The fierce fight to lead Puerto Rico

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With help from Brakkton Booker, Ella Creamer, Rishika Dugyala, Marissa Martinez, Jesse Naranjo and Teresa Wiltz

What up, Recast family! The cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is extended through Wednesday, New York Mayor Eric Adams scoffs at the prospect of ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo running for mayor of the Big Apple and new details emerge for this week’s upcoming debate between Govs. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat from California, and Ron DeSantis, a Republican from Florida. First, a look at the intensifying battle for governor of Puerto Rico.

More than a fifth of the country will hold gubernatorial elections in 2024, but none will be more intriguing than the contest shaping up in Puerto Rico.

The field grew even more crowded Monday when Rep. Jesús Manuel Ortiz González, a member of the territory’s House of Representatives, announced he was taking on Puerto Rico Sen. Juan Zaragoza Gómez for the Popular Democratic Party nomination.

But that contest isn’t the first primary battle in Puerto Rico to grab headlines recently. That honor belongs to the territory’s powerful, pro-statehood New Progressive Party, which features a pair of candidates who just three years ago ran together on the same ticket, but now have become political rivals.

At the time they were running together, Jenniffer González-Colón was seeking reelection to her post as resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, and Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia had his eyes set on the territory’s top elected post, the governor’s seat located in a compound aptly dubbed “the fortress,” or La Fortaleza.

Though they are both members of NPP in Puerto Rico, the two politicians have forged separate alliances in Congress: González-Colón is a Republican who supported former President Donald Trump — even earning his praise. Meanwhile, Pierluisi caucused with Democrats during his eight years as Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner.

Now González-Colón is trying to unseat the embattled incumbent, announcing she was challenging Pierluisi just days before he officially filed his reelection bid.

González-Colón tells The Recast she is running because the people of Puerto Rico “need a government that makes sense” and Pierluisi seems “detached from how people on the ground are living.”

For his part, Pierluisi has rejected González-Colón’s criticisms, saying it is easy to “criticize from the outside.”

“Anyone can aspire,” he told POLITICO earlier this month in Spanish. “If my administration is attacked, if it is said that Puerto Rico is going down the wrong path, I’ll say that’s not correct.”

Pierluisi was not made available for further comment for this story.

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The battle for the governor’s chair promises to loom over every discussion over the political and economic future for the more than 3.2 million Americans living in the territory that has been under U.S. control for 125 years.

The candidates are campaigning for a job that’s complicated by Puerto Rico’s territory status and the fact that primary control of its finances is outside the purview of the governor. Instead, that power rests with an unelected oversight board after the territory’s historic, multibillion-dollar bankruptcy filing in 2016. And Puerto Ricans are angry and frustrated by the state of their battered infrastructure, particularly the territory’s notoriously unreliable and incredibly expensive power system.

The New Progressive Party or Partido Nuevo Progresista has been one of the major political parties in the territory, alongside the pro-commonwealth status Popular Democratic Party or Partido Popular Democrático.

But the NPP has lost members amid the emergence of the Citizens’ Victory Movement or Movimento Victoria Ciudadana party, which supports a constitutional assembly to determine Puerto Rico’s status, and the Project Dignity or Proyecto Dignidad party, which does not advocate for any particular status.

“The [New Progressive] Party is kind of in a reckoning right now,” says Julio López Varona, co-chief of campaigns for progressive advocacy group the Center for Popular Democracy. “The choice in that party seems very, very bleak.”

A newly formed alliance between the MVC and Puerto Rico’s Independence Party aims to end the control the two main parties have had on Puerto Rico’s political system. If that alliance holds, it could spell trouble for the New Progressive Party following next year’s elections.

“We’re tired of having these two parties dominate in Puerto Rico and we need a change,” says Jorge Colón, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico who supports independence.

That diminished political clout of the New Progressive Party could take a toll on the political ambitions of both candidates.

González-Colón wants to lead a statehood party at a time when it’s being abandoned by voters, according to Amílcar Barreto, professor of culture, societies and global studies and interim director of Northeast University’s international affairs program.

