Acevedo Vilá Walks Away From The Wreckage

by John Marino

September 26, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The "train wreck" within the Popular Democratic Party brought about by Gov. Calderón naming one of her closest political confidantes to the Supreme Court chief justice post has presented a surprising opportunity for Aníbal Acevedo Vilá to firmly yank the reins of his party from his boss.

It has also enabled Acevedo Vilá to begin to position himself as his own man by distancing himself from the Calderón administration by opposing the nomination of Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado.

Acevedo Vilá's assertion of his political leadership and his ability to be able to offer voters something different, read more, than the Calderón administration has since January 2001 are essential to his election hopes.

On Monday, the day he expounded on his opposition of Mercado, he started to present his own ideas by announcing a plan to decentralize commonwealth government power by granting greater municipal autonomy. The week was also positive because the resident commissioner could report on enhanced terms regarding the closure of Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, which could grant Puerto Rico the free receipt of its ports and airport, a greater say in how the former base gets developed and a portion of the proceeds generated by the sale of former base land.

Acevedo Vilá has a long way to go -- on what will be an ever-increasing tightrope between identifying with and separating himself from the administration he has been a part of for nearly three years -- before accomplishing such a political feat. Increasingly, his building himself up as a candidate will more and more encompass telling how he would have done things differently than Gov. Calderón.

All in all, however, Acevedo Vilá, is off to a good start in opposing the Mercado nomination, which has been panned by the leaders of all three main political parties, with the singular exception of Gov. Calderón. It is after all a good time to distance one's self from her administration. If her public wedding ceremony, and her ensuing two-week honeymoon didn't signal her return to private life, then her nomination of Mercado, Calderón's last act before her "date with destiny" with Ramón Cantero Frau in Europe, sealed her fate as a lame duck governor.

The immediate challenge to Acevedo Vilá is to block the Mercado nomination.

Critics, especially from both the New Progressive and Puerto Rican Independence parties have decried the lack of verve in the resident commissioner's opposition to Mercado. But the proof of the pudding will be whether or not it is enough to kill Mercado's nomination. He has told why "for reasons of conscience" he is opposed to the nomination, and in doing so, opened the floodgates for a crescendo of PDP voices speaking out against it. And he called on party senators not to feel pressured into abiding by the majority will of the PDP Senate caucus -- something that Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora has threatened to invoke.

It is a ripe moment for Acevedo Vilá to consolidate his political power within the PDP, freshly renamed its president last month. No recent polls have been published, but the Calderón administration is at public opinion low point, according to many indications.

Party stalwarts, who all attended the governor's wedding reception but who privately complained it created a "big mess" for the PDP, revolted against the nomination, saying it did not comply with pledges to bring independent judges to the judiciary and Mercado's lack of qualifications. Political opponents, furious about Calderón's two-week honeymoon already, have called the nomination an "unforgivable caprice" of the governor. They are as angered by Mercado's lack of experience as they by the choosing of so political a figure. Even El Nuevo Día, Calderón's preferred newspaper, has blasted her in two editorials for her lack of leadership and her nomination of Mercado.

The case against Mercado begins with his being such a central figure in the Calderón administration, and his previous pivotal role during her run for governor as PDP secretary general. His only credentials for the chief justice post are his minuscule experience as a private attorney and a few years experience as a district court judge overseeing run-of- the-mill criminal cases.

Moreover, political opponents are deeply distrustful of Mercado, remembered for his sharp tongue during the bitter political fights of the 2000 gubernatorial campaign.

The recent release of U.S. State Department documents, which accuse the commonwealth government of a "deliberate attempt to misrepresent its international status," have also raised questions about Mercado's honesty.

Calderón had to know that her nomination of Mercado would have caused a firestorm of controversy, as well as more problems for her party. Harsh criticism of it began weeks before she officially announced her decision.

She could have heeded her critics, and remembered her frequent campaign pledges to seek consensus in making important decisions, by naming Mercado an associate justice and picking one of the sitting Supreme Court members as the new chief justice. Or she could have picked a truly independent jurist with impeccable credentials for the job.

In picking Mercado, she showed that she was more interested in extending her personal political power than helping Puerto Rico or her party. Mercado may not be the best legal mind on the island, but his relative youth means that he could keep the job for the next 25 years.

Mercado is not the kind of consensus candidate the PDP wants to be remembered for in the run-up to next year's election. And his verbal rebukes of his critics this week have only added to the notion that he lacks the judicial temperament to be chief justice.

The Senate outlook today is a toss-up, with six PDP senators, enough to tank the nomination, opposing it but with at least one saying he would tow the Senate caucus line if required to do so.

Acevedo Vilá's viability as PDP leader and gubernatorial candidate has a lot riding on the confirmation process. So much so, in fact, that it is tempting to think that minority senators might vote to confirm Mercado as a way of damaging the resident commissioner's election hopes.

But the idea of Ferdinand Mercado presiding the Supreme Court for the next 25 years is a more chilling thought than that of an invigorated Acevedo Vilá candidacy, so that is unlikely to happen.

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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