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Entering The Final Stretch, Campaign For Governor Is A Race After All

by Lance Oliver

August 4, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The campaign for governor in Puerto Rico has entered the final stretch with the election less than 100 days away. Supposedly, this is when it gets serious.

By most accounts, the race today is too close to call. Sila Calderón’s lead over Carlos Pesquera has dwindled, but whether that’s due to Pesquera surging forward or Calderón sliding back is open to interpretation.

The campaign has been affected by issues big and small, from the recent federal court rulings that have addressed the political status issue to the ongoing question of Vieques to topics as small as the sidewalks in the Condado section of San Juan.

Calderón’s hands-off attitude toward Vieques certainly disappointed some of her followers as she did not take the personal, involved role in the protests that some wished she would. That won’t cause her to lose votes to Pesquera, of course, because by supporting President Clinton’s directives on Vieques, Pesquera has lost the hard-core "ni una mas" anti-Navy faction.

But it could play a role, because an important factor in the election is the question of how many so-called "melones," the voters who waver between independence and commonwealth, will vote for Calderón and how many will vote for Independence Party candidate Rubén Berríos. Those strongly motivated by the Vieques issue may go with Berríos this year, and those crossover votes were the ones that cemented the Popular Democratic Party victory in the last status plebiscite.

The Calderón campaign has been trying to portray Pesquera as incapable of managing the government by pointing to problems with public works projects such as the Superaqueduct and accusing him of not being able to prevent corruption when he was Secretary of Public Works and Transportation. But Calderón has a little problem of her own.

It’s a small issue, but anger in the Condado toward the mayor of San Juan has led some to question her ability as a manager. The sidewalks have been torn up for months, inconveniencing residents, shoppers and tourists alike. Maybe only one percent of the people of Puerto Rico use the Condado’s sidewalks, but they’re a vocal, influential one percent, and some of them are making a stink: if she can’t even manage a sidewalk project, how can she run the island?

Of course beyond the question of issues and abilities there is the other focus of political campaigns: image.

Pesquera has been a candidate for a year now. He inherited that role when the New Progressive Party’s leader, Gov. Pedro Rosselló, shocked his followers with the simple act of keeping his word and announcing he would not seek a third term.

At first, Pesquera’s campaign disappointed party followers. Some privately grumbled about finding a way to dump him and get a flashier candidate. But lately, Pesquera has made progress in the steady, dogged fashion that suits him.

Pesquera is not El Zorro, swooping down on horseback to seize the election with one dramatic motion. He is a miner, chipping away at a big rock, but he shows up for work every day and keeps swinging, and in the past year the rock has gotten smaller.

Pesquera has continued his tours of the island’s neighborhoods and back roads, sometimes on horseback, sometimes on bicycle, always projecting a style far different from that of Calderón, in her tasteful business suits and heels.

At a recent event honoring José Celso Barbosa’s birthday, some of the pro-statehood speakers attacked Calderón in personal terms, including suggesting that her makeup was applied like the body putty used to repair an old, rusty car.

Calderón called such low-class tactics the work of "cowards" and many others assumed it was just the usual display of "machismo" and bias against women. The comments themselves can be dismissed as the sort of personal slurs not worth considering, but behind them lies a key distinction between the images the two candidates project.

While Pesquera has made a determined effort to be out among the people, looking vigorous and active, Calderón can’t help but project a more business-like, remote image. Even when she dresses casually and walks through humble neighborhoods or one of the island’s farmer’s markets or some other such site, she still clearly looks like she drove in from one of San Juan’s exclusive suburbs.

Astride a horse, Pesquera can blend in and appear to be one of the guys. Calderón is never mistaken for one of the locals.

Whether the issues or the images will affect the outcome of the vote is something that’s impossible to predict now and will be debated for months after the election. Meanwhile, what’s certain is that Calderón’s lead has dwindled.

It’s a race after all.

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

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