Signs of Battle in the PDP

by John Marino

June 24, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. For several weeks, the battle for the Senate presidency, and the subsequent divisions it has sparked within the New Progressive Party, has been making headlines.

Despite the solid gains made by the NPP during the last election, winning basically everything except the governor’s seat, the internal squabbling has been appearing to derail the statehood party’s effectiveness at shaping public policy, as so much energy has been expended in NPP President Pedro

Rosselló’s quest to wrest the Senate presidency from Kenneth McClintock.

But all of a sudden, the Popular Democratic Party is looking like it is experiencing divisions of its own, and Gov. Acevedo Vilá, as PDP president, is having as much trouble as his counterpart in having party lawmakers follow his lead.

The divisions were seen in this week’s failure of Education Secretary-designate Gloria Baquero to win confirmation, as well as the opposing stances taken recently by PDP leaders concerning the unicameral legislature referendum set to take place next month.

After laboring at the helm of Education since January, Baquero resigned from consideration this week as it became clear she did not have the votes for confirmation. But this time, it was PDP, not NPP, senators responsible for her undoing.

Acevedo Vilá clearly wanted her at the helm of the sprawling school bureaucracy, but he refrained from forcing PDP senators to abide by the terms of a party caucus decision and refused to dictate to them how they should vote. Many critics have called the governor’s support of Baquero only lukewarm, when compared to the effort he made to win support for his failed secretary of State nominee, Marisara Pont.

Baquero got into hot water with PDP lawmakers for saying what nearly?everyone in Puerto Rico believes: that there has been misuse of pork barrel funds by some lawmakers, and the funds should be eliminated.

In announcing her resignation, she said she felt like "a ping-pong ball" being bounced back and forth between both major parties, with lawmakers conditioning their support for her in exchange for political favors. She also criticized the governor.

"I have felt well supported by the governor and I respect him for that. But I have to recognize that he didn’t have the capacity to say to the honorable PDP lawmakers, ‘This is my agenda, this is my candidate and I need you to be with me."

Party stalwart Miguel Hernández Agosto, a former Senate president, also criticized the governor’s lack of leadership over the PDP Senate caucus. "I’m plainly not satisfied with what he did. There are occasions when one has to motivate, with the most energetic persuasion, other persons to assume their responsibility," he told reporters.

Clearly, Acevedo Vilá had not, even though Baquero’s independence, the very thing that got her into trouble, made her appear right for the job. The NPP-led committee issued a favorable report on the nominee, and such NPP stalwarts as Manati Mayor Juan Cruz Manzano, a key proponent of Rosselló’s drive to assume the Senate presidency, back her. When she was hospitalized last month, it was during a visit to the northwest town. The mayor issued a call for her confirmation, saying she was still talking education while on a stretcher being lifted into an ambulance.

La Fortaleza is trying to downplay the impact of Baquero’s loss, but days before she resigned PDP lawmakers had acknowledged a failed confirmation would be detrimental to the island school system. With other important posts being stymied by the NPP, the loss of the Education nominee was especially damaging to the administration, as it was done PDP loyalists.

It’s a big, and internal, political defeat for Acevedo Vilá. And it may not be the last one. Two PDP senators, Eudaldo Báez Galib and Cirilo Tirado, also this week charged that some of their party colleagues were trying to block the confirmation of Commonwealth Human Resources Director Marta Beltrán because she has not acceded to requests for political favors.

The governor is also clashing heads with other party leaders over this summer’s referendum, many of whom believe it is unnecessary. Although the PDP will not take an official stand on the referendum, Acevedo Vilá has come out strongly in favor of a unicameral legislature, saying a vote for that option was a way to send a strong message to lawmakers that the public is not happy with their performance.

But former PDP presidents Rafael Hernández Colón, Héctor Luis Acevedo and Victoria Muñoz have extolled the benefits of a bicameral legislature. They say the dual chamber protects the public interest through further checks and balances and makes for a more deliberative legislative process. They also said that the constitution should not be amended because of the disappointing performance of island lawmakers. The public rather should punish them with their vote in primary or general elections.

Meanwhile, attorney José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral, the PDP leadership’s first pick for gubernatorial candidate in the 2004 race, has also spoken up on the issue. He said that Acevedo Vilá’s decision to back the unicameral option risked turning the referendum into a political vote meant to gauge the electoral strength of the governor versus his NPP opponents, such as Rosselló.

But it could also be seen as a way to measure Acevedo Vilá’s electoral power within the PDP, as Hernández Mayoral has also come out against unicameralism. He remains the most likely PDP figure to provide a challenge to Acevedo Vilá’s reelection in 2008, or to succeed him as gubernatorial candidate afterwards.

Hernández Mayoral’s argument against unicameralism, written in a column published this week, appears a retort to the governor’s position that a vote for unicameralism would send a message to lawmakers that the public is displeased with their performance.

"I want legislators to know that I do not accept their structualist bogus excuse," he wrote in explaining why he would support a bicameral legislature. "With my vote I want to tell them I do not believe the constitution is the problem. I want them to know that I think that the problem is them."

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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