The NPP War Over The Senate

by John Marino

April 29, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Since throwing the gauntlet down last week and declaring that the time for discussion was over regarding the Senate presidency dispute, Pedro Rosselló has thrown the New Progressive Party into a tailspin.

Rosselló has an excellent chance of fulfilling his ambition to lead the Senate, but the move will likely harm his personal political ambitions, as well as the larger goals of the party he presides.

Little good will come out of Rosselló’s drive to wrest the Senate presidency from veteran lawmaker Kenneth McClintock. Moreover, the move is unnecessary. Since assuming the Arecibo Senate seat left vacant by the resignation of Víctor Loubriel, Rosselló has arisen as the true leader of the NPP-controlled Legislature even without the Senate top job.

As NPP president, he is the head of the party’s Legislative Conference, which groups party representatives and senators and sets policy for them.

One could even argue that there’s more symmetry to Rosselló leading the conference, while allowing McClintock to continue presiding the Senate and House Speaker José Aponte being in charge of the House. The political power of the NPP hold on the Legislature, and its need to serve as a counterbalance to the Popular Democratic Party’s control of the executive branch, might even lend itself better to the current setup.

Both Aponte and McClintock have been looking to Rosselló to set NPP policy decisions. For example, when Puerto Rican Independence Party President Rubén Berríos suggested a compromise on status legislation, they both deferred to Rosselló on the matter.

The NPP infighting comes at a bad time for the statehood party, grabbing the spotlight when dissatisfaction with the administration of Gov. Acevedo Vilá is on the rise.

The business community’s anger over Acevedo Vilá’s tax hike proposals is reaching a boiling point. Banks are blaming a plan to raise $360 million in new taxes from them over a two-year period for shaving nearly $4 billion in market value off of Puerto Rico’s publicly traded stocks, comprised largely of financial companies, since the beginning of the year when the governor took office.

Other sectors are saying the two-year plan to eliminate exemptions to the excise tax will wreak havoc for food and book distributors, among others, as well as wallop the poor and middle class.

Meanwhile, the administration’s tepid response to the University of Puerto Rico strike is also raising concerns among the public. It’s clear that a majority of students want to return to classes, but the administration, fearful of violence, has not ordered the campus opened. Frustration over the inaction spiked this week after scuffles prompted by pro-strike students sabotaged a meeting that was called to put the strike to a vote.

But this week’s headlines have been dominated by the NPP’s internal squabbles.

Rosselló first spoke out on the Senate presidency last week, arguing that as party president and head of the Legislative Conference, he should also hold the Senate president post.

"The New Progressive Party has to have united leadership, with discipline, to conduct the work we have to do. This is not happening. We have to establish discipline and unity," Rosselló said in making his case.

Rosselló also said that should NPP members decide that another leader should assume the party presidency and the legislative leadership spots, he would willingly step down.

A day later, Guaynabo Mayor Héctor O’Neill said that Rosselló doing so would be "good for the NPP and Puerto Rico." He said the party should not try to push people out of jobs they have legitimately earned, and he called "crazy" criticism of NPP senators who have retained their support of McClintock.

The comments sparked a larger war of words within the NPP that culminated in a Sunday rally convoked by Canóvanas Mayor José "Chemo" Soto aimed at calling on McClintock to step aside so that Rosselló could assume the Senate presidency.

Promising that the Senate would be the epicenter of government under his command, Rosselló warned NPP senators during the event to listen to the party base or he would campaign against them in the upcoming primaries. NPP senators shot back the next day, calling the former governor’s power grab "undemocratic."

Most observers have little doubt that Rosselló will easily win majority support to preside the Senate during an NPP General Council meeting slated for May 15. With 75 percent of NPP mayors backing Rosselló, several party leaders are calling on McClintock to throw in the towel.

But other NPP voices are conspicuous in their silence, and many undoubtedly worry that the political machinations at work to put Rosselló in the Senate top job are being denounced as undemocratic by a wide spectrum of the population, including a number of statehood supporters. That directly hurts Rosselló’s as a political figure able to reach out beyond the NPP.

Meanwhile, the public expression of internal party discord emanating from the issue may be unprecedented, even in the hardball politics of Puerto Rico. That’s not good for the party.

Of course, the party faithful still loyal to Rosselló – a majority of NPP members – will accuse McClintock of putting his political ambitions in front of those of the party by not stepping down for Rosselló. But it also speaks volumes that the former two-term governor cannot convince a majority of NPP senators to back him for the top job.

In the end, it’s Rosselló who will probably be most hurt by this episode. He’s listening to a small circle of advisors who were responsible for his coming up short in the closest gubernatorial race in recent years. They are wrong again.

The NPP president doesn’t need to be Senate president to implement party policy. The chair he currently holds is sturdy enough for that.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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