In Puerto Rico, uncertainty about who will be the new governor
SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico’s political crisis, which prompted the first resignation of an elected governor in the island’s history, entered a new phase Thursday as leaders of the ruling New Progressive Party maneuvered to determine who would hold the governorship after Ricardo A. Rosselló steps down.
Eight days before Rosselló was scheduled to leave the post he has held since 2017, and as public attention shifted from the streets to the corridors of power, no one on the island of 3.2 million people seemed certain who the next governor would be.
A series of names has emerged, nearly all of them saddled with political baggage that carries the potential of new popular unrest. Many signs pointed to the likelihood that any new appointee would be selected by Rosselló — the man many Puerto Ricans fervently wanted out.
The behind-the-scenes scramble portends more complicated days ahead after more than a week of tumultuous street protests and a series of resignations left the government in chaos. Again on Thursday, demonstrators spilled onto a highway in San Juan, the capital, and pledged to keep protesting unless the island’s political leaders bring about a genuine change in governance.
“This is an achievement for the people of Puerto Rico, to be here fighting on,” said Coral Alfaro, 25, a small-business administrator. “We keep fighting because of an entire corrupt government. It’s been decades of corruption. Little by little, we are succeeding in our goal to clean house in the government.”
Rosselló said he would hand over power to whomever is in place once his resignation takes effect Aug. 2. Because the position of secretary of state — the designated successor to any departing governor under the constitution — is vacant, the next in line is Wanda Vázquez, the secretary of justice. Rosselló suggested in his resignation speech that Vázquez would probably step in, at least for a time.
But Vázquez hedged about her political future, saying she would accept her constitutional duties “if necessary,” and San Juan was awash in speculation Thursday about who a longer-term successor might be.
Anyone nominated by Rosselló could lack credibility because the person might be seen as a lackey of the ousted administration, said Charles R. Venator Santiago, an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut who studies Puerto Rican politics. He also warned that Rosselló’s successor would face similar governing challenges.
“They removed the governor, but they haven’t really dealt with the underlying problem,” Venator said. “You put another person in, and how does that change the structural conditions of society?”
Some news outlets reported on Wednesday that Rosselló’s resignation was delayed until nearly midnight, in part because of squabbles within the New Progressive Party, which supports Puerto Rican statehood and controls the Legislature, over who would succeed him.
From a constitutional standpoint, the governor can nominate a secretary of state until his last day in office, and even call a special legislative session to get that person confirmed, said Efrén Rivera Ramos, a law professor at the University of Puerto Rico.
“The question is whether that would be politically viable,” Rivera Ramos said.
Without agreement between Rosselló and legislative leaders about a nominee they all support, the Legislature could refuse to confirm the lame-duck governor’s pick. Rivera Ramos also posited another scenario: Vázquez could assume the governorship, name a secretary of state to succeed her, and then choose to step down.
“Things are still too fluid,” he said. “There is broad distrust, and everything is subject to suspicion.”
Vázquez was facing new questions Thursday, when a journalist published what are believed to be messages that she exchanged with the governor’s former chief of staff. The messages show her discussing with him her decision not to investigate trailers of undistributed donations that were found abandoned months after Hurricane Maria struck the island in 2017.
At a march on Thursday in San Juan’s financial district, which had been organized before Rosselló’s resignation, a few thousand people celebrated his imminent departure with music and dancing — and protested the possibility that Vázquez would succeed him. “Wanda, you’re next!” some protesters chanted.
“Wanda Vázquez is also corrupt,” said Valerie García, 42, of the town of Carolina. “She has to go.”
Some party insiders suggested an alternative: Thomas Rivera Schatz, the Senate president who has had his own scandals this year. In May, federal authorities arrested the executive director of the Senate Office of Government Affairs and two other people on fraud charges. Prosecutors accused them of participating in a scheme involving government contracts that charged for work performed by ghost employees who did not exist but were on the Senate payroll. Rivara Schatz was not charged.
Protesters have plastered walls near the governor’s residence in Old San Juan with graffiti objecting to the potential governorship of either Rivera Schatz or Vázquez. Neither speaks English that well, a possible problem at a time when so much federal money for Puerto Rico, still arriving in response to the 2017 hurricane, is at stake.
Kenneth McClintock, a former secretary of state and Senate president, said several friends had called him to ask if he was interested in the post, but the calls did not come from anyone who was “calling on behalf of anyone.”
The hope now, he said, is that those who are advising Rosselló will persuade him to appoint a consensus candidate whom Rivera Schatz and the House speaker, Carlos J. Méndez Núñez, would be willing to confirm.
The most obvious such candidate could be Ramón Luis Rivera Jr., the well-liked mayor of Bayamón, but he has said he does not want the job. Lawrence N. Seilhamer Rodríguez, vice president of the Senate, a former basketball player and engineer, has also been mentioned.
The secretary of housing, Fernando Gil, is bilingual and respected but would have to be vetted to make sure there have not been any problems with the billions of dollars in federal funds allocated for hurricane housing recovery. The name of Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s former resident commissioner in Congress, has also come up.
Representative Jenniffer González-Colón, the current resident commissioner, enjoys broad support but is unlikely to leave her perch in Washington for what is likely to be a thankless job as a caretaker governor.
“Jenniffer is the most popular public figure of any party in Puerto Rico,” McClintock said. “But she really enjoys what she is doing and would rather concentrate on taking a run in 2020.”
González-Colón said Wednesday that no one had asked her about a possible nomination. She declined to disclose her 2020 plans, characterizing the political crisis as too acute for conversations about electoral ambitions.
Carmelo J. Ríos, the Senate majority leader, said last week that it was a priority for lawmakers to find a consensus secretary of state candidate acceptable to the governor, House, and Senate. The nominee should not be a 2020 candidate, Ríos said: “We want someone who will focus on being governor.”
Méndez, the House speaker, filed a resolution Thursday to create the position of lieutenant governor, a running mate whose name would appear on the ballot in future elections and who would be directly accountable to voters. Some senators are considering a similar action, Ríos said last week.
With legislative leaders promising to take up measures to combat graft once their session resumes next month, Ríos struck a note of caution in allowing the executive branch to appear to be stained by real or perceived corruption with any new nomination.
He cited the case of former Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vila, who ran for a second term in 2008 after being accused of corruption. Acevedo, a member of the Popular Democratic Party, which supports maintaining Puerto Rico’s status as a US commonwealth, ultimately beat the charges but lost his campaign for reelection.
The rival New Progressive Party cannot afford to run a similarly tainted candidate for governor in 2020, Ríos said. “We preached that we were different.”