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Puerto Rico governor names Pedro Pierluisi as his possible successor

Former resident commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (center) of Puerto Rico has been nominated as secretary of state, positioning him to take over from outgoing Governor Ricardo Rossello on Friday.
Former resident commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (center) of Puerto Rico has been nominated as secretary of state, positioning him to take over from outgoing Governor Ricardo Rossello on Friday.Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images File 2013/AFP/Getty Images

SAN JUAN — The ousted governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo A. Rosselló, chose his successor Wednesday, nominating Pedro R. Pierluisi, who formerly represented the island in Congress, to serve as secretary of state. The move positions Pierluisi to take over as governor when Rosselló’s resignation becomes effective this week.

“After much analysis and taking into account the best interests of our people, I have selected Mr. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia to fill the secretary of state vacancy,” Rosselló said in a statement. He said he would call a special session of the Legislative Assembly on Thursday, the day before he is scheduled to step down, to confirm the appointment.

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Rosselló said he considered several choices and ultimately picked Pierluisi for his experience as resident commissioner in Washington and as secretary of justice under Rosselló’s father, former governor Pedro J. Rosselló.

The younger Rosselló said that Pierluisi intends to serve through the end of the term but would not seek the governor’s office in 2020.

“His aspiration is to complete this term, so that the successes we have achieved do not disappear,” Rosselló said. “The electoral process that will begin in the coming months will allow other highly qualified leaders to put their ideas and character to the people’s consideration, as Pierluisi and I did in the last primary.”

If he is confirmed by the territory’s House and Senate, Pierluisi’s nomination would settle the complicated succession question that has thrown the island into uncertainty in the days since Rosselló’s unprecedented resignation. He announced his imminent exit on July 24, under fire for his participation in a leaked exchange of rude and profane text messages and pressured by a mass uprising of Puerto Ricans fed up with corruption, a stagnant economy, and a poor response to Hurricane Maria in 2017.

But Pierluisi’s confirmation seems far from certain, as a tense power struggle continues inside the ruling New Progressive Party, which supports Puerto Rican statehood. The powerful Senate president, Thomas Rivera Schatz, a contender for the secretary of state job himself, let it be known before the nomination was even official — by calling a well-known local radio host — that Pierluisi would not have enough votes to win confirmation in the Senate.

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Under Puerto Rico’s Constitution, the secretary of state automatically replaces a governor who leaves office. But the last official to hold the post, Luis Rivera Marín, stepped down over his role in the leaked private exchange of sexist and homophobic messages that precipitated the political crisis. His departure created a critical vacancy before Rosselló’s resignation, which becomes effective at 5 p.m. Friday.

It left Wanda Vázquez, secretary of justice, next in line. Rosselló posted photos on Twitter last week after he announced his resignation showing Vázquez attending “transition” meetings at La Fortaleza, the governor’s official residence in San Juan, the capital.

But Vázquez made clear that she was not a politician and preferred not to step in as governor. Hundreds of protesters, denouncing Vázquez’s close ties to the disgraced Rosselló, rallied outside the Justice Department on Monday, rejecting her as the governor’s successor and demanding that she, too, resign.

“I have listened to the people’s messages, their demonstrations, their demands and their concerns,” Pierluisi said in a statement accepting the nomination. “And in this new challenge in my life, I will only answer to the people.”

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Bernardo Burgos Vázquez, 68, referred to concerns that Pierluisi, a lawyer, could have a conflict of interest because he works for a firm that does external legal consulting for the unelected federal oversight board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances. On Tuesday, Pierluisi was placed on a leave of absence from the law firm, O’Neill & Borges, according to the firm’s website.

In any case, it should not be a serious problem, Vázquez said.

“You have to give a break to the people who are fighting for the best for the people,” he said. “They almost always judge people for things that they have not even done.”

Pierluisi’s brother-in-law, José B. Carrión III, remains the chairman of the oversight board, which was created by Congress. The New York Times found in 2016 that Pierluisi introduced legislation as resident commissioner that would benefit at least two Wall Street companies that had hired his wife, María Elena Carrión, for financial advice. (Pierluisi and Carrión are in the process of divorcing, the Puerto Rican news media have reported.)

Pierluisi’s ties to the unpopular oversight board are unlikely to sit well with some lawmakers.

“That could do some damage,” Representative Gabriel Rodríguez Aguiló, the House majority leader, said in an interview Tuesday.

Many protesters, when calling for Rosselló’s resignation, also spoke out against the oversight board, urging him, “Llévate a la junta” — Take the board with you.