The Calderón 'Consensus' Is Tested

by John Marino

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

. JOHN MARINOGov. Calderón swept into office pledging to bring "consensus" back into governing. Her emphasis on taking actions generally agreed upon by all was a direct response to the governing style of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, who appeared to become increasingly authoritarian over his eight years as governor.

But if there is one thing any governor in Puerto Rico learns quickly, it’s this: Regardless of what you do in office, you’re likely to offend just about half the people all the time — thanks to the island’s political tribalism. There are die-hard statehooders who will hate everything Calderón does, just as there were populares, who could not stand anything that Rosselló did.

Still, Calderón has employed a "consensus" philosophy through her two years in office, often sitting down with opponents to discuss their gripes and occasionally changing course at the behest of critics. For example, she completed rewrote the language of the local Vieques referendum to satisfy many resident complaints. And the Calderón team has appeased labor by ensuring that the extended office hours program for government agencies would only affect employee schedules that volunteered to work the new hours. It has also repeatedly delivered promised pay hikes to public employees despite its cries that money is tight.

That has been a refreshing change from the latter half of the Rosselló administration, which in its second term appeared to forget the political art of floating trial balloons before controversial announcements. For example, Rosselló was downright stubborn in his determination to hold a status plebiscite after Hurricane Georges cut through the center of the island, leaving destruction in its wake that nearly covered all of Puerto Rico. Pushing forward, despite the complaints of allies as well as opponents, Rosselló disenfranchised many residents still struggling to put their lives back together and damaged the momentum of the statehood movement.

Many of the moves taken by Rosselló, however, were inherently unpopular but absolutely right. Such is the case with the privatization of the Puerto Rico Telephone Co. No amount of talking could have swayed the fervent opposition of labor, or that of most of the public. But Puerto Rico raised millions for needed infrastructure projects and sold the utility before the telecom sector tanked. It was a good move.

There does come a point when a leader may well have to take an unpopular position, despite discontent, because in the end it will be for the greater public good. Calderón has not yet reached that point, has never stared down public opinion because it was the right thing to do. Her pledge this year to reintroduce her campaign finance reform project might yet bring her there, but even that is still not clear.

Given the premium the governor places on consensus, it was surprising this week that she made two announcements that ticked off a whole lot of people. They were not on big controversial issues, either, where the good, unpopular stands are usually taken, but rather they pertained to pretty mundane projects. And it wasn’t just political opponents who were angered by the announcements, but a good number of folks from the Popular Democratic Party.

The governor announced that the Isla Grande Airport would be moved, and said she wanted to move the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music’s new headquarters to a former vocational school in Guaynabo, rather than in the historic building in Miramar that is undergoing a $54 million renovation.

Isla Grande is tucked beside where a new convention center district is slated to rise up on the former Miramar Navy base that has housed a number of government agencies over the years. Calderón argues that the land is too valuable for the airport and is in conflict with the new tourism and business project.

Proponents argue eliminating the airport will cause a multimillion dollar disruption to the economy because of the flight schools, small airline and helicopter services and other businesses operating out of the airport. Any frequent traveler who goes to Vieques or Culebra or the Virgin Islands will also attest to the beauty of an uncrowded airport in the heart of San Juan that allows you to leave your house and arrive at your destination within an hour. A final argument is that such an airport could also be a benefit to the adjacent convention-tourism district. The PDP-dominated Legislature authored a report recommending it stay open.

Anyone who knows anything about the Conservatory of Music at all has believed its new home would be in the historic beauty being renovated on Ponce De León Avenue since Gov. Rosselló announced the $54 million renovation during his last year in power. But Calderón said last week that the project was "badly planned" and "badly budgeted." She said it would be much more cost -efficient for the Conservatory to set up shop in a former vocational school in Guaynabo.

The governor made the announcement after naming new appointees to the Conservatory board, despite being peppered with questions about the issue from the media for weeks. But even the new Board seems inclined to stay in Miramar, and many PDP lawmakers have likewise vowed to make sure it stays in town. Proponents also argue that the Conservatory project goes hand-in-hand with Calderón pledges to restore the historic downtown of San Juan, which encompasses Miramar and Santurce.

The governor might have good arguments in both cases, but she will have to start using them. That’s one basic requirement of governing by consensus.

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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