Broken Fingers In The PDP

by John Marino

July 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. When Rafael Hernández Colón excused himself from Sila Calderón's campaign closing back in November 2000, he said it would be to stay by the side of his wife, who had just broken her finger the day before during an accident at a Ponce social club.

The slight followed the appearance days before by the former three-term governor, and still powerful figure in the Popular Democratic Party, with members of the New Progressive Party during a Ponce area news conference. He had earlier been photographed, still in the heat of the gubernatorial campaign, with New Progressive Party gubernatorial candidate Carlos Pesquera and other NPP leaders during the inauguration of a bust made in his honor being unveiled at the Senate - a photograph that was front-page news across Puerto Rico.

The absence of Hernández Colón at Calderón's closing was a big blow to the gubernatorial candidate - although it did not stop her from reaching La Fortaleza. Nobody doubted that Hernández Colón's absence was at least partially due to his wife's mishap. But nobody doubted either that Calderón's rebuff of the aspirations of his son José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral's to serve as resident commissioner also worked into the former governor's absence.

And so it is this week, with the surprising announcement by Hernández Mayoral that he would not accept the PDP's endorsement to be its gubernatorial candidate.

Surely, the young attorney made the call because of his 12-year-old son's health problems. But just as surely it also has to do with the rift with Calderón stemming from his unsuccessful run for resident commissioner during the 1999 primary. During that internal election, Hernández Mayoral’s father, and a coalition of mayors, supported his run, while Calderón publicly backed Aníbal Acevedo Vilá to be her running mate.

It was telling that in Hernández Mayoral’s resignation speech Monday he said he would have a much better idea of his son's chances of overcoming unexplained abdominal pains in the middle of the week, but was responding to calls by PDP leaders for a swift decision. PDP leaders retorted the day after that he had basically stopped talking to them a month ago, and they had no idea that he would drop out of the race until minutes before he announced it.

There are many layers to this tale of political intrigue. No one takes the surface plot line at face value.

Allies of Hernández Mayoral have privately complained that he always resented being "anointed" by Calderón and the PDP hierarchy; he would have preferred being seen as his own man. Some say he did not trust those in the Calderón camp, still in charge of the party at the municipal level — especially in San Juan.

And others say that the governor’s enthusiastic support of the candidate was really a double-edged sword, given what they say is the deep public dissatisfaction over the performance of her administration.

Opponents say his decision to quit the race also might have something to do with his sloppy bookkeeping. Political attacks over unpaid water bills would have escalated with other payment problems at government agencies, they charge.

Lost in this tale of fathers and sons, of a power struggle being waged in the party that has ruled Puerto Rico for most of the time that it has been a commonwealth, is the fact that the old way of choosing gubernatorial candidates, being anointed or "fingered" by the current leader, is a failed strategy the PDP has embraced and continues to embrace.

The lone voice of reason stemming from the PDP camp belongs to veteran Sen. Eudaldo Báez Galib, who questioned the party's obsession with picking somebody who can win an election, rather than someone with bold new ideas that embrace the needs of the collective.

That perhaps is the unexplained meaning in Hernández Colón's peculiar excuse for staying away from Calderón's campaign finale. The old way of doing things -- of "fingering" a candidate, or picking a candidato de dedo -- is broken.

Hernández Colón may not have actually meant to send that message to Calderón, but the metaphor was there all the same.

In their frantic search for a "fresh new face" to lead the party to victory in 2004, PDP leaders appeared poised to select Sen. Roberto Prats as its gubernatorial candidate, despite the equally strong backing for loyal party soldier Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá. A late meeting Wednesday night at La Fortaleza put off the final decision until next week.

The governor, and the PDP top brass, appears obsessed with selecting a so-called "candidate of consensus" despite the very real damage that strategy has inflicted on the party.

The "search for consensus" is patently undemocratic. The backdoor meetings taking place over the last several days among PDP officials are making the New Progressive Party look like the last bastion of democracy in Puerto Rico. The looming primary to select the NPP’s gubernatorial and resident commissioner candidates is the voice of reason when compared to the recent gatherings of PDP bigwigs fumbling to chart a reelection victory in 2004.

Most amazing, however, is that the PDP leadership team, still apparently run by Calderón, doesn’t admit the practical effects of their wrongly charted course. After all, look what a lurch they are in after their last handpicked candidate — Hernández Mayoral — dropped out.

There is no way to tell how a candidate will perform in the heat of Puerto Rico’s election wars, and that is especially the case given the youthful figures being courted for top leadership posts in the PDP who lack campaign trail track records.

A real primary, not the opinions of seasoned PDP politicos, is the truest test of who can lead that party to victory. And after all, Calderón is on her third police chief.

More importantly, a primary is the only way those loyal party members, who are counted on to cast their votes on election day, can have some real say over who their leader will be.

Despite apparent signs that the party is writhing in self-destructive action, the personal ambitions of party figures might yet wind up fueling a PDP primary. Acevedo Vilá is hinting that if he is not the candidate of consensus, he will challenge whoever that is in a primary.

That’s probably the best thing that could happen to the party, despite what its leaders say. Maybe that would even bring Hernández Mayoral back.

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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