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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 Jorge Santini.

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 soaps.

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 insignificant.
  • 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 today.


Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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