Calderón Shocks Puerto Rico

by John Marino

May 23, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Don’t believe anybody -- except for maybe her two closest collaborators, Chief of Staff César Miranda and Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado — who tells you they saw it coming.

Gov. Calderón’s announcement Thursday night that she would not seek reelection next year jarred supporters and opponents alike, and caught political observers with their pants down. It also reshaped the political landscape for the 2004 elections.

I’ll admit it. This column was supposed to be titled "Behind in the polls, Calderón hits the campaign trail." Calderón has been acting every bit the savvy politician lately, not someone with an eye towards returning to private life. And though rumors had been circulating for weeks that she would not seek reelection, few really believed them.

The 60-year-old governor, the first woman to hold the post in the history of Puerto Rico, nevertheless announced her decision in a televised address, the contents of which were kept under wraps until late afternoon.

"For a long time I have thought seriously about the stage of my life in which I find myself now and about the years ahead," the governor said. "After much thought I have come to the difficult decision not to run for a second term as governor of Puerto Rico, but instead, to look forward to a much more balanced life in my remaining years, God willing."

"At the same time, for the next year and a half, this decision will allow me to dedicate all my time and energy to the job which you elected me to do; and that gives me immense satisfaction."

The governor intimated that she was stepping aside to make way for a new generation of leaders. "I believe in the Puerto Rican youth, in their capabilities and talents. This is how I know that Puerto Rico has a great future," she said. Immediately, José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral, the 41-year-old son of former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón, was seen by party leaders as the most likely candidate to head the Popular Democratic Party ticket in 2004.

Miranda and Mercado later emphatically denied suggestions that her decision was due to her health or "special" friendship with her former economic development chief Ramón Cantero Frau.

Political opponents said it resulted from the poor performance of her administration, which got average marks this week in an El Nuevo Día poll. It was the third straight time that the newspaper poll gave her a "gentleman’s C" grade. And this week’s poll showed both former Gov. Pedro Rosselló and New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera beating Calderón.

But if truth were told, Calderón still had a good chance — in Puerto Rico, every NPP and Popular Democratic Party candidate has a good chance — of prevailing in a reelection bid. The whole pace of her administration appeared geared for a reelection bid, with the great majority of her projects timed to take root in this third year of her administration. As governor, Calderón also has weathered a wave of plant closings that began even before she took office, the contentious Vieques issue, the war on terrorism and a host of other challenges.

The fact that at this point in her term -- before most of her public works projects and anti-poverty program take hold -- she was still in striking distance of the NPP should not have been cause for undue concern were she really intent on reelection. That’s especially so given the ever-present corruption issue that could hurt the NPP close to Election Day.

Cynics, meanwhile, are still holding out the possibility that Calderón may yet change her mind and run in 2004. But after the announcement, that appears unlikely. Political supporters may be calling for her to reconsider, but they are quietly plotting their own political futures within the post-Calderón PDP, and the reconsideration calls are being written often as nice gestures.

The reason most people were surprised by the announcement is that the governor has been acting as if she were seeking reelection.

She made three tours across the island on three consecutive days with an entourage of reporters and camera crews in tow this week. The tours were designed to highlight a different administration program aimed at improving the lives of island residents. The message of the tours was reinforced by the publication of full-page, full-color newspaper ads, catchy television commercials and a paid-for weekly radio address which tackled the same subject matter as the tours.

The coordinated campaign highlighting administration achievements has been running for most of the year -- with a different tour, backed up by paid media announcements, occurring on a weekly basis. This week, however, the governor tripled her weekly quota — and most observers attributed it to the publication of El Nuevo Día’s poll.

Why has the governor been acting so much like she would run for reelection in 2004? She might have told us why in her televised address. "I have [governed] in very difficult times…with unrelenting dedication, persistence and have focused all my energies and put all of my heart into my work.  I will continue to do so everyday, until the last minute of my term as governor of this island. There will be no responsibility I do not accept; there will be no effort left undone, and there will be no difficulty I won't confront.  There will be no obstacle I will not face."

Calderón might be dropping out in 2004, but she intends to govern until then — even if it means campaigning against the suggestion that she is a lame duck governor or that her administration still appears a work in progress.

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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