San Juan Mayor Race Becomes Test of Puerto Rico’s New Politics

(Bloomberg) -- The San Juan mayoral race is becoming a test of whether the energy that ousted Puerto Rico’s governor this year after massive street protests translates into votes at the ballot box.

The colorful Caribbean city, which has seen a sharp population decline since 2017’s Hurricane Maria, will choose from a field that includes a young insurgent along with aspirants from the island’s two traditional political parties.

Manuel Natal Albelo, a 33 year-old representative in the commonwealth’s chamber of deputies, announced his candidacy this weekend under the umbrella of the Citizens’ Victory Movement, formed before the summer protests.

San Juan Mayor Race Becomes Test of Puerto Rico’s New Politics

The ruling New Progressive Party, known as the PNP, and the opposition Popular Democratic Party, or PPD, will hold primaries to winnow the field. Among those running on the PNP side are Senator Miguel Romero and academic Manuel “Palomo” Colon Perez. Senator Rossana Lopez Leon and Armando Valdes, former director of Puerto Rico’s Office of Management and Budget, seek the PPD nomination.

The winner will succeed Carmen Yulin Cruz, a PPD member nationally known for clashing with President Donald Trump, whom she accused of discriminating against the predominantly Latino island as it recovered from the storm. Cruz is running for the PPD nomination for governor, and the mayorship has often been a springboard to higher office in the bankrupt U.S. commonwealth, which faces almost $18 billion of general-obligation bonds and government-guaranteed debt and a $50 billion pension liability.

San Juan Mayor Race Becomes Test of Puerto Rico’s New Politics

The two traditionally dominant parties have traded the mayor’s office between them since 1945. But the island’s politics was rocked by weeks of protests that saw the ouster of the governor, the PNP’s Ricardo Rossello, after the disclosure of conversations in which he and top aides insulted ordinary citizens in profane terms.

San Juan Mayor Race Becomes Test of Puerto Rico’s New Politics

In the 2016 election, Natal got more votes than any other PPD candidate running for the lower chamber. But he left the PPD last year and this year joined the newly formed Citizens’ Victory Movement, known as the MVC, which says it seeks to free the island from its entrenched powers.

He launched his campaign while speaking on a deteriorated pedestrian thoroughfare in the neighborhood of Rio Piedras that has become a symbol of urban blight, telling the crowd that “every four years they show up claiming to be different, but when they assume power, they turn out to be the same.”

Among the MVC’s more radical measures is a proposal to abolish Puerto Rico’s congressionally mandated fiscal oversight board, established in 2016, and strip it of public funds. The panel was created as a condition of allowing the island access to a form of bankruptcy.

The traditional parties are girded for battle, however.

“It’s not so much about the parties as it is about the individual candidates and what each one brings to the table,” said Armando Valdes, pointing out that, in 2016, while the PNP won the governor’s mansion and the legislature, the PPD won a majority of the island’s mayorships. “Voters are choosing mayors who deliver at the local level, and they’re willing to cross party lines to do so.”

The role of San Juan mayor has sometimes been viewed as a precursor to bigger things. Two former mayors -- Carlos Romero Barcelo and Sila Maria Calderon -- went on to become governor.

But the island’s politics have been unsettled by the financial crisis, the storm and Rossello’s resignation. The traditional parties show signs of fragility.

After Rossello, the job of governor fell to former Secretary of Justice Wanda Vazquez, who promised a clean break after a drumbeat of corruption arrests and the leaked chats among Rossello’s circle. However, reported FBI investigations of government departments, resignations and accusations of cronyism, nepotism and so-called “ghost employees” who get paid for no-show jobs have continued to dog the PNP.

For its part, the PPD, once the dominant party and the architect of commonwealth status, has diminished greatly in recent years, and holds only seven seats in the island’s 30 member senate and 15 in its 51-seat house.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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