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Rossello Grabs Spotlight Over Vieques
by Steward M. Powell
November 7, 1999
Copyright © 1999 TIMES UNION. All Rights Reserved.
WASHINGTON -- His calm may come from his work as a pediatric
surgeon. His determination may stem from the on-court resolve
that made him a tennis champion.
Whatever the origins, Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello brings
formidable skills to the fight of his political career.
Almost single handedly, the 55-year-old Democrat has transformed
a tragic accident on the U.S. Navy's bombing range on the island
of Vieques into a controversy seizing the attention of the White
House, Congress and the Pentagon -- and rival candidates for the
presidency and Senate next year.
Rossello has been campaigning for more than six months to end
target practice on Vieques after a Marine pilot mistakenly bombed
an observation post on April 19, killing Navy contract security
guard David Sanes Rodriguez, 35, and injuring four civilian employees
on the range.
The target range has been closed ever since.
President Clinton is expected to decide before year-end whether
to reopen the Navy's range -- or grant Puerto Rico 's appeal to
end 58 years of bombardment on the island, where 9,300 civilians
live within 10 miles of the range.
The Navy says that it needs presidential approval by mid-November
if the Navy-Marine Corps battle group led by the aircraft carrier
USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is to train on Vieques before leaving
for the Persian Gulf Feb. 18.
How did Rossello steer such a remote issue to center stage?
Rossello, whose majestic office in San Juan is crowded with
photos of Maga, his wife of 30 years, and the couple's three sons,
took the offensive immediately after firing range accident. Within
hours, the longtime Clinton ally wrote the President to demand
a permanent end to Navy bombing that began in 1941.
Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., a friend of Rossello's, said the
governor reacted with characteristic instinct: "In cases
like this, Rossello the doctor looks at the children of Vieques
and feels first."
Rossello, the son of a psychiatrist who received his medical
training at Yale and Harvard, focused narrowly on the unifying
issue that U.S. armed forces had been dropping live ordnance near
"Vieques is easy to understand if you stick with that
-- it's abuse and arrogance at its worst," says Serrano,
the senior Puerto Rican native serving in Congress. "Rossello
stuck with that."
Rossello has not wavered, spurning all entreaties for negotiations
with the Pentagon that include resumption of live-fire training
on the island target range.
"The Navy has to accept that ending the bombing on Vieques
is the bottom line for us," Rossello reiterated last week.
Defense Secretary William Cohen appealed anew last Thursday
for direct talks with Rossello, saying: "We need to have
a dialogue on this." Rossello had no immediate comment.
Retired Marine Gen. Richard Neal, a member of the four-member
Pentagon review panel that proposed reduced Navy bombardment and
Navy withdrawal from Vieques over five years, says Rossello has
won points with his low-key but committed approach.
But Neal says that he's "surprised and disappointed"
by Rossello's unwillingness to compromise, adding: "Now is
the time for discussion in an effort to find common ground."
Rossello underscores his stance by vowing to seek a federal
court injunction to block any resumption of bombing -- even if
ordered by the President.
"We abide by what we feel is the law of the land,"
Rossello says. "It's a fundamental issue for us."
At a time of exploding Hispanic political influence in key
electoral states such as New York, Texas, California, Florida
and Colorado, the governor has forged a formidable coalition of
support. His allies range from Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, head
of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and civil rights leader Jesse
Jackson to the AFL-CIO and the nation's major Hispanic organizations.
Both Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill
Bradley, rivals for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination,
have voiced their support for Navy withdrawal from Vieques . Rossello,
the vice president's chief fund raiser in Puerto Rico, already
had raised at least $100,000 for Gore by last July.
Rossello enjoys backing from First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton
as well, waging a prospective Senate campaign from New York. Her
likely rival, Republican New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, also
supports Navy withdrawal from Vieques.
Rossello has been making his case to the Republican Congress
politely but firmly, returning verbal volleys from hostile lawmakers
just as deftly as he slammed back tennis balls when he was captain
of the tennis team at the University of Notre Dame and later as
five- time men's singles tennis champion in Puerto Rico .
Addressing Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner
at the outset of his testimony on Oct. 19, Rossello noted the
Virginia Republican's natural loyalties to the Navy in a controversy
that pits the Navy against the demands of Puerto Rico.
"Many of us in this room, Mr. Chairman, have not forgotten
that you are a former secretary of the Navy" representing
a state that "boasts a heavy concentration of current and
former military personnel" as well as "numerous major
military installations, including the headquarters of the Navy's
Atlantic Fleet," Rossello said.
Warner countered with repeated appeals for Rossello to negotiate
a compromise with the Navy to at least enable the Eisenhower battle
group to prepare for deployment.
Rossello replied without any hint of anger or hostility: "You
don't negotiate with human rights."