Puerto Rico Governor Names Pedro Pierluisi as His Possible Successor

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31 Juli 2019 12:10

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The ousted governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo A. Rosselló, chose his successor on Wednesday, nominating Pedro R. Pierluisi, who formerly represented the island in Congress, to serve as secretary of state. The move positions Mr. Pierluisi to take over as governor when Mr. Rosselló’s resignation becomes effective later 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,” Mr. Rosselló said on Twitter. 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.

If he is confirmed by the territory’s House and Senate, Mr. Pierluisi’s nomination would settle the complicated succession question that has thrown the island into uncertainty in the days since Mr. Rosselló’s unprecedented resignation. He announced his imminent exit last Wednesday, 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Pierluisi would not have enough votes to win confirmation in the Senate.

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 ahead of Mr. Rosselló’s resignation, which becomes effective at 5 p.m. on Friday.

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

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

Behind the scenes, Mr. Rosselló, 40, a first-term governor who took office in 2017, negotiated with legislative leaders from the New Progressive Party to try to find a consensus candidate who could be left in charge of the troubled government until next year’s election.

But it was difficult for leaders to find a candidate who could be confirmed by the Legislative Assembly and be acceptable to the public. Puerto Ricans who took to the streets to call for Mr. Rosselló’s ouster said repeatedly that they were tired of crony politics.

The choice of Mr. Pierluisi, 60, suggests that Mr. Rosselló remains determined to keep Mr. Rivera Schatz, one of his rivals in the party, from succeeding him. If confirmed, Mr. Pierluisi, who narrowly lost the party’s 2016 primary for governor to Mr. Rosselló, is expected to serve as a caretaker governor for the remainder of Mr. Rosselló’s four-year term.

Carmelo J. Ríos, the Senate majority leader, said in an interview last week that Mr. Pierluisi had agreed not to run for governor in 2020 if he were to be appointed to the post. Mr. Pierluisi served eight years in Washington as Puerto Rico’s nonvoting resident commissioner in Congress during the Obama administration. Like Mr. Rosselló, he is a Democrat when it comes to national politics, though many New Progressives are Republicans.

Mr. Pierluisi, a lawyer, could have a conflict of interest in taking the job: He works for a firm that does external legal consulting for the unelected federal oversight board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances. On Tuesday, Mr. Pierluisi was placed on a leave of absence from the law firm, O’Neill & Borges, according to the firm’s website.

But his 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 Mr. 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. (Mr. Pierluisi and Ms. Carrión are in the process of divorcing, the Puerto Rican news media have reported.)

Mr. 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 on Tuesday.

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

If Mr. Pierluisi is not confirmed by Friday afternoon, Ms. Vázquez would become governor.

Mr. Rivera Schatz is known to dislike Ms. Vázquez and to harbor ambitions to run for governor himself next year. And he holds considerable sway within his party; he became its interim leader after Mr. Rosselló relinquished the role of president.

But he, too, is considered a divisive figure. The protesters who marched against Mr. Rosselló and then Ms. Vázquez also chanted to Mr. Rivera Schatz: “No te vistas, que no vas” — Don’t get dressed; it’s not going to be you.

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