Fortuño Enters Puerto Rico’s Hottest Race

by John Marino

July 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Even before officially filing his candidacy, former economic development and tourism chief Luis Fortuño has skyrocketed as a favorite to win the hotly contested New Progressive Party primary for the resident commissioner post — which so far has attracted four candidates.

Since they all back former Gov. Pedro Rosselló for the top spot on the party ticket, NPP President Carlos Pesquera is expected to name his own handpicked running mate.

There are many reasons for Fortuño’s appeal. Despite his strong public administration record and political clout, the young attorney is a fresh face in the sense that he has never run for or held elective office in Puerto Rico. That makes him a good match against the Popular Democratic Party’s candidate Roberto Prats, a freshman senator who has won the respect of his counterparts on both sides of the aisle and has some valuable experience as a federal affairs adviser for Gov. Sila Calderón when she was San Juan mayor, and before that as an aide in the administration of former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón.

Fortuño also makes for some good copy, especially now that he is running — after denying that he would more times than former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo denied he was running for president.

Despite his youth and newcomer stature, Fortuño has a solid record of achievement as the architect of Rosselló’s aggressive push for new tourism resorts — a drive, somewhat underplayed alongside all the roar about such big ticket projects as the Urban Train, that brought both the Westin Río Mar Country Club and Beach Resort and the San Juan Ritz-Carlton, along with dozens of other hotel openings or substantial renovations. When he moved on to economic development chief, a hat he wore along with tourism chief, he oversaw the implementation of an aggressive industrial incentives overhaul which partially buffered Puerto Rico from the phase out of the Section 936 tax break.

All the candidates for resident commissioner can boast track records in running for the office. As a two-term governor and two-term resident commissioner Carlos Romero Barceló has decades of Washington contacts he says he will use to win greater federal benefits for Puerto Rico.

Sen. Miriam Ramírez de Ferrer, meanwhile, has had a connection to the Bush clan that stems back to George Sr.’s primary run against Ronald Reagan, and she has access to top Republican Congressional leaders. As a private citizen, she was a tireless fighter for statehood, bringing a citizen’s petition drive to the top officials in the federal government.

Former Senate President Charlie Rodríguez also brings a solid record as a local lawmaker, who has taken more than his fair of public trips to the nation’s capital to qualify him for the job.

As Puerto Rico’s Republican National Committeeman, Fortuño has already begun making contacts on a national level. He just returned from a trip from Washington last week and is attending the GOP’s annual summer meeting with in New York this weekend.

The race is interesting because while they all four are statehooders, Romero Barceló and Rodriguez are Democrats, while Ramírez de Ferrer and Fortuño are Republicans. The primary is being broken down by observers as two mini races between pairs of rivals vying for the same sectors of support within the NPP, but it would be wrong to assume that a Republican candidate is competing most directly against the other Republican, while the Democratic candidate is more directly running against the other Democratic.

More likely Romero Barceló and Ramírez de Ferrer will be vying for older NPP members, and the most die-hard, pro-American sectors. Fortuño and Rodríguez would be more directly competing for younger statehood supporters and more liberal NPP members.

One thing’s for sure. The race is already unprecedented in that four candidates have never competed in a major primary before in Puerto Rico history. Picking a winner among today’s field would be not much better than hazarding a wild guess.

The crowded field most likely favors Romero Barceló and Ramírez de Ferrer, both of who have cultivated small armies of loyal supporters within the statehood party. But since they are both running, it’s unclear how much of an advantage that really is. Would the winner of their mini battle necessarily get the most votes, or will that competition so evenly divide the vote of the die-hard NPP supporter that it could tip the race to one of their opponents?

My hunch is that Fortuño will top Rodríguez for the moderate NPP voter. He already appears poised to line up the most institutional support, with top statehood lawmakers appearing to back him even before he officially files his candidacy, which is slated for Monday.

Officially, Rosselló is neutral in the race, but associates of the former governor say he is pulling for Fortuño, who is the only candidate who is a member of the Rosselló 2004 reelection committee.

There is a good reason why Rosselló probably supports Fortuño. Of all the candidates, Fortuño is the most likely to help a Rosselló ticket in the general elections.

When Rosselló named Fortuño to tourism chief in 1993, he was a young untested corporate attorney with a few tourism deals under his belt. People started to comment on the "young Turks" chosen by the new governor, and questioned whether Rosselló’s seeming obsession with youth was the best way to pick a Cabinet.

But Fortuño would prove to be one of Rosselló’s wisest choices, almost immediately delivering increased demand for Puerto Rico’s tourism product and a slew of new developments soon after. He would go on to direct an aggressive overhaul of the commonwealth’s industrial incentives that remains the core of the island’s current industrial lure.

More importantly, Fortuño harks back to the early days of the Rosselló administration; before the corruption scandals dampened its promise and tarnished its legacy.

Despite the important positions he held under the former governor, Fortuño’s integrity has never been questioned even though he controlled millions of dollars as tourism and then economic development chief. That will buoy the reelections hopes of Rosselló, given the former administration members — from Education Secretary Victor Fajardo to La Fortaleza aide María de los Angeles Rivera — convicted by federal authorities in corruption scandals.

That’s not to say Rosselló will get his way — he did not in 1992 when Romero Barceló became his running mate. And institutional support does not necessarily mean electoral victory. Just ask Rodríguez, who had it in 1999 but lost badly to then San Juan Sen. Jorge Santini in the San Juan mayoral primary anyway.

When someone drops out of the race — a likely development given the crowded field — picking a winner for the NPP resident commissioner primary will be much easier.

The most intriguing scenario is that a Republican goes on to win it. With both Rosselló and Pesquera Democrats, that would mean if the NPP won in 2004, Puerto Rico’s governor would be working one side of the aisle, while its non-voting member of Congress would be working the other. That would be another first in Puerto Rico’s history.

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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