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Why Puerto Rico’s new governor is already controversial

Puerto Rican officials have had to scramble to replace Gov. Ricardo Rossello, who left office Friday after scandal engulfed his administration. Rossello’s secretary of state, Pedro Pierluisi, was sworn in as the new governor -- but faces criticism over his involvement with the island's financial control board. Amna Nawaz talks to Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After weeks of street protests and political unrest, the leadership in Puerto Rico took the first step toward a transition this evening.

    Amna Nawaz reports on the fallout after the resignation of embattled governor Ricardo Rossello.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    At Puerto Rico's capital today, political leaders scrambled to decide who should replace Governor Rossello.

    On Wednesday, he nominated Pedro Pierluisi to be secretary of state, putting him in a position to become governor under the U.S. territory's constitution. Today, the island's House of Representatives voted to advance his nomination.

    And just after Rossello's departure this afternoon, Pierluisi took the oath of office to replace him as governor.

    But at a hearing today, lawmakers in Puerto Rico's House of Representatives challenged his legal work for the island's highly unpopular financial control board.

  • Carlos Bianchi Anglero (through translator):

    It's not every day the country has before them a lawyer who has advised the fiscal board being nominated for secretary of state with the possibility of becoming governor. That is why the country is demanding some transparency.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Pierluisi depended his independence, as well as legal work.

  • Pedro Pierluisi (through translator):

    My capacity as member of the legal office and the services I extended to the group during years is in a legal capacity. You will not find a public servant more committed, judicious or willing to work than myself.

    And, as I have always heard and answered to our people, here I am to hear your worries and answer your questions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But some lawmakers argue Pierluisi's hold of the governorship may also hinge on approval from the Puerto Rican Senate, where leader Thomas Rivera Schatz opposes him.

  • Thomas Rivera Schatz (through translator):

    I do not have confidence in him to govern under these circumstances, because the lawyer for Puerto Rico's number one enemy can't be in charge of Puerto Rico.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Rivera Schatz had planned to run for governor himself next year. He pushed a Senate confirmation hearing on Pierluisi to Monday, casting further doubt over who will lead the island. Without a confirmation from the Senate, Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez could be next in line to become governor.

    She too is broadly unpopular and initially said she didn't want the job, but now says she would accept it.

    Rossello announced his resignation last week after days of protest spurred by a week of offensive chat messages with his top aides. Puerto Ricans flooded the streets and celebrated his resignation. But now the island faces a potential crisis over filling the governor's mansion, with some lawmakers threatening to take the matter to court.

    We explore what's next in Puerto Rico with Jenniffer Gonzalez. She's Puerto Rico's representative in Congress and was herself for a while reportedly considered to be a potential successor to the governor.

    Congresswoman, welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Jenniffer Gonzalez:

    Thank you for the opportunity.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So Pedro Pierluisi has been sworn in as the new governor. Does this end all the political turmoil in Puerto Rico?

  • Jenniffer Gonzalez:

    I don't think so, at least not immediately.

    I think there's going to be many challenges about if he was confirmed or not by the Senate side. Our constitution established that you need to be confirmed in both sides, the House and the Senate.

    But, again, I think the most important thing is that we do have a governor at this time. I think that kind of instability should be put to rest and focus on what's next for the island.

    So, in that sense, he was just sworn in a — a few minutes ago, before we begin here. And we need to work out to restore the credibility, not just here in D.C., in the financial markets, and down in the island as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But how do you do that? You mentioned that nomination and the confirmation. He was approved by the House. His Senate confirmation wasn't set until next week. There was a potential several-day power vacuum.

    And there's still potential instability if he's going to be challenged. So where's the stability?

  • Jenniffer Gonzalez:

    I mean, I think that the constitution established the order. And in that sense, the secretary of justice, local one, attorney general local, was the one to assume in case of a vacancy for the governorship of the island. He was sworn in already.

    So you already have a governor. And there's a process there continuing to happen. So, on Monday, the Senate will have their hearing. On Wednesday, they're going to vote on that. So let's see what's going to happen.

