FILE - In this Sept. 24, 2013 file photo, Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's representative in the U.S. Congress, speaks during a conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A Puerto Rico legislator said Tuesday, July 30, 2019, that the U.S. territory’s embattled governor plans to nominate Pierluisi as secretary of state. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)

Choice of Puerto Rico governor's successor delayed

August 01, 2019 - 2:23 pm

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — 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, casting doubt over who will become governor when Rosselló leaves office.

Rosselló's, whose resignation goes into effect at 5 p.m. Friday, 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 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. 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.

"All of this will be legally analyzed," Pierluisi said as he pushed through a gaggle of reporters after Rivera Schatz announced that a public hearing will be held on Monday.

"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 the 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.

Some lawmakers joined Rivera Schatz in complaining about Pierluisi's work for a law firm that represents the federal control board that was 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, U.S. Congress and the people of Puerto Rico as it also struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria.

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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