Puerto Rico's Governor To Resign With No Clear Successor

Aug 2, 2019
Originally published on August 2, 2019 12:01 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Who will lead Puerto Rico tomorrow? It won't be the current governor, Ricardo Rossello, because he says that he is leaving office at 5 o'clock today - close of business. He announced that decision after weeks of protests calling for his resignation. But with the clock ticking, there are questions about who succeeds him.

NPR's David Welna is in San Juan, Puerto Rico. David, good morning.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So we had an update on the line of succession the other day. And it sounded like that old Abbott and Costello routine about who's on first. It was hard to follow. Where do things stand now?

WELNA: You know, nobody knows for sure just who will be this island's governor at 5 o'clock this afternoon, which is when Governor Rossello has said he'll step down. We don't even know where a transfer of power might take place, much less who will end up in charge. And there's speculation that Rossello himself may stay on longer as governor, given how unresolved things are.

A few days ago it looked like it would be his secretary of justice, Wanda Vazquez, who'd succeed him because the secretary of state, who would be first in line to replace Rossello, quit last month - and so she'd be next. But on Tuesday, the governor appointed Pedro Pierluisi, whom he narrowly defeated in his party's gubernatorial primary three years ago, to be secretary of state. In effect, this disgraced governor has hand-picked his successor.

INSKEEP: Which is not really popular in the legislature.

WELNA: No. The governor seems to have circumvented Puerto Rico's Congress in naming Pierluisi as his successor. There's a loophole in the law here that says the secretary of state does not need prior confirmation by Congress to succeed the governor. The courts here could rule that unconstitutional. So the governor's also convened a special session of Congress - that was yesterday - to get Pierluisi confirmed, sort of a belts-and-suspenders approach.

Now, the president of the Senate, Thomas Rivera Schatz, belongs to the same political party as the governor and Pierluisi. But he's also hugely at odds with them. And many here suspect that he wants to end up with the governorship.

Yesterday, with Pierluisi watching from the Senate gallery, Rivera Schatz declared he would not get a majority of the votes in the Senate. And he postponed even holding a vote until sometime next week. He also pointed out that Pierluisi has been up in Washington working for a law firm that advises an unelected financial oversight board that's widely despised here. Here's a bit of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS RIVERA SCHATZ: (Speaking Spanish).

WELNA: The Senate president said a lawyer who's been working for Puerto Rico's No. 1 enemy could not be on its side and that Pierluisi did not inspire confidence that he could govern in such circumstances.

INSKEEP: OK. So he has opponents, and he has some liabilities. Is there anything to be said for him?

WELNA: Well, he's well-known here, having recently been the island's non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress for eight years. But as I said, he's also done work for the widely resented financial oversight board. And added to the fact that he was handpicked by this disgraced governor, I think there could be more troubles in the streets if he does end up as governor.

INSKEEP: And what's the process here? Does Rossello just hand him the keys to the governor's mansion? Or does something else have to happen here?

WELNA: Well, mainly, I'm going to be watching today what happens in Puerto Rico's House of Representatives, which is holding a confirmation hearing for Pierluisi and is expected to vote on whether to confirm him this afternoon. But if that vote goes against him, Justice Secretary Vazquez may be sworn in at 5. That will not go over very well with a lot of people here. They want not just the governor out but all of his collaborators, as well. And this crisis, I'm afraid, is far from over.

INSKEEP: David, thanks for your reporting.

WELNA: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Welna is in Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.