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PUERTO RICO REPORT
PDP Battles Threaten To Do Serious Damage
by Lance Oliver
November 5, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
With a little more than a week to go before the primary elections,
the divisions within the Popular Democratic Party have gone from
garden-variety mud-hurling to much nastier fights that threaten
to harden today's internal disputes into semi-permanent grudges
that could cost the party big in 2000.
It didn't always look like the New Progressive Party was going
to get this particular gift. The sudden scramble for succession,
once Gov. Pedro Rosselló announced he would not seek a
third term, was handled quickly and quietly, but the NPP still
had to worry about the sometimes-nasty squabble between the two
candidates for mayor of San Juan, Charlie Rodríguez and
But those two have apparently been able to keep their followers
under control while the primary election opponents within the
PDP have erupted in a round of spats worthy of daytime television
The most tawdry chapter occurred when the former mistress of
San Juan mayoral candidate Richard Machado accused her former
lover of plotting to attack Sen. Eduardo Bhatia, his opponent,
as gay. It's a tactic that has been known to work before in Puerto
Rico politics, where homophobia is still potent.
In fact, that was probably the explanation for Machado's unusual
assertion earlier in the campaign that a candidate for mayor should
be married, like him, rather than single, like Bhatia. Though
Machado denies the gay-bashing strategy, I believe the married
vs. single statements he made was a subtle attempt to plant the
seed of doubt in biased minds.
While the sleaze factor kept that story in prominent play,
the bigger threat continues to be the race for resident commissioner
between former party president Aníbal Acevedo Vilá
and José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral. Party President
Sila Calderón, who wants Acevedo Vilá on the ticket
with her, accused former Governor Rafael Hernández Colón
of going too far in campaigning for his son by urging his followers
"to the trenches."
That's just the latest in numerous jabs and punches between
the two wings of the PDP, with the former governor still pulling
many strings while Calderón tries to consolidate her control
of the party. Further, the two battles are linked because Machado
is firmly in the Hernández camp.
It's easy to imagine several ways in which today's battles
could become the undoing of the PDP in 2000:
- Calderón's Teflon wears thin. Calderón cultivated
her image well during her term as mayor of San Juan, but she
showed another side when, as party president, she blatantly took
sides in the Acevedo Vilá-Hernández Mayoral fight.
The days in which she was seen as a non-partisan, virtually non-political
leader are gone, and that may cost her votes among the crucial
independents who make the difference in the standoff between
the evenly balanced two main parties.
- The bias factor. If a man presides over a party and there
is a lot of bickering, most people say it's politics as usual.
If a woman is party president and there is a lot of bickering,
a significant number of people will say it's just more proof
she can't run a tight ship. That verdict, though unfair, is already
circulating in Puerto Rico. That bias against women is certainly
not universal in the Puerto Rico of today, but neither is it
- The mismatched ticket. What if Hernández Mayoral wins?
How will a Calderón-Hernández ticket campaign effectively?
- The grudge factor. What if Acevedo Vilá wins but the
hard feelings last long enough for Rafael Hernández Colón
to sit on his hands in Ponce and let the San Juan-based candidates
struggle alone? If the former governor lets it be known he'd
prefer his followers to stay home on election day, Calderón
and Acevedo Vilá are likely doomed. PDP mayors, crucial
in get-out-the-vote efforts, have also been divided by the campaign.
There's also one very good reason why the NPP should not be
celebrating yet, however. The election is still a year away, and
a lot can happen in a year. That's a political fact frequently
overlooked in Puerto Rico where people tend to make political
predictions far in advance, not imagining how much can change
in a matter of months or even days.
Still, these have to be good days for the PDP's opponents.
The party may still overcome these divisions, put the tawdry campaign
allegations behind it, patch up the differences and avoid grudges
and march in happy unison to victory in November, 2000. But the
odds against that happening have never been better than they are
Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly
for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email