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Puerto Rico governor's chosen successor may not be in place when Ricardo Rosselló resigns Friday

Puerto Rico governor names likely successor

Puerto Rican politics were in full-blown crisis Thursday as confirmation of the nominee to succeed departing Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was delayed into next week. The delay casts doubt over who will become governor with Rosselló set to leave office at 5 p.m. on Friday. 

The governor had named veteran politician and attorney Pedro Pierluisi as his successor by nominating him to the position of secretary of state, the next in line as governor under the U.S. territory's constitution.

Pierluisi is a former representative to the U.S. Congress. He is seen by most ordinary Puerto Ricans as a conciliatory, relatively uncontroversial figure, unlikely to be met by continued street demonstrations over poor governance and corruption. 

Pierluisi's main obstacle appeared to be Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who has said he won't vote for Rosselló's nominee and wants to run for governor himself next year.

Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, center, of Puerto Rico speaks alongside Puerto Rican activists, urging Congress to allow an end to the island's territorial status during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 15, 2013.
Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, center, of Puerto Rico speaks alongside Puerto Rican activists, urging Congress to allow an end to the island's territorial status during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 15, 2013. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Rivera Schatz is a powerful figure deeply associated with Puerto Rico's political and business elite, and his elevation to governorship could re-ignite popular outrage. Shortly after the start of a Senate session Thursday, Rivera Schatz delivered a scathing attack on his critics and said that the Senate would hold a hearing on Pierluisi on Monday.

Because Pierluisi has not yet been confirmed, it was not immediately clear if he would be Rosselló's successor Friday or if the position would pass to the next in line, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, who has already said she doesn't want the job. Following Thursday's developments, Vázquez said on Twitter she wasn't planning to resign and would succeed Rosselló if necessary.

Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez Garced attends the inauguration of the new facilities of the Metropolitan Center of Property Registry in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Feb. 4, 2019.
Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez Garced attends the inauguration of the new facilities of the Metropolitan Center of Property Registry in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Feb. 4, 2019. AP

"All of this will be legally analyzed," Pierluisi said as he pushed through a gaggle of reporters after Rivera Schatz announced Monday's hearing. "I'll be there," Pierluisi said. "I'll have the opportunity to express myself and answer all questions. ... I offered to take a step forward for Puerto Rico at this moment given my love for my country. ... My only loyalty as governor if I have the support of legislators is to the people of Puerto Rico."

Rivera Schatz said Pierluisi should have the right to be heard and that if he is not approved, the constitution will be followed to find a new governor. "Let's give him the chance to defend himself," Rivera Schatz said, adding, "I don't think I'm going to be convinced."

He criticized Pierluisi for being an attorney with a law firm that represents the federal control board overseeing the island's finances, calling it "Puerto Rico's No. 1 enemy." Meanwhile, opposition legislator Aníbal José Torres complained that legislators with Rosselló's party were meeting behind doors before the session began.

"It's irresponsible how they've handled this," he said. "The island is living with uncertainty."

Rosselló's New Progressive Party holds majorities in both chambers of the legislature, meaning a united party could have easily named the next governor. Many Puerto Rican legislators were predicting that Pierluisi did not have the votes to be confirmed.

But Rep. Gabriel Rodríguez Aguiló of the NPP said that an overwhelming number of constituents had called to ask for his confirmation. "We ran out of paper," he said in reference to secretaries taking notes on the calls.

Several lawmakers have proposed Rivera Schatz, a declared candidate for the 2020 governor's election, as their choice to replace Rosselló. After jubilation at the success of their uprising against Rosselló, Puerto Rican protesters have been frustrated at the political infighting and paralysis that's followed.

Scandals throw line of succession for Puerto Rico governor into chaos

Some lawmakers joined Rivera Schatz in complaining about Pierluisi's work for the firm that represents the board created to oversee Puerto Rico's finances before the territory, saddled with more than $70 billion in public debt, declared a sort of bankruptcy. Pierluisi's brother-in-law also heads the board, which has clashed repeatedly with Rosselló and other elected officials over demands for austerity measures.

"That's a serious conflict of interest," Rep. José Enrique Meléndez told The Associated Press.

"The situation could not be more complicated," said Sen. José Antonio Vargas Vidot, who ran for Senate as an independent. "This is absurd, what we're going through. We never thought something like this could happen. In an extraordinary crisis, we have to take extraordinary measures."

Sen. Eduardo Bhatia of the opposition Popular Democratic Party accused Rivera Schatz of trying to maneuver himself into the top job. "This attitude of (Rivera Schatz) taking the island hostage is very dangerous," Bhatia tweeted. "'It's him or no one' is in keeping with what has been a life silencing and destroying democracy."

Puerto Rico's 3.2 million people are U.S. citizens who can't vote for president and don't have a voting representative in Congress. While politicians are members of the Democratic or Republican parties, the island's main political dividing line is between the NPP, which favors statehood, and the PDP, which favors a looser association with the federal government.

Those parties' memberships both contain a mix of Democrats and Republicans. Rosselló is leaving after two weeks of massive street protests by Puerto Ricans outraged at corruption, mismanagement and an obscenity-laced chat that was leaked in which Rosselló and 11 other men made fun of women, gay people and victims of Hurricane Maria.

More than a dozen officials have resigned in the wake of the chat, including former Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marín. Pierluisi, who took a leave of absence from the law firm, said in a statement Wednesday that much work remains to be done to recover the trust of federal authorities, Congress and the people of Puerto Rico as it also struggles to recover from the hurricane.

Pierluisi represented Puerto Rico in Congress from 2009-2017 and then ran against Rosselló in the 2016 primaries and lost. He also previously served as justice secretary under Rosselló's father, Pedro Rosselló, when he was governor.

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