took over a shattered PDP back in 1997, led the commonwealth battle through the Young Bill hearings and brought the party back to life during the 1999 plebiscite campaign in which he engineered the controversial backing of the fifth, "none of the above" option. And it was apparent last year after he happily accepted the PDP invitation to run for governor after its initial snubbing, and poll numbers showing he would be trounced in a run against Rosselló.
Former Gov. Rosselló also underestimated Acevedo Vilá, and the general public's unease over the prospect of a third Rosselló term. In his most extensive interview since Election Day, with El Vocero newspaper, Rosselló accused island independentistas of "selling" their votes by backing Acevedo Vilá
Rosselló also came out swinging against a possible Acevedo Vilá administration. He said the PDP was no longer a party that can be elected from its "own force," and was therefore indebted to those who formed an alliance to help it succeed at the polls. The PDP would therefore take on a "separatist agenda." But the former governor failed to mention that his two successful gubernatorial runs were successful precisely because of Rosselló's ability to attract non-NPP support.
Rosselló's predicament is not only attributable to the PDP alliance with independence supporters to vote for Acevedo Vilá on the gubernatorial ticket but to his own campaign strategy.
For a brief moment, when he first returned to Puerto Rico to campaign for La Fortaleza, Rosselló was highlighting his progressive side, championing universal health coverage and taking stands against the island's sodomy laws, in an apparent attempt to attract non-NPP voters. But the campaign quickly switched gears into what its architects apparently believed would be a replay of the 1996 election. As Acevedo Vilá hurled corruption charges against Rosselló, the Rosselló camp attacked back by painting the PDP as incompetent. But Acevedo Vilá could not be steamrolled the way that former San Juan Mayor Héctor Luis Acevedo was eight years ago.
The Rosselló campaign acted as if it were convinced that Acevedo Vilá could not attract enough support from within the PDP to defeat Rosselló. It apparently did not count on defecting Puerto Rican Independence Party members putting him over the top, perhaps with the help of a few thousand NPP members who declined to vote for Rosselló (what other reason for the 5,000 blank gubernatorial ballots?)
While Rosselló limited his press exposure to "friendly" media through much of the campaign, Acevedo Vilá was available for any appearance and crisscrossed the island at an ever more frenzied pace as Election Day approached. The former governor concentrated on ratcheting up NPP support and participation, while Acevedo Vilá openly called for the votes of independence and statehood supporters.
Since Election Day, Acevedo Vilá has also used the good fortune of his slim lead deftly in trying to paint himself in the public's mind as the governor-elect. He named a transition committee, has met frequently with Gov. Calderón and sent his wife and kids to La Fortaleza to pick out bedrooms.
There are still thousands of votes to count, and hundreds of thousands more to recount, plus lawsuits to battle through before the smoke will finally clear and a governor-elect is officially declared.
But the Rosselló camp should take note: it's the kind of messy political landscape in which Acevedo Vilá has thrived throughout his political career.
The NPP campaign strategy, and the candidate's very real underestimation of Acevedo Vilá's political skills, is just as responsible for Rosselló's current No. 2 position as any fragile alliance Acevedo Vilá was able to construct with island independence supporters.
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