“She is asking to be the captain of the Titanic,” Barreto says, “right before the iceberg hits.”

But González-Colón says she isn’t worried about competition from the PDP, arguing it’s good for that party to also have a primary, or the new MVC-PIP alliance. She pledged to support Pierluisi if he is NPP’s nominee.

“And I hope he will do the same when I win the primary in June,” she says.

Both are facing a tough fight. Political experts point to the slim margin of victory Pierluisi won by three years ago, garnering a mere 33 percent of the vote, which came down to roughly 19,000 votes over the Popular Democratic Party’s candidate. Another intriguing aspect from the 2020 election is that two other opposition parties garnered a combined 27.4 percent of the vote, raising further questions about whether González-Colón or Pierluisi would be weakened in a protracted fight for the New Progressive Party nomination.

Still, it remains difficult to topple an incumbent, especially one who can point to accomplishments in office. For Pierluisi, he touts his close work with Biden administration officials such as Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who is helping to shepherd the billions in federal dollars earmarked for the territory’s recovery from Hurricane Maria in 2017. Those funds had stalled under the Trump administration.

While political experts don’t believe President Joe Biden’s sagging poll numbers will impact Pierluisi’s bid for reelection, they argue he’s vulnerable in other ways, pointing to the heavy criticism the governor has faced for some of his decisions, such as his refusal to stop putting control of Puerto Rico’s troubled power system in private sector hands.

George Laws Garcia, executive director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council who has worked with both candidates, says González-Colón is “trying to position herself as even more pro-business than Pierluisi and that’s hard because Pierluisi is about as moderate and pro-business as a Democrat can get.”

Charles Venator-Santiago, associate professor in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Political Science and El Instituto: Institute for Latina/o, Caribbean and Latin American Studies, says González-Colón is seen as “a more palatable alternative to Pierluisi because she appeals to the type of loud or vociferous Puerto Rican who takes charge” and has a “sort of Trumpiest attitude in Puerto Rico … and it appeals to a lot of people in Puerto Rico.”

“She has a chance of winning because people don’t like the governor,” he says.

González-Colón, who won reelection in 2020 with 41 percent of the vote, was not punished by voters for her support of Trump, even though he insulted territory residents multiple times after the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Maria in 2017. She did however distance herself from the former president after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Both Pierluisi and Gonzalez-Colon have vowed to fight for Puerto Rico to become the nation’s 51st state, insisting that is what the majority of Puerto Ricans want even as their efforts are criticized as opaque, vague and out of touch with the needs of territory residents.

“Puerto Ricans have lost faith in their governmental institutions,” says Yulín Cruz, the former mayor of San Juan, who left the Popular Democratic Party earlier this year and favors a constitutional assembly to allow territory residents to determine their fate.

And any candidate seeking the governor’s chair has to deal with limits on their authority due to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act — commonly known as PROMESA, or promise in English. That law created the board overseeing the territory’s finances, commonly referred to as La Junta.

Case in point: González-Colón’s first substantive proposal since announcing her candidacy was to propose using government revenues to pay for projected increases in power bills in the territory. The approach aims to quell anger over a plan to hike prices to help settle the government-owned utility’s bankruptcy and the handing of control over the territory’s energy assets to private companies. But how the roughly $10 billion in debt is restructured is firmly within the purview of the oversight board, which has been negotiating and litigating over the debt with the utility’s creditors.

The system has not fully recovered from the devastation wreaked six years ago by Hurricane Maria, which caused an estimated 2,975 deaths and plunged much of the archipelago into darkness for months.

Restoring Puerto Rico’s power grid to withstand increasingly intense storms that tear through the Caribbean is crucial, government officials and others say. Puerto Ricans monitored Hurricane Lee’s path in September with a sense of dread that even a glancing blow could knock out power the way that Hurricane Fiona, a Category 1 storm, did in the territory last year.

The instability of the territory’s power system is sure to be a major campaign issue because it is “the main headache for Puerto Ricans right now,” Venator-Santiago says, adding that the governor’s race is “going to be a circus.”

We’ll continue to monitor this contest ahead of the scheduled June primary next year.

All the best,
The Recast Team


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