Wanda Vázquez’ candidacy a wildcard in Puerto Rico gubernatorial race
Weeks after historic protests across Puerto Rico forced the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló (NPP, D) and his dubiously appointed successor Pedro Pierluisi (NPP, D), Wanda Vázquez (NPP, R) rose to occupy the governor’s mansion on August 7th, 2019.
Amidst the confusion over the legal succession, it wasn’t immediately clear if Vázquez would hold the office to the end of the term, or if further shake-ups within the incumbent New Progressive Party were imminent. A leaked report from an NPP official suggested that Vázquez would soon be stepping down in favor of another candidate, challenging speculation that she would consider seeking a full term at the expiration of Rosselló’s.
Before Rosselló’s resignation, Vázquez had already signaled that she was not interested in the governor’s mansion, and would only fill the position if constitutionally required.
Me reitero, no tengo interés en ocupar el puesto de Gobernadora. Es un dictamen Constitucional. Espero que el señor Gobernador identifique y someta un candidato para el puesto de Secretario/a de Estado antes del 2 de agosto y así se lo he manifestado.
— Wanda Vázquez Garced (@wandavazquezg) July 28, 2019
Her July 18, 2019 tweet came as “#WandaRenuncia” trended on US Twitter, in the fashion of the “#RickyRenuncia” trending hashtag that followed posts about the protest movement which led to Governor Rosselló’s resignation.
“At this moment, I don’t see myself resigning,” Vázquez told El Vocero in September, signaling she would fill the position until the end of the term at the end of 2020.
By December 16, Governor Vázquez ended widespread speculation that she would seek to be elected for a full term, launching a 2020 election campaign. But don’t call it a re-election: Vázquez has never faced voters before, having been appointed by Governor Rosselló on the second day of his first term in 2017. Vázquez is Puerto Rico’s second unelected governor since the territory began popular elections for the executive office nearly 72 years ago.
“I’ve decided to continue working for you,” Vázquez said in her announcement, where she also flexed her status as an outsider to politics, highlighting her 32 years as a prosecutor and a brief stint as Secretary of Justice. “You can count on me to continue on the path for full equality,” she tweeted, calling the NPP “the only party that makes progress for the island.”
Vázquez previewed a campaign that declares to be dedicated to socio-economic development, as well as women’s rights. Notably, she is Puerto Rico’s second female governor.
The announcement signaled a challenge to Pedro Pierluisi, whose campaign to reclaim his briefly-held position had already been underway. The two candidates will face each other in the NPP primary, currently scheduled to take place on June 7.
The election campaign by Governor Vázquez remains stalled, however, as her administration remains focused on handling the COVID-19/coronavirus outbreak in the territory. On April 2, the governor extended the lockdown by two more weeks, as the number of cases in Puerto Rico rose to over 300.
However, Pedro Pierluisi has repeatedly criticized the governor for her handling of the crisis, accusing her of putting politics over people and refusing to take his advice, tweeting on April 3rd:
“Governor, with much respect, I have always been in a position to help and advise you. Everyone has had complaints about many of the actions of this Administration. In fact, your new Secretary of Health has pointed out those mistakes. It’s time to make amends and fight together.”
Gobernadora, con mucho respeto, siempre he estado en disposición de ayudarle y aconsejarle. Todo el pueblo ha tenido reclamos sobre muchas de las acciones de su Administración. De hecho, el nuevo Sec de Salud ha señalado los errores cometidos. Es hora de enmendar y luchar juntos
— Pedro R. Pierluisi (@pedropierluisi) April 3, 2020
Pierluisi, who served two terms as Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, is up against the strong advantage Vázquez wields as the incumbent. But unlike Vázquez, Pierluisi has successfully faced voters across the territory twice in his campaigns for the resident commissioner seat and has also served as Secretary of Justice and (briefly) as Acting Secretary of State.
The primary may make apparent the contrast between Vázquez as the inexperienced political outsider, and Pierluisi as the seasoned statesman tainted by the scandals of the Rosselló administration, despite both candidates having served in the former governor’s cabinet.
Vázquez is not without scandal herself. In 2018, she briefly stepped down facing ethical complaints accusing her of abusing her power in 2018 and has been criticized by her own party for not thoroughly investigating the mishandling of disaster relief following Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Either Vázquez or Pierluisi will face their most serious challenger in the general election in the nominee from the Popular Democratic Party, which is also holding a gubernatorial primary for the first time—a fierce contest between Minority Leader of the Puerto Rican Senate Eduardo Bhatia and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who served as a campaign co-chair for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Both candidates however have thus far preferred to direct their campaigns at the incumbent NPP leadership.
“She has said a few words that are going to weigh on her for the rest of her life,” Yulín Cruz has said of Governor Vázquez. Calling her “more of the same,” the PDP candidate seeks to tie her to the scandals of the former administration as well.
For the 2020 election which had long been hailed to be a referendum on former Governor Rosselló’s unprecedented statehood efforts, the unexpected candidacy of Wanda Vázquez for governor continues to shake up expectations in the territory.