Puerto Rico's governing party was in full-blown crisis Thursday as the nominee to succeed departing Gov. Ricardo Rossello headed to a disputed and uncertain confirmation vote in the U.S. territory's legislature.
Rossello is leaving Friday in the face of massive public protest and has nominated veteran politician and attorney Pedro Pierluisi to succeed him. 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 would succeed Rossello if he's confirmed by the territorial House and Senate as secretary of state, the next in line to become governor under the Puerto Rican constitution. The post is currently vacant and Rossello's New Progressive Party holds majorities in both chambers of the legislature, meaning a united party could easily name the next governor.
Pierluisi's main obstacle appeared to be Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who has said he won't vote for Rossello's nominee and wants to be governor himself. 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.
House and Senate sessions on Pierluisi hadn't started as planned at 11 a.m. Thursday even as ruling party lawmakers met in closed door sessions to seek a solution.
Many Puerto Rican legislators were predicting that Pierluisi did not have the votes to be confirmed.
Sen. Luis Vega Ramos, of the opposition Popular Democratic Party, said he was upset that lawmakers from Rossello's party were meeting behind closed doors.
He called it “a political party squabble over who is going to lead the New Progressive Party and become the gubernatorial candidate for 2020.”
It wasn't even clear if a vote would be taken on Thursday.
Rep. Gabriel Rodriguez Aguilo 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 already proposed Rivera Schatz, a declared candidate for the 2020 governor's election, as their choice to replace Rossello.
After jubilation at the success of their uprising against Rossello, Puerto Rican protesters have been frustrated at the political infighting and paralysis that's followed.
If a secretary of state is not named by Friday, Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez would be next in line. She has said she doesn't want the job and those further down the line of succession are either too young for the job or are barely known bureaucrats seen as unqualified for the position.
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 Rossello and other elected officials over demands for austerity measures.
”That's a serious conflict of interest,” Rep. Jose Enrique Melendez told The Associated Press.
House of Representatives President Johnny Mendez, a member of the governing party, has said Pierluisi does not have the votes needed in the house.
”The situation could not be more complicated,” said Sen. Jose 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 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.
Rossello 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 Rossello 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 Marin. Rivera Schatz, whose spokeswoman said he was not granting interviews, said in a Facebook post on Wednesday 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 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.
”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 2009-2017 and then ran against Rossello in the 2016 primaries and lost. He also previously served as justice secretary under Rossello's father, Pedro Rossello, when he was governor.