The Popular Democratic Party Backroom Deal

by John Marino

February 7, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINODuring her short political career, Alida Arizmendi may not have shown herself to be the best lawmaker over her two years in the House of Representatives.

But the voters of Puerto Rico put her in office, and they should have the right to select her successor now that she has resigned her seat.

That won’t happen since the two announced aspirants for the seat -- former La Fortaleza Public Affairs Secretary Jorge Colberg Toro and former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón’s youngest son Juan Eugenio Hernández Mayoral -- have heeded the calls of Gov. Calderón and other Popular Democratic Party leaders to avoid a primary battle at all costs.

Since Arizmendi -- a former soap opera actress who resigned to avoid a House trial on charges she cheated on her taxes and mishandled campaign funds, among other allegations – is a popular, her seat belongs to the PDP. But the party should fill it by allowing its members to vote, rather than leaving it up to its elders.

Instead of facing a vote, the two aspirants agreed to allow party honchos –mayors, municipal committee heads and lawmakers – to do the deciding. That process is expected to catapult Colberg Toro into the seat, while guaranteeing party backing for Hernández Mayoral for a run for the at-large seat in 2004. Colberg Toro is then expected to try for the Senate, where he unsuccessfully sought a seat in the 2000 election.

It’s all very convenient for the party. They get Colberg Toro – experienced in politics and a close Calderón political ally -- in the House now, and the RHC camp behind the party when it counts in 2004.

While the governor loses an effective Cabinet member, she gains much from his influence in the House immediately. For that reason, she probably opted for him to leave now, rather than a year from now, when his Senate ambitions would have necessitated his resignation anyway.

Calderón now has plenty of time to find a suitable replacement and to get her administration back on message before the campaign for the 2004 election hits full stride.

While you won’t find statehooders or independentistas singing his praises, Colberg Toro, no intellectual or particularly idealistic, proved himself to be a ruthless critic of his political opposition and a concise mouthpiece for administration policy during his year as Public Affairs Secretary, a post created for him. His talents are a rare combination among Calderón administration members.

But while the deal made filling Arizmendi’s seat relatively painless for the PDP, it disenfranchised its voters and will likely cost the party in the long run.

The arrangement stinks of the backroom deals that are bad for the Puerto Rican voter. When PDP Secretary General Fernando Torres announced that the two aspirants had approved an "alternative method" of selection, he declined to reveal specifically what it was, which only further underlined the undemocratic nature of the process.

Some PDP political veterans who agreed with the decision to avoid a primary argued the party should have at least convoked a convention of its General Council to select a winner in an open vote.

Now, no one will know for sure whether it wasn’t simply PDP President Calderón who did the picking herself. The fact that the two presumed candidates are from two political family dynasties only adds to the surface grit.

The PDP partially justified its decision to avoid a primary on the $2 million cost of the vote. Since it would be an island-wide vote for the at-large seat, the costs are much higher than in the two primaries being held by the New Progressive Party to fill district seats in San Juan and Bayamón to fill two resignations.

But for an administration proposing a $10 million to $20 million annual expenditure on public financing of political campaigns as an "investment" for the people of Puerto Rico, the stand is hypocritical.

The real reason the party is straining to avoid a primary battle is the fear of the bad blood it would bring. "The PDP won’t hold another division," one newspaper headline screamed this week.

The political battle would be seen as another fight between the Calderón and RHC camps within the party, providing new attack opportunities for political opponents.

By avoiding the vote, the party will also be able to more quickly fill Arizmendi’s seat – important because the PDP House majority is down to a one-vote advantage above what is needed to pass most legislation.

But in the long run, the party will be hurt by its decision not to hold a primary. For one thing, despite such fears of an internal political battle, primaries can actually be healthy. They whip up the media spotlight, encourage internal debate, and serve as electoral practice runs for the candidates and the political machinery.

Nothing has energized the New Progressive Party as much as talk that former Gov. Pedro Rosselló might return to local politics, sparking a primary battle with NPP President Carlos Pesquera.

PDP justifications that avoiding a primary will save taxpayer’s money are self-serving rubbish.

You can’t put a price on democracy, and by avoiding a primary PDP leaders are turning their backs on the voters that have given them their power.

John Marino, City 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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