    I think the most important thing — today is Friday — is how during this weekend we're going to begin to see what's going ahead and how we can reestablish the needs of the island and the credibility as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But that next vote will be on Wednesday. Is there a possibility the Senate doesn't vote to confirm him? And then what?

  • Jenniffer Gonzalez:

    I'm not going to speculate on that. I don't have any idea. I wasn't involved in any of the process, any step of this process.

    I will tell you that, as resident commissioner in Congress, I know how important it is to reestablish the communication and reestablish the credibility of the island. There's a lot of things that are important, like the reconstruction of the island, the recovery funds that are in many of the federal agencies.

    At the same time, we're fighting to get some more resources for health care. So we do have a very complex agenda for Puerto Rico that can't wait until next week.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You certainly do.

    But I just want to be clear about this.

  • Jenniffer Gonzalez:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's a very powerful leader in the Senate, the man we referenced in the piece there, Thomas Rivera Schatz. He wanted to be governor. He could lead a rule or lead a movement that doesn't confirm Pierluisi.

    And then are we right back where we started, in political crisis?

  • Jenniffer Gonzalez:

    I think — I mean, the last thing I read about him — that he was saying, it was that there's going to be a process, that there's a constitutional process.

    The Senate is going to do their hearing. They're going to see — they're going to approve or not the nomination on Wednesday. So I think we should wait until that process. We don't know. He can be confirmed. He may not be confirmed.

    So I don't want to — I don't want to jump to a conclusion without — I mean, last — nobody expected during the last three weeks that something like this could happen in Puerto Rico, nobody.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, the effects have been severe. And they will be long-lasting.

    I want to ask you about something that came out of the Trump administration today. They are using the political unrest as a pretext to delay more than $8 billion in funds that would be used to prepare for the next natural disaster.

    What do you say to that?

  • Jenniffer Gonzalez:

    I mean, I was the one involved in the approval of those funds.

    We approved more than $43 billion for Puerto Rico in different areas. And I'm fighting for those funds to be released.

    And we got a lot of bureaucracy, many of the federal agencies working with that. But the cases of corruption on the island for many of the areas that actually manage those funds were put under scrutiny in the last two weeks.

    So the federal government, what they did, they have a coordinator or monitor for those funds to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. So I do believe that we need to have those resources to the people who need it.

    I'm working now with the new governor and the administration in terms of how we can get those monies to be released, to be outlaid immediately. And the next available day they say it's going to be happening is going to be September 4.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It is worth mentioning all of those things that brought all of those people out into the streets, a weak economy, a failure to respond adequately to Hurricane Maria, corruption scandals, none of those have been made better, right?

  • Jenniffer Gonzalez:

    No.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In fact, they have just kind of been on hold over the last few weeks of protests.

  • Jenniffer Gonzalez:

    It's more than that.

    It's the financial crisis, before that, the two hurricanes, then this. So we have been under the eye of the storm for at least three years. How we can surpass that, how we can recover from that, I think that's the importance of a new leadership on the island.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you see the steps that were taken tonight as the first steps towards that stability? Will the protesters support this nomination and this new governor?

  • Jenniffer Gonzalez:

    I'm not going to talk about the protesters. I think this is a more complex issue.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But the protesters are the reason we're having this conversation.

  • Jenniffer Gonzalez:

    Not necessarily.

    I think — I think there's many people. I'm not protesting there. And I was the first one who asked for the resignation of the governor. So there's many people that were not supportive of the actions the governor did, assumed during the last three weeks.

    So I think the most important thing now is, what's going to be the plan, and what's going to be the agenda, what's going to be the priorities for the reconstruction and the recovery of the island?

    And that means also the credibility about who's the person who's going to be leading the government of Puerto Rico?

    When you resolve that, if the Senate approves him, there's going to be no issues about how legitimate the governor is. And I think that's important, in order to give that stability until the next election.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We hope better days ahead for the more than three million people…

  • Jenniffer Gonzalez:

    Yes, we pray for that as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    … on the island.

    Congresswoman Jenniffer Gonzalez, resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, thank you for being here.

  • Jenniffer Gonzalez:

    Thank you for the opportunity.

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