Primary Lessons Part II: A Clear Victory For The NPP "Left"

by John Marino

November 21, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. One of the biggest surprises of the primary may have been New Progressive Party Sen. Norma Burgos' first-place finish in the pro-statehood party's at-large senator race. The word on Burgos was that she had great popular support almost everywhere in Puerto Rico -- except within her own political party.

The Nov. 9 primary shattered that perception, placing Burgos in a strong position to seek higher office after the 2004 election regardless of how her party performs overall. But more importantly than what it says about her political future, the big Burgos victory is most surprising in what it says about the NPP. The "left" wing of the party definitively beat its "right" wing in its heated internal electoral battle.

Burgos won huge popular support during her tough stance on Vieques, which included a bombing range arrest and subsequent federal jail sentence. But her criticism of the NPP stance on the issue almost got her kicked out of her own party.

The NPP voters on that rainy primary Sunday showed how out of touch so many of their party leaders were when they sought to marginalize her at the height of her popularity. (Tellingly, she was one of the few NPP politicians who refused to take a stand in the gubernatorial primary by publicly supporting either former Gov. Pedro Rosselló or NPP President Carlos Pesquera.)

The big Burgos win was backed up by former Economic Development chief Luis Fortuño's victory in the NPP resident commissioner race, in which he pulled down more votes than his three opponents combined. Both races showed a clear victory for the party's "liberal" wing. The fact that the victors are hard-core Republicans may only be explained by the strange reality that is Puerto Rican politics.

Former Gov. Carlos Romero Barceló may be the consummate Democratic, but he is also the embodiment of the conservative NPP, while that other consummate Democrat Rosselló is the embodiment of its "liberal" wing.

What is "left" and what is "right" in San Juan, Puerto Rico today? It's not always cut and dried, and is as defined as much by varying impressions as by any clear-cut criteria.

In the case of Rosselló, the liberal moniker comes to mind because he has promised universal health care, huge public infrastructure projects and a willingness to take on the federal government over civil rights and political status issues, both through Congressional and White House lobbying and direct legal action.

This view of the former two-term governor was brought into relief during his primary battle against Carlos Pesquera, who initially jumped to the right of Rosselló on many issues. While Rosselló responded to the news the Navy would shut down Naval Station Roosevelt Roads with a redevelopment plan, Pesquera said he would lobby to keep the military presence there. When Pesquera took the family-values line in regards to the island's sodomy laws, Rosselló put a premium on personal liberties over the state's right to monitor citizens' private lives.

In many ways, Romero is even more of a liberal Democrat. He is supportive of large social programs and once wrote a book "Statehood is for the Poor." But he is still the fiery figure that embodies a "statehood at all costs" mentality, and unwillingness to negotiate with the political opposition. His lobbying in Congress for the imposition of federal taxes on the island, as a backdoor route to statehood, comes to mind. So do his ugly campaign battles with Aníbal Acevedo Vilá in 2000 and Celeste Benítez in 1996.

It's his political approach, rather than his political philosophy, that really sets him apart from both Fortuño and Burgos. Both are moderate Republicans after all, but unlike Romero, are moderate in their stances on status and have shown tolerance for others with differing views.

In the end, much of the difference between "left" and "right" within the NPP may come down to campaign styles. That's especially the case with Fortuño, who steadfastly refused to throw mud during the primary, and came down with a resounding victory. That contrasts to his strongest challenger, the veteran political war horse Romero, who campaigned against his political retirement until the final hour, throwing mud all along.

In their legislative races, both parties have expressed a desire for new faces, witnessed by the PDP victories of the likes Sila Marí González and Juan Eugenio Hernández Mayoral, as well as the NPP victories of Jorge De Castro Font and Jennifer González. And if the primary process energized the candidacy of Rosselló, it also energized that of Eduardo Bhatia, the PDP candidate for San Juan mayor.

But the clear victory for the NPP "left" during the primary will likely have the most lasting impact. It might have left behind some prominent figures licking their wounds, but it has placed the party in a much stronger position heading into next year's general election.

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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