Puerto Rico Governor Vazquez Loses Primary Race to Pierluisi

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Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez lost her chance at reelection Sunday after Pedro Pierluisi, the island’s former non-voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives, edged her out in a historic gubernatorial primary race.

With 75.6% of voting stations reporting, Pierluisi had won about 57.9% of the votes versus Vazquez’s 42.1%, clinching the nomination for the ruling New Progressive Party, or PNP. Pierluisi claimed victory after Vazquez recognized his lead and said she respected the will of voters.

But Vazquez also used her election-night speech to blast the tone of his campaign, showing it may take time to mend rifts within the ruling party.

The opposition Popular Democratic Party, or PPD, also held its primary Sunday. With results in for 65% of polling centers, Isabela Mayor Carlos Delgado Altieri claimed victory. He had 63.3% of the vote, ahead of local Senator Eduardo Bhatia with 23.4% and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz with 13.4%. Bhatia and Cruz admitted defeat.

Sunday’s race sets the stage for the Nov. 3 elections, where the U.S. commonwealth will pick a new governor to lead it out of a record-setting bankruptcy, a grinding economic recession and political turmoil.

Polls from March -- before the Covid-19 pandemic paralyzed many surveys -- showed Pierluisi with a commanding lead over Delgado, a dark-horse candidate at the time. But Delgado is riding a compelling story heading into the general election, having emerged from relative obscurity to elbow aside rivals who are also some of the island’s most prominent politicians.

Pierluisi, 61, was de facto governor for less than a week last summer when Governor Ricardo Rossello put him in the No. 2 spot just days before stepping down amid widespread protests. A chaotic succession struggle ensued and the island’s Supreme Court ultimately gave the job to Vazquez.

While she won early praise for her forceful measures to stop the coronavirus, Vazquez was undermined by corruption allegations of her own. The breakdown of the first primary attempt on Aug. 9 -- when the electoral body failed to print enough ballots on time -- also hurt her.

Pierluisi presents himself as a business-friendly candidate whose deep Washington ties will help unlock federal reconstruction funds and move the territory closer to becoming the 51st state, a longtime PNP aspiration. Puerto Rico is holding a non-binding vote on the statehood issue on election day, a gesture that the opposition says is merely symbolic without Washington’s buy-in and a ploy to attract PNP voters to the polls.

In his victory speech, Pierluisi appealed to those who backed Vazquez and said he needed their help to turn the economically-ailing island around and retain local talent.

“We have great challenges ahead of us,” Pierluisi said. “We need to achieve economic growth and create jobs and opportunities that will reverse the population loss that we have been suffering recently.”

A major surprise on Sunday was the victory by Delgado Altieri, 60. Although he’s been the mayor of Isabela municipality for 20 years, he wasn’t widely known before this race.

In a fiery victory speech, Delgado Altieri promised to jump-start the economy, bolster education and fight crime.

“Together, we will defeat those we have to defeat: the leadership of the PNP that has done so much damage to this country,” he said.

Some worry there may be lingering fallout from the first botched primary attempt earlier this month. The Puerto Rico electoral commission blamed the printing press for leaving more than half of the island without ballots. On the streets of Puerto Rico, the debate raged over whether the fiasco was a symptom of gross incompetence or outright corruption. And some legislators have called for a federal investigation into the debacle.

“You will never be able to convince the losing candidates –- or voters who saw their candidate lose –- that this was a fair process,” said Pedro Reina Perez, a political analyst and professor at the University of Puerto Rico. “This is a perfect storm if your objective is to dynamite the entire democratic process.”

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