Puerto Rico legislators to vote for secretary of state. They could also name the next governor

Posted at 10:07 PM, Jul 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-01 00:07:36-04

Puerto Rico legislators are expected to vote Thursday to confirm Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s appointment for secretary of state — a move that could potentially decide who will be the US territory’s next governor.

But there’s no certainty a vote will settle the matter.

A week after Rosselló announced his resignation, he appointed Pedro Pierluisi as the next secretary of state. Michelle de la Cruz, a spokeswoman with the governor’s office, told CNN that Pierluisi was formally sworn-in Wednesday in a private ceremony.

Puerto Rico’s Constitution says Cabinet appointees are allowed to take oath when Congress is not in session but they will only remain in their roles long-term if legislators accept the nomination, said Edgardo Roman Espada, president of the Puerto Rico Bar Association.

Puerto Rico’s House and Senate are meeting for a special session Thursday at 11 a.m. to discuss Pierluisi’s confirmation. There’s a belief that Pierluisi may not have the votes but many legislators have not publicly announced their positions.

Legislators could approve Pierluisi within hours — paving the way for him to become the next governor — or they could make a decision after Rosselló’s expected resignation takes effect at 5 p.m. on Friday.

If a new secretary of state is not confirmed before the governor leaves office, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez Garced would be next in line. Earlier this week, she said that she does not want the job.

Who is Pedro Pierluisi?

Pierluisi, 60, is a corporate lawyer for the O’Neill & Borges law firm in San Juan. His firm represents the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico — which Congress created in 2016 to help manage territory’s financial crisis. His brother-in-law is the head of the board, known as la Junta on the island.

One of the more popular chants among protesters prior to Rosselló’s resignation was “Ricky renuncia y llévate a la Junta” (Ricky resign and take the Junta with you.)

He took a leave of absence effective Tuesday, according to the firm’s website.

Pierluisi is also the former Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, the island’s sole representative in Congress, from 2009-2017. He also previously served as Puerto Rico’s secretary of justice under former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, the current governor’s father.

Rosselló defeated Pierluisi in 2016 when they sought the New Progressive Party nomination for governor. After his loss, Pierluisi moved to the private sector.

In his statement announcing the nomination, Rosselló said Pierluisi’s previous positions make him an ideal candidate to confront the current political challenges.

“This historic time requires a person able to re-establish relations with all sectors at the local and national level,” said the outgoing governor.

Pierluisi said in a statement Wednesday that he believes is crucial to recover the trust of federal authorities, US Congress and continue rebuilding Puerto Rico.

“I have listened to the people’s messages, their demonstrations, their demands and their concerns,” Pierluisi said in a statement. “And in this new challenge in my life, I will only answer to the people. My goal is now to transform the energy shown by our people in constructive actions that help Puerto Rico go forward.”

Rosselló has said Pierluisi will finish out his term but will not seek the governorship next year.

Vote could be showdown between Congress and Rosselló

The name of the next governor remains uncertain as power struggles intensified within Rosselló’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party this week.

Jose Melendez, a legislator from the governor’s party, said the party was pushing for Thomas Rivera Schatz, the powerful president of the Senate and expected new head of the party, to be named secretary of state. But Rivera Shatz and Rosselló are longtime political rivals.

While some people favor Pierluisi for his ties to Capitol Hill, many seem him as a problematic figure.

“For a long time Pierluisi had a good name in Puerto Rico. He was seen as a good guy, a consensus builder. But when he was the resident commissioner for Puerto Rico he asked for the oversight board. And now he’s an attorney for the oversight board,” said political expert Mario Negron Portillo.

But in the wake of a political crisis in Puerto Rico, Rosselló could have not had many candidates to choose from.

“The New Progressive party doesn’t have a good option to support because all the people they had who could take that role in the government have been tainted by scandal,” said Jorell A. Melendez-Badillo, an assistant professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at Dartmouth College.

Text scandal led to governor’s ouster

Following days of massive anti-government protests, Rosselló announced last week that he will resign.

Protests were sparked by the release of private chat messages that exposed Rosselló and 11 top aides and Cabinet members exchanging profanity-laced, homophobic and misogynistic messages about fellow politicians, members of the media, celebrities and others.

The texting scandal followed years of alleged corruption, a debt crisis and widespread devastation by Hurricane Maria. The leaks and the unrest that followed rocked the island’s administration and led to resignations of several high-profile political figures.

According to Puerto Rico’s order of succession, the secretary of state is next in line after the governor. The man who held that position, Luis G. Rivera Marín, resigned July 13 because he was a participant in a group chat at the heart of the scandal.