The PDP’s Bloodless Coup

by John Marino

May 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The tumultuous changes reshaping the Popular Democratic Party in the week after Gov. Calderón's shocking announcement she would retire from politics following her first term in office have all the markings of a bloodless coup within a dynasty.

Many within the party express confidence that the propulsion of former governor's son José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral to the PDP's top spot has rejuvenated the party, stolen the thunder the New Progressive Party claimed when its surprise of the year — former Gov. Pedro Rosselló's return to local politics — took place months ago.

It can't be a comforting prospect to the governor that an untested 41-year-old attorney is more popular than she is. But in literally making the telephone call to Hernández Mayoral to inform him of her plans, Calderón acknowledged as much.

On paper, the new ticket looks good for the party — especially given the rousing support within the PDP for Hernández Mayoral. Sad to say, but given the baggage being carried by the presumed candidates -- Calderón dogged by charges of running a chaotic administration, and Rosselló still shadowed by the corruption scandals involving former members of his administration -- being a political novice can only be a natural advantage.

And Hernández Mayoral, whose previous political experience is his unsuccessful primary challenge to Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, has so far proved ready for the big stage. He's well versed on the issues, has shown himself to be even-tempered and statesmanlike and is already convincingly reaching out across party lines.

One reason statehooders and independence supporters would prefer an Hernández Mayoral administration to a Calderón administration is that it would embrace the status issue. The candidate has already promised as much. That is seen as a good thing for all who want to resolve Puerto Rico’s status dilemma. If there is one thing local status ideologues agree upon, it is the belief that gaining Washington attention to local status would only help their option in the end.

But the process that resulted in Hernández Mayoral's propulsion to gubernatorial candidate reeks of him being anointed king. Even before Calderón's announcement, everyone knew he got the top spot, while Sen. Roberto Prats was given the party blessing to run for resident commissioner and Acevedo Vila was offered a shot to run for San Juan mayor -- an offer he has yet to accept.

Anybody within the PDP who had other ideas about the ticket was quickly silenced. Ponce Mayor Rafael "Churumba" Cordero Santiago went as far as to say that there was no room for anyone within the PDP who opposed an Hernández Mayoral candidacy.

Even before Gov. Calderon had stopped talking in her televised address, "Hernández Mayoral for Governor" buttons were being handed out in San Juan and a website for the candidate was already functioning.

Meanwhile, Caguas Mayor William Miranda Marín was quickly shouted down after saying he might venture a run at La Fortaleza. A day after the Calderón announcement, the PDP General Council unanimously pledged support to the second oldest son of former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón, a three-term governor who is still a powerful figure within the PDP.

It was clear that the ruling elders of the PDP had already decided what would happen and by the time the public was informed of Calderón’s decision, her successor had already been anointed.

Calderón’s previous battles with her former boss Hernández Colón, and the role he may have played with moving his son into power, also added intrigue to the drama played out inside the PDP. She had snubbed Hernández Mayoral when he sought the resident commissioner’s post in a primary challenge to Acevedo Vilá in 1999. While Hernández Colón backed his son, Calderón fought hard for her candidate Acevedo Vilá and ultimately prevailed.

But today, it appears that Acevedo Vilá has been snubbed by the governor who played a hand in turning over the reigns of the party to Hernández Mayoral.

The new PDP gubernatorial candidate made sure during his first interviews to step out from his father’s shadow, saying clearly he would not move to elevate Spanish as the island’s sole official language.

One of Gov. Pedro Rosselló’s first acts in 1993 was to make English and Spanish the official languages of Puerto Rico, overturning a prior statute enacted by Hernández Colón that defined Spanish as the only official language.

"We do not need to confuse the people by making them think that they have to be officially bilingual or officially Spanish-speakers because the aspirations of our people are to have a well-equipped population that has a Spanish vernacular but is fluent in English," Hernández Mayoral said. "Language in Puerto Rico is a reality as it is. It does not require approving and repealing laws for that reality to be stated."

But despite his academic and professional accomplishments, Hernández Mayoral finds himself in the governor’s race because he is the son of a governor, one of the island’s most formidable politicians in the recent past. Growing up in La Fortaleza has been a big part of Hernández Mayoral’s fine education.

That’s Okay. After all, being the son of a president undoubtedly helped President Bush get to where he is today.

But a crowd of contenders challenged Bush in primaries, and today at least, there are primary challenges within the New Progressive Party. Not only the lopsided Rosselló-Pesquera face-off, but the many contenders for the resident commissioner’s spot on the NPP ticket.

So far, it does not look like there will be any such internal battles for the PDP. That’s too bad. They would only help to make the political newcomers appear at least tested when the general elections approach.

PDP top dogs are braying about the party "unity" and the overwhelming support for its ticket. But they are wrong for not allowing, indeed for not encouraging, other potential contenders to vie for the top leadership posts.

Political opponents have already heaped on the criticism for the lack of PDP primaries as an anti-democratic streak in the collective.

The real risk, however, is to the PDP chieftains, who wrongly insist that a strong party shuns primaries. The ticket might look good, but it would look a whole lot better if it had survived a challenge by, say, Acevedo Vilá and Eduardo Bhatia, or Miranda Marín and any untold number of other high-profile politicos, who if not by birth, but by their work for the party, have at least as much right to run for La Fortaleza or the DC post as the Hernández Mayoral-Prats team created by PDP strategists.

They should remember that no one handed the reigns of the party over to Gov. Calderón. She beat the pants off of five guys running in a 1995 PDP San Juan mayoral primary and went on to win the seat a year later.

When she went for La Fortaleza, she not only overcame the primary challenge by Hernández Mayoral but the subsequent lack of support from his father, who appeared publicly with gubernatorial challenger Pesquera and other NPP bigwigs in the days prior to the election.

Calderón won the right to rule the PDP. Her successor needs to do the same.

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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