Puerto Rico fields a nasty battle for governor

Ex-chief executive runs on promise of statehood

July 25, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - For political theatrics, you could not get much noisier and nastier than the governor's race in Puerto Rico. The juicy battle has Pedro Rossello, the charismatic but corruption-tainted former governor who wants his old job back, trading insults, charges and counter-charges with his successor, Sila M. Calderon. They are doing everything but hurling dishware at each other.

Yet Calderon, the incumbent, is not a candidate - she is the first Puerto Rico governor in decades to forgo a re-election bid. She announced last year that she would not seek a second term, after Rossello, who wants Puerto Rico to become the 51st state, resurfaced.

Rossello's opponent is Anibal Acevedo Vila, a member of Calderon's pro-commonwealth party. He is earnest but not magnetic, and starving for attention because of the strife between the current and former governors.

Governor's races are always impassioned in Puerto Rico, where 80-plus percent of voters turn out on Election Day. But this one comes at an especially soul-searching time. A spiraling crime rate, fueled by the drug trade, has demoralized people here, as has a sickly economy, battered by the recession and the phasing out of tax breaks for American companies with operations here.

This year, the number of Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland is expected to surpass the 3.9 million here, a juncture that surprises no one on the island but is a symbol nonetheless. The candidates call it a reminder that life holds little promise here and that Puerto Rico must offer more in the way of career advancement and home ownership to stem the exodus of young families to the mainland.

Calderon's surprise announcement in May 2003 that she would not seek re-election slowed whatever progress was under way, though she was already having a hard time getting things done because of tangles with the Legislature and a lack of interest from Washington.

Against this backdrop, Rossello, who left office in 2001 under a cloud even though he avoided corruption charges that hampered members of his administration, looks refreshing to many. His campaign mantra is "Statehood, Security, Progress," and he has proposed several ways to achieve statehood.

Acevedo Vila, whose brochures emphasize "Youth, Experience, Capacity" (he is 42; Rossello, 60), said that by focusing on statehood, Rossello would ignore more pressing issues, like the economy and public education.

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