Indicted governor faces tough challenge
By SUSAN ANASAGASTI AKUS AND FRANCES ROBLES
Mired in a recession and caught in the middle of a mud-slinging campaign, Puerto Rican voters head to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to give an incumbent governor who faces more than two dozen federal charges another four years in office.
Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, 46, faces a tight race against the island's nonvoting member of Congress, Luis Fortuño, as he also confronts a federal indictment accusing him of campaign-finance fraud.
Acevedo's battle to keep his seat could hardly be tougher: At least 60,000 people have lost manufacturing jobs in recent years on the island, an unprecedented sales tax hit wallets hard, murders are on the rise and the island never quite recovered economically from a fiscal crisis two years ago that furloughed state workers.
For Acevedo, it means he's trying to keep himself out of prison and keep his job -- just as many people here blame him for what some say is Puerto Rico's worst economic recession in history.
''These are hard times in Puerto Rico. Aníbal hasn't done a thing for [Puerto Rico],'' said single mother Wanda Hernández, 45, of Bayamón. ``There's little work, and the price of everything has gone up.''
But Acevedo's supporters are deeply skeptical of the U.S. attorney's office, which accused him of campaign-finance fraud, getting lavish suits and taking his family to China with his party's money. He enjoys widespread loyalty among members of his party who see him as a veteran policy maker whose failures in office can be chalked up to a political log jam.
Acevedo's term in office marked the first time the Popular Democratic Party controlled the governor's office and Fortuño's New Progressive Party held the Washington seat and controlled the legislature. The four-year impasse meant few if any of Acevedo's proposals moved forward.
While poll results differ, some show him in a virtual dead heat with Fortuño, a Republican who favors statehood for Puerto Rico. Acevedo supports the island's current status, and most political issues on the island are generally split down status lines.
A recent Ipsos Public Affairs Poll showed Fortuño leading by just three points.
''I believe [Acevedo] is sincere when he says he is not guilty,'' said voter Xavier Rodríguez, 25, of Yauco. ``He has been upfront about everything, and I believe he is the best candidate.''
Acevedo's trial is expected in early 2009.
''Going from what I see on the street, I think Acevedo is going to win,'' said political analyst Noel Colón Martínez, who supports the independence party. ``No jury is going to convict him. Fortuño's platform depends entirely on getting federal aid: that he is a Republican and has lots of contacts in Washington. But it looks like [Barack] Obama might win, and so there's a bit of a contradiction there for him.''
Acevedo went to Harvard and was a law clerk at the island's Supreme Court and at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston. The son of a former senator, he served two terms in Puerto Rico's House of Representatives and then became the nonvoting representative in Congress, the spot Fortuño now holds.
Acevedo says his rival represents big business.
'Luis' record has nothing to do with protecting communities. In fact, he has a list of 100 of the wealthiest Puerto Ricans and said he would call them to create 100,000 jobs,'' Acevedo said in a debate. ``For him, the most important thing is to make those 100 millionaires even richer.''
Fortuño, 48, is a graduate of Georgetown University and the University of Virginia Law School. He was a partner at a San Juan law firm and in the 1990s was executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. and secretary of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce under former New Progressive Party Gov. Pedro Roselló.
He quit to distance himself from corruption scandals that hit the Roselló administration. He became something of a white knight for his party, symbolizing youth and fresh ideas -- even though Fortuño is actually two years older than Acevedo.
''Fortuño would offer some years of hope. That hope right now doesn't exist,'' said political analyst Ignacio Rivera, who supports Fortuño. ``Fortuño is young and has a baby face. Youth is good, because they have new ideas and dare to make mistakes. How effective will he be? We'll see in two or three years.''
Rivera said either candidate faces ''insurmountable'' obstacles, including an unemployment rate that officially stands at 12 percent but experts say is likely much higher.
In an e-mail to The Miami Herald, Fortuño said he plans to cut taxes for at least half of Puerto Ricans and plans to revamp education to teach English in public schools.
''In our case, our economic woes are intrinsically tied to mismanagement, ill-conceived public policy and wasteful spending,'' Fortuño said. ``Puerto Rico needs a governor that can re-establish the people's confidence in their government, that can create jobs and make the government work for them.''
Acevedo declined to be interviewed and did not respond to written questions from The Miami Herald.
Edwin Irizarry Mora, of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, and Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico candidate Rogelio Figueroa are also running, but polls show them lagging far behind.
Acevedo won the governor's race in 2004, largely because the island's small but critical group of independence activists threw its support behind him.
''Puerto Rico has some very difficult years ahead,'' Rivera said. ``That's
true no matter who wins.''