The resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor after mass protests has sparked a succession battle and the winner could be a Washington corporate lawyer not directly linked to his administration, which has been dogged by corruption scandals.
A woman holds a sign during a rally to celebrate the resignation of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello [Marco Bello/Reuters]
Governor Ricardo Rossello said on Wednesday he would step down on August 2 in the face of public anger over the release of profane chat messages and embezzlement charges against two former administration officials.
In line with the US territory’s constitution, Secretary of Justice Wanda Vazquez is next in line to succeed Rossello, based on current Cabinet vacancies.
Protesters who forced Rossello from office have vowed to oppose Vazquez, saying she is too close to the disgraced governor.
On Thursday, protesters both celebrated Rossello’s announced resignation, but also carried signs that said “Wanda, we don’t want you either!” while some shouted, “Wanda, you’re next!”
“I’m really, really, really, really happy, but I know we need to stay right here, screaming,” Julie Rivera, 21, told Reuters news agency after Rossello said he would step down.
The protesters’ feelings towards Vasquez has prompted the leaders of Rossello’s pro-statehood party to look to a former Puerto Rico representative in the US Congress as a possible successor, according to four sources familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named so they could discuss it.
Pedro Pierluisi, who represented the island in Washington from 2009 to 2017, has made it clear to party leaders he would accept the job, according to one of these people.
Pierluisi, currently a lawyer with Washington law firm O’Neill & Borges, ran against Rossello in the gubernatorial election in 2016, losing in a primary.
A member of Rossello’s New Progressive Party (PNP), Pierluisi could become the commonwealth’s next governor if he is nominated and confirmed as secretary of state before Rossello resigns. That post, currently vacant, is first in line to succeed the governor.
Also vying for the position is Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz of the PNP, the sources said.
Eyes on 2020
Foremost in the minds of party leaders is whether Rossello’s successor can help them retain the governorship when it comes up for grabs in November 2020.
Pierluisi, a former Puerto Rico secretary of justice, is favoured by some Puerto Rico advocates in Washington, DC, for his familiarity with federal politics, according to one of the sources. Another of the sources said Pierluisi has stressed to party leaders that he would not seek re-election in 2020, to keep the door open for Schatz, Puerto Rico’s current delegate to the US Congress Jenniffer Gonzalez, or another candidate.
Schatz is seen by some in the party as too closely linked to Rossello to be a viable successor or 2020 candidate, the people said.
Puerto Ricans want a leader to steer them out of crisis and economic recession after Rossello’s term was marked by back-to-back 2017 hurricanes that killed around 3,000 people just months after the US territory filed for bankruptcy.
Pierluisi had a track record of gaining increased federal funding for Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million people while serving in Congress.
He also faced accusations in a 2016 New York Times report of possible conflicts of interest between legislation he introduced and financial consulting work by his wife, allegations they both denied.
Pierluisi has been named by local media as a possible successor to Rossello since his former secretary of state stepped down in the wake of the online chat scandal.
In the chats, published on July 13, Rossello and 11 top aides insulted women and mocked constituents, LGBT people and journalists, as well as victims of Hurricane Maria.