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The Orlando Sentinel

Puerto Rico Governor's Race Is Neck And Neck

by Iván Román

October 29, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

BAYAMON, Puerto Rico -- She rolled into her "Positive Force" rally standing in a jeep convertible. An announcer screamed over the booming Star Wars theme music that the force was with her.

Housewife Maria Mercedes Forti broke through the crowd to see Popular Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Sila Maria Calderon up close. Forti touched Calderon`s hand and ran back to her family to tell them she had a vision.

"The Holy Spirit told me she will be the next -- and first female -- governor, and when I touched her hand I felt that vibe," said Forti, 51, a former statehooder. "I know God is with her. Positive Force. Amen. Amen."

Calderon is counting on that force to put her on top in this neck-and-neck race that more than 2 million voters will settle Nov. 7. This election could break precedent in several ways.

Calderon, who defends the island`s current commonwealth status, has a chance to become Puerto Rico`s first female governor.

Although her opponent, pro-statehood New Progressive Party candidate Carlos Pesquera, talks about a "new era," voters` views about him are seen as a referendum on the current administration chock full of speedy -- sometimes jarring -- reforms and plagued by scandals.

And Puerto Rican Independence Party candidate Ruben Berrios, a hero to many because of his tough stand against the U.S. Navy target range on Vieques, could make the PIP`s best showing ever.

The focus on controversies within the parties, campaign styles and personalities has left little time for discussing major issues on which candidates differ -- privatization of government agencies, health-care reform, unionization of public employees and education reform.

Even the perennial debate about the island`s status has been downplayed in this race.

"There is no one issue that brings everyone together. When the election is over, no one is going to have a clear mandate", said Jose Garriga Pico, a political science professor at the University of Puerto Rico

More than 80 percent of Puerto Rico`s 2.4 million registered voters are expected to choose all the island`s 1,020 elected officials Nov. 7. But the race at the top of the ticket sets the tone.

Voters have been bombarded with ads and rhetoric, mostly from the candidates` surrogates. They`ve heard that Pesquera is a weak leader and too beholden to pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello, that Calderon is arrogant and out of touch with the poor.

In public, the candidates` attacks are cleaner, but just as pointed.

Pesquera, 44, an engineer who headed many of this administration`s infrastructure projects, paints himself as focused on technology, progress and the island`s future. He uses the $1.7 billion Urban Train, the island`s largest infrastructure project in modern history, as a symbol of his campaign.

"Puerto Rico is better off now than eight years ago, and we want to keep it going strong," Pesquera told a cheering crowd watching a live radio interview Friday at Plaza de Las Americas, San Juan`s premier mall. "Our people don`t want to risk our progress. We can`t go backwards now."

Calderon, 58, mayor of San Juan, was chief of staff and secretary of state under a previous PDP administration. She points to public corruption scandals of the NPP in the past eight years to emphasize her supporters` slogan, "We want change."

She was against the government`s sale of the Puerto Rico Telephone Co. in 1998 and has blasted the sale of most government hospitals and clinics to pay for health reform. Images in television ads of her hugging the Puerto Rican flag to her chest try to bring home the point that she gives priority to the Puerto Rican identity, one advantage of the current commonwealth relationship with the United States vs. statehood.

"If you want a government that wants to impose statehood on you, to sell our patrimony and that doesn`t appreciate who we are as a people, then vote for them," Calderon said at the Bayamon rally Oct. 20. "I bring you a clean government and good, steady progress, but without the cost that the current administration is making us pay."

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