As we progress further into the latter half of 2022, politics in the American states and territories increasingly take center stage. With the gubernatorial election date of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands set to be November 8 of this year, three main candidates have become the face of this contest, each with diverse platforms and political histories.
Current governor, Ralph Torres, who has served in the position since December 29, 2015, stands for his re-election in the upcoming race as the nominee of the Republican Party. Torres previously served in the CNMI legislature from 2008 to 2015, where he worked in both the House of Representatives and Senate. Torres exited service in the Senate when he secured the role of lieutenant governor. With only a short term as lieutenant governor, Torres left the position after assuming office as governor in 2015.
As Trump’s campaign grew in popularity during the 2016 US Presidential Election, Governor Torres came out in support of the former president, explaining in a formal statement, “I made a decision to support the candidate who genuinely put forward a plan to help all the territories and commonwealths,” Torres’ endorsement was critical in Trump’s success in the Northern Mariana Islands, where he went on to win all nine of the caucus delegates’ votes in 2016.
More recently, however, Torres has been in quite a bit of hot water. On January 11, 2022, the CNMI House of Representatives voted to impeach Torres on six articles of theft of utility services; theft; unlawful first and business class travel; corruption, for misuse of government resources; and two articles of neglect of duty, for negligence during crisis and contempt of legislature. These charges were brought up after it was revealed that Torres used public funds to pay for at least 120 flight trips and 85 boat trips over six years in office—costs which totaled $550,000. Additionally, Torres’ spent $177,000 in utilities from the publicly funded Commonwealth Utilities Corporation. In May, however, Torres was acquitted by the Senate, where all six articles were defeated on a party-line 3-4 vote.
Arnold Palacios, the current lieutenant governor of the territory, serving under Ralph Torres since January 14, 2019, has thrown his hat in the race for governor. Previously a Republican, Palacios has announced his candidacy as an independent this year.
Palacios previously served in the CNMI House of Representatives from 2008 to 2010, where he was selected as Speaker of the House. Upon an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor with four-time gubernatorial candidate Heinz Hofschneider in 2009, Palacios left his position of speaker. Later, however, he would return to service in the legislature, upon being elected to the CNMI Senate in 2017, where he served as President until 2019, when he ascended to the position of lieutenant governor.
Earlier in 2022, while Palacios was delivering a testimony regarding travel regulations, he suffered a fall, leading to the lieutenant governor having to be hospitalized. Although there were no serious injuries reported, in a formal statement issued by Palacios’ office, it was said that he experienced numbness and pain in his lower back. Later in July, however, Palacios came out to officially file for his candidacy, where he affirmed his pragmatism. “We remain very positive. Our candidates are positive and our people are positive,” Palacios said. It seems as of right now, Palacios has recovered and plans to lead a promising campaign.
Tina Sablan, the Democratic nominee for governor of the islands, made history by becoming the first woman to be nominated for the position. Sablan first served in the CNMI House of Representatives from 2008 to 2010, representing the 1st district. In 2009, during the middle of her term in the House, Sablan made a decision to run for CNMI Senate, in which she was defeated. In 2018, Sablan returned to the House of Representatives after winning a seat representing the 2nd district. Earlier this year, she officially signed her candidacy for governor with Leila Staffler, a fellow member of the House.
Sablan’s platform seems to be very similar to mainland Democrats. A supporter of the expansion of Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable tax credit particularly for low- to moderate-income working individuals and couples with children. Additionally, Sablan introduced legislation to increase LGBT protections surrounding gender identity and sexual orientation in housing, healthcare, and employment. Sablan also holds the role of Chair of the CNMI House Committee on Health and Welfare, under which she testified before the US Congress about the push to end racial discrimination in healthcare. With her progressive agenda, Sablan appears to be a gubernatorial hopeful this year.
Regardless of party platforms, this upcoming election for governor will decide the course of the Northern Mariana Islands as a territory and as a people for years to come.