SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Puerto Rico’s governing party was in full-blown crisis on Aug. 1 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, whose resignation goes into effect at 5 p.m. on August 2, 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. 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 on Aug. 1, Schatz delivered a scathing attack on his critics and said the Senate would hold a hearing on Pierluisi on Aug. 4.
Because Pierluisi has not yet been confirmed, it wasn’t immediately clear if he would be Rosselló’s successor on Aug. 2 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.
Rosselló’s New Progressive Party (NPP) holds majorities in both chambers of the legislature, meaning a united party could have easily named the next governor.
Many Puerto Rican legislators predicted that Pierluisi didn’t have the votes to be confirmed.
Rep. Gabriel Rodríguez Aguiló of the NPP said he supports holding public hearings before voting on Pierluisi, adding 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 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 has followed.
Some lawmakers complained 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.
House of Representatives President Johnny Méndez, a member of the governing party, has said Pierluisi doesn’t have the votes needed in the house.
“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 (PDP), accused Schatz of trying to maneuver himself into the top job.
“This attitude of [Schatz] taking the island hostage is very dangerous,” Bhatia wrote on Twitter. “‘It’s him or no one’ is in keeping with what has been a life silencing and destroying democracy.”
Puerto Rico’s 3 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. Schatz, whose spokeswoman said he wasn’t granting interviews, said in a Facebook post on July 31 that all problems have solutions and that Puerto Rico should be focused on finding them.
“We should promote unity, not discord,” he wrote.
Pierluisi, who took a leave of absence from the law firm, said in a July 31 statement 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.
“My goal is now to transform the energy shown by our people in constructive actions that help Puerto Rico go forward,” he said. “Puerto Rico is facing times never before seen and we all have to be part of the path to progress.”
Pierluisi represented Puerto Rico in Congress from 2009 to 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.