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Campaign 2000: On The Gas, But Gaining No Traction

by Lance Oliver

April 7, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

It’s early in the 2000 race for governor, so a lot can still happen. But the air of the campaign so far leads one to think that maybe not much of anything will happen. Or if something does happen, maybe no one will be paying attention.

Carlos Pesquera’s campaign provides the most fodder for analysis. Perhaps because he’s a man who believes in giving a full day’s work for a day’s wages and the New Progressive Party is basically paying him to run for governor (the stipend to replace the salary he lost when he resigned as Secretary of Public Works and Transportation), he is out there daily, putting in the effort and hours. This week, he completed his bicycle tour through Puerto Rico, hitting 21 municipalities in 11 days.

The campaign seems to be filling its plate from the buffet line of proven images and tactics. The "Ser de Pueblo" tour just concluded was intended to portray Pesquera as a man of the people. He met with followers and stayed in their homes, toured the island right out there among them on his bicycle, not behind tinted windows in an air-conditioned government limousine.

The tactic appears superficially to be a sound one: When running against a wealthy opponent with a somewhat aristocratic personality, play up the populist sentiments and the humble roots. Other days, the campaign focuses on portraying him as a capable administrator, a can-do guy who gets bridges and roads and pipelines built to make your commute easier, your tap water more reliable.

He started out his campaign declaring he, unlike Gov. Pedro Rosselló, did not dance, but soon he was dancing away at campaign stops. People expect certain things from their candidates who want to build an image of being young and energetic, he no doubt was told.

The trouble seems to be that each of these messages and tactics ends up looking like a gimmick. Which Pesquera is real? The administrator who was known for having people of all political persuasions working in his department, despite pressure from the usual hacks to fire others and hire statehooders? Or the campaigner who has taken hard-line partisan positions and promised such things as appointing more pro-statehood judges?

If she were a president, Sila Calderón would be accused of running a "Rose Garden Strategy." In her case, she stays in City Hall, issues her statements and does the occasional church visit or neighborhood walk. Sure, she sends barbs Pesquera’s way, but mostly she seems to be following the old campaign manager’s rule: Never interfere when your opponent is in the process of self-destructing.

It’s too harsh to say Pesquera is self-destructing, but he doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction either within his party or among the small slice of independent voters he must win to gather together a majority, as Rosselló did in 1992 and 1996. Calderón may well be content to sit back and keep her powder dry until she feels like she really needs it.

Then there’s the "campaign" of Rubén Berríos, both simple and effective. He said he would stay on Vieques until the situation with the Navy was resolved and now here we are, nearly a year later, and he’s still there. People are as surprised by this politician keeping his word as they were when Rosselló did what he had said for years he would do and called it quits after two terms.

(The consistent way in which the public is surprised and sometimes even awed by the spectacle of a politician keeping his word is a subject for another discourse.)

The big question is whether the new-found respect Berríos has won will translate into votes. It’s no sure thing. Nor is it of interest only to statisticians and political junkies. No, Berríos will not win the race, but how many votes he pulls in will help determine whether the Puerto Rican Independence Party keeps its franchise. That could have a big effect on the political landscape in Puerto Rico for years to come.

While there is no shortage of people who are ready to predict here and now what will happen in November, I am not one of them. I still believe in the unpredictability of nature, including human nature.

There is a long way to go and this campaign may well amount to something. I’m just not counting on it.

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

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