Primary Lessons

by John Marino

November 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The historic gubernatorial primaries within the New Progressive Party this week helped a lot more than they hurt, if initial appearances are any indication.

And the strongest candidate the Popular Democratic Party has after the Sunday vote is the one involved in the most contested election — Eduardo Bhatia who scored an impressive victory over Sen. Roberto Vigoreaux to become the pro-commonwealth party’s candidate for San Juan mayor.

Despite what politicians say, primaries are good for political parties.

Former Gov. Pedro Rosselló scored a huge 75 percent/25 percent victory, leaving no doubt he is the leader of the collective. And Luis Fortuño’s equally solid victory in the resident commissioner race — he got more votes than the other three candidates combined -- also showed he was by far and away the favorite in the pro-statehood party.

PDP politicos said the NPP would have to surpass 500,000 voters to put on a show of strength equal to its 1999 resident commissioner primary, where 508,000 cast votes in the hotly disputed contest between Aníbal Acevedo Vilá and José Alfredo Hernández Mayoral.

The NPP participation far outstripped that challenge, with an estimated 570,000 voters participating.

The turnout made it clear that the party base thirsts for a return to power. So does the overwhelming support of Fortuño, who was hands down the best running mate for Rosselló — for both before and after Election Day 2004.

The NPP ticket provides a one-two punch in that Rosselló is a prominent Democrat and Fortuño a prominent Republican. If Bush retakes the White House, Washington insiders say Fortuño would have a lot of clout as a young Republican Hispanic Congressman.

Fortuño also has a record of achievement, is genuinely likable and is squeaky, squeaky clean, a powerful arsenal against the corruption charges the PDP began throwing at Rosselló minutes after his victory speech.

But the PDP also got the opportunity to crank up its political machinery, especially in the all-important Capital, with the outcome in San Juan maybe spelling the difference between victory and defeat next year in the gubernatorial and resident commissioner races, not to mention the race for San Juan mayor.

Some 230,000 PDP voters hit the polls Sunday, meeting the standard 25 percent of party membership participating in a typical primary. There were no major snafus like there were on the NPP side, where long lines turned potential voters away, as did the scarcity of ballots and the closing of some polling stations with people still waiting to vote.

Bhatia scored a solid victory, and did it primarily campaigning against Santini. The mayor belittled the participation numbers of Bhatia’s victory, but he can’t be pleased that voters rejected many district lawmaker candidates he endorsed.

All in all, the NPP got the biggest bang out of the primary, mostly because it put on the biggest show. The vote also left behind the greatest divisions within the NPP, with Rosselló having to reach out to the 25 percent of the party that backed Pesquera.

But ironically the PDP remains equally divided despite its lack of primaries for its top two offices. That is evident in the strained relations between Gov. Calderón and Acevedo Vilá after the defeat of the Ferdinand Mercado Supreme Court chief justice nomination and in the brewing war between La Fortaleza and the PDP majorities in the House and Senate.

It took Acevedo Vilá about two minutes to go on the attack against Rosselló, the NPP victor, giving a speech about the former governor running the "most corrupt" administration in island history. He followed that up by unveiling his education platform, which called for improved English education in all schools, and told the tale of the $4.3 million Víctor Fajardo corruption scheme in the process.

If the NPP thinks Acevedo Vilá is another Hector Luis Acevedo, whom Rosselló steamrolled over in the 1996 election, they are mistaken. The PDP candidate is smart, disciplined and a tireless campaigner. Prats is a good running mate for the gubernatorial candidate, has widespread appeal and the duo will put on a spirited campaign.

But if the PDP is to run a winning campaign, they will have to go beyond the corruption issue, and get much more specific in their political proposals.

Pedro Rosselló has already pledged to build a new system of modern schools, institute universal healthcare and continue a robust infrastructure campaign. When the Navy said they would shutdown Roosevelt Roads, he did not blink in announcing his mega-port proposal.

He is far in front of his rival in that respect. Acevedo Vila has talked a lot about his representing a new generation of leaders, but has expressed precious little about what that represents in specific platform proposals.

He will have to soon, as the 2004 gubernatorial campaign officially began Sunday night with the Rosselló-Fortuño victory.

Acevedo Vila-Prats may actually be the best possible pairing the PDP could put up. But they lack the benefit of a primary process that proves it. The Rosselló-Fortuño victory may have fulfilled pundits expectations, but after last Sunday they no longer have to rely on them.

When will politicians learn? Primaries invigorate parties. They are where leaders are born.

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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