|Memo to House Speaker José Aponte: if youre going to play political hardball, at least throw strikes.
Apontes botched handling of the confirmation vote of Secretary of State-designate Marisara Pont has outraged a good segment of the Puerto Rican public and dragged the Supreme Court into the power struggle between the Popular Democratic Party-controlled executive branch and the New Progressive Party-controlled Legislature.
Not a smart move for the statehood politician by any stretch, although perhaps a fitting segue into this weekends NPP General Assembly meeting at which pro-Rosselló forces are expected to steam-roll their man into the Senate presidency.
There have been a bevy of controversial vetoes by Gov. Acevedo Vilá, including the breaking of his word to approve the tri-partisan status bill and his decision to allow the hated Penal Code to take effect despite widespread opposition by business groups and crime victim activists.
But after the Pont affair, most people perceive NPP lawmakers as more obstructionist. And the PDP has a comfortable 4-to-2 majority on the Supreme Court. Worse for the NPP perhaps, Apontes handling of the affair was sloppy politics, and it worked to paint an image of the Legislature as a place where nothing constructive is accomplished, so poisoned is it with political partisanship.
The Pont affair has little to do with Marisara Pont, a respected public relations professional who has gotten generally high marks, even from most NPP lawmakers. The Senate passed her in an almost unanimous vote. The secretary of State is one of the few positions that must be confirmed by the House as well as the Senate, however.
Last week, NPP representatives began telling reporters her nomination would be used as a bargaining chip in other negotiations with La Fortaleza. They cited not only the status bill and Penal Code vetoes, but also vetoes of bills intended to keep a mental health center open and other services flowing to citizens. And they said the proposed budget would be a big part of those negotiations.
The strategy was risky in itself, given the fact that there was no compelling reason to reject the nominee, and precious few of Acevedo Vilás picks have passed muster with the Legislature.
But Apontes decision to bring the Pont nomination to the floor this week without having enough votes to reject her outright only made the political problem worse. It also would have helped if he had stated before the fact that it would require an absolute majority of the House, rather than just a majority of those in attendance, for Pont to win confirmation.
Who knows? Maybe even the Supreme Court will buy Apontes argument that the House speaker is the highest authority on the interpretation of chamber regulations.
But Juan and Juana del Pueblo know that on the first vote, Pont got 24 votes in her favor and 16 votes against, and on the second vote she got 20 votes in favor and 22 against -- even though three NPP representatives who changed their votes to reject the nominee said they thought they were voting to reject the motion for another vote.
Nobody in the NPP is criticizing Aponte outright. Senate President Kenneth McClintock has supported Apontes power to interpret House regulations. So has Sen. Pedro Rosselló, who aims to wrest the Senate presidency from McClintock or have him kicked out of the statehood party. But Rosselló has been more emphatic in his support, a quid-pro-quo for Apontes support for his ambitions to preside the Senate. Both Rosselló and McClintock voted to approve the Pont confirmation in the Senate.
The biggest criticism may have come from soft-spoken Resident Commissioner Luís Fortuño, who said in a radio interview following the affair, "I dont mean to be simplistic, but the majority rules."
Perhaps adopting the strategy of the national Republican Party, which has been very good to Fortuño, he also said all Cabinet appointees deserve an up or down vote. This belief is also embedded in the long-standing island political tradition of only rejecting nominees when there are compelling reasons to do so.
Before the vote, Fortuño specifically endorsed Ponts nomination. More importantly, he questioned the strategy of using the nomination process as a political tool. Why give Acevedo Vilá an excuse for not accomplishing anything, Fortuño said in arguing against being obstructionist with the advice and consent powers of the Legislature.
Many of those who will attend Sundays NPP meeting are openly criticizing the resident commissioner for not taking a stand on the Senate presidency issue, stating whether he thinks McClintock or Rosselló should reside the upper chamber. Fortuño has only said the issue was distracting the NPP from more important work.
He will also no doubt be criticized for not attending the assembly and for his expressions over the Marisara Pont nomination. But staying away seems a good idea.
If there were any doubt that Rossellós ambitions to preside the Senate were dividing the party, they were erased on Wednesday, when NPP Secretary General Thomas Rivera Schatz warned that any NPP member (i.e. senator) who does not abide by the decision taken by the assembly would face expulsion from the party. Rosselló, more bluntly, said acting against the will of the assembly would be an "act of treason" against the NPP.
For most of the general public, including vast numbers of statehood supporters who wont be attending Sundays pro-Rosselló fete, Fortuño is increasingly sounding like the voice of reason within the NPP.
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