SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — With less than four hours to go before Puerto Rico’s governor was expected to step down, his designated successor tried Friday to convince legislators to confirm him in a down-to-the-wire attempt to avoid political chaos and a potential constitutional crisis.
But even if Pedro Pierluisi managed to win confirmation in Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives before 5 p.m., legislators disagreed over whether he could actually take Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s place as the U.S. territory’s chief executive, thanks to roiling legal debate over the order of succession laid out in Puerto Rico’s constitution.
After jubilation at the success of a popular movement to force Rosselló out of office, the chaos and confusion had Puerto Ricans embittered and pessimistic about the fate of their island, which has been battered by years of bankruptcy and the 2017 landfall of Hurricane Maria, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
“People are disgusted with the government in general, not just Ricardo Rosselló, everyone,” said Janeline Avila, 24, who recently received her degree in biotechnology.
Pierluisi, 60, a former Puerto Rico congressional representative in Washington, faced more than two dozen legislators in the first of two public hearings debating his selection as secretary of state, who could assume the governorship if the post is vacant.
If Pierluisi is rejected, Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez automatically becomes governor as the next in the order of succession. She has said she would accept the job, but unwillingly.
But even if he wins confirmation, Puerto Rico’s political future was uncertain.
Some lawmakers said a House vote for Pierluisi would count as confirmation and allow him to assume the governorship. Opponents said he requires Senate approval, too, and they would sue to stop him becoming governor without that.
When asked, even Pierluisi said he didn’t know if confirmation as secretary of state would make him governor at 5 p.m.
“That decision hasn’t been taken,” he said. “It’s a legal matter. It’s under evaluation.”
Lawmakers and Pierluisi himself expressed concern that the continuing political uncertainty would damage Puerto Rico’s efforts to get federal funds to recover from Hurricane Maria and to deal with the economic crisis.
Several legislators have accused Pierluisi of a conflict of interest because he worked for a law firm that represents a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances, a body that has repeatedly clashed with local officials over demands for austerity measures.
Pierluisi, whose brother-in-law is the board’s chairman, tried to dispel those concerns in his opening remarks.
“Who better than me to advocate for our people before the board? Who better than me to facilitate the process that will force the board to leave? That is what we all want,” he said.
The board was created by Congress to oversee the restructuring of more than $70 billion in public debt after Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy.
Pierluisi told lawmakers he is against several austerity measures demanded by the board, including layoffs of public employees and eliminating a Christmas bonus.
He said he supports public-private partnerships and the privatization of the island’s public power company.
“The people want a change, and I don’t blame them,” he said.
A key obstacle for Pierluisi has been Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who has said he would not vote for Rosselló’s nominee and wants to run for governor himself next year. Several legislators have said they prefer Rivera Schatz over Pierluisi, but the Senate leader is a powerful figure deeply associated with Puerto Rico’s political and business elite and his elevation to the governorship could re-ignite popular outrage.
Rivera Schatz has scheduled a senate hearing on Pierluisi on Monday.
Pierluisi was Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in Congress from 2009 to 2017 and then ran against Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in the 2016 primaries and lost. He also served as justice secretary under Rosselló’s father, Pedro Rosselló, when he was governor.
Political infighting and paralysis has followed a wave of street protests against Rosselló, who joins more than a dozen government officials who have resigned in the wake of an obscenity-laced chat in which they made fun of women, gay people and hurricane victims.
Vega Ramos of the opposition Popular Democratic Party questioned during Friday’s hearing whether legislators were supposed to be approving a secretary of state or a governor.
“What are we doing this morning?” he demanded. “Clarify this for us and for our people.”