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Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi concedes defeat in surprise primary upset by Jenniffer González

By DÁNICA COTO, Associated Press
Published: June 3, 2024, 8:36am

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico congressional representative Jenniffer González defeated Gov. Pedro Pierluisi in a surprise upset during a primary election held Sunday by their pro-statehood party.

The two ran on the same ticket four years ago under the New Progressive Party, but González, a Republican, announced her plan to challenge Pierluisi, a Democrat, in early December. Public jabs between the two turned acrimonious during the campaign.

Puerto Rico’s main political parties are divided by the island’s political status, so it’s common to find both Republicans and Democrats within the same party.

“What happened is very painful, and I didn’t expect it, but let no one think that I’m going to slow down in the remainder of this four-year period,” Pierluisi said late Sunday as he congratulated González.

He addressed his supporters briefly as González celebrated with hers while results continued to trickle in.

González obtained 56% of the vote compared with Pierluisi’s 44%, with an estimated tens of thousands of votes still uncounted. She is the first female gubernatorial candidate to secure a primary win for the New Progressive Party.

“Positions do not belong to politicians … they belong to the people,” González said during a speech shortly after Pierluisi conceded. “I commit to being on the streets, to listen to people.”

As of Monday, Puerto Rico’s elections commission had not yet provided updated numbers and was still counting votes.

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Running with González for the position of resident commissioner is senior U.S. naval military officer Elmer Román, a former secretary of state for Puerto Rico, while Puerto Rico Sen. William Villafañe is seeking the position under Pierluisi. On Monday, Villafañe had secured 53% of the votes and Román 47%, with 80% of voting centers reporting.

Earlier on Sunday, Puerto Rico Rep. Jesús Manuel Ortiz defeated Sen. Juan Zaragoza in the primary held by their Popular Democratic Party, which backs the island’s territorial status and seeks a return to power in the upcoming general elections.

Zaragoza conceded defeat after obtaining 38% of the votes compared with Zaragoza’s 62%, even though only a little more than 60% of the votes had been counted.

Attorney Pablo José Hernández ran unopposed to be the Popular Democratic Party’s candidate for resident commissioner, the first person in 20 years to seek that nomination.

As results came in late Sunday, the page of Puerto Rico’s elections commission crashed, frustrating many who were closely following the primaries. Officials said they were rushing to fix the problem, saying they did not know what caused it but that U.S. Homeland Security and other agencies were helping.

“If it were necessary to activate the FBI given the situation, we will do it,” said Jessika Padilla, the commission’s alternate president.

Ortiz, González and other candidates face disgruntled voters on an island still struggling with chronic power outages and awaiting completion of reconstruction projects following Hurricane Maria, which hit as a Category 4 storm in September 2017.

Power outages were reported at more than a dozen voting centers, including one where Ortiz arrived to cast his vote, forcing officials to revert to a manual process. Heavy rains also pelted parts of the island, with flood warnings issued for nearly a dozen towns and cities where landslides also were reported.

Power outages were such a big concern that Puerto Rico’s elections commission rented more than a dozen generators and a private power company identified 81 alternate voting sites with guaranteed electricity.

“It’s been years since I last voted,” said Benito López, a 66-year-old retiree wearing a T-shirt that read, “The Island of Enchantment.” He planned to cast a vote for a candidate he would not reveal “to see if there’s any improvement and change.”

Other voter complaints include the difficulty of obtaining business permits, a fractured education system, and the island’s lack of access to capital markets after the local government emerged two years ago from the largest debt restructuring in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, more than $9 billion of debt owed by Puerto Rico’s power company, the largest of any government agency, remains unresolved. A federal judge overseeing a bankruptcy-like process has yet to rule on a restructuring plan following bitter negotiations between the government and bondholders.

“They have broken Puerto Rico,” Cecilio Rodríguez, said of the current and previous administrations as he waited to cast his vote. “Economic development must be a priority.”

For other voters, stopping the exodus of doctors from Puerto Rico and improving the U.S. territory’s crumbling health system is a priority.

“The patients are the ones who have to stay here and endure this. It’s not fair,” said Dr. Alfredo Rivera Freytes, an anesthesiologist who left Puerto Rico for St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands because of the problems with Puerto Rico’s health system.

He returned two years ago with plans to retire, but found himself working again because of the need for anesthesiologists in Puerto Rico.

Ahead of the primaries, Pierluisi had touted record tourist numbers, hurricane reconstruction and growing economic development among his successes. He had pledged to prioritize projects targeting children and the island’s growing elderly population, among other things.

An event marking the end of his campaign held a week before the primaries was headlined by former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who resigned in August 2019 following nearly two weeks of street touched off by a leak of crude and insulting chat messages between him and his top advisers.

)González has pledged to crack down on corruption, award more funds to agencies to help victims of violence amid a surge in killings of women, and stem an exodus of doctors and other medical workers to the U.S. mainland.

González appealed to voters’ frustration earlier Sunday before winning, saying she would work to resolve their problems.

“That’s one of the reasons why I’m aspiring to governorship, because I believe that we should not get used to not having electricity, we should not get used to not having water,” she said.

Zaragoza had promised to prioritize climate change and renewable energy, decentralize the island’s education department and improve access to health. His opponent, Ortiz, pledged to improve the licensing process to retain doctors, simplify the island’s tax system and revamp health care.

González and Ortiz will face gubernatorial candidates from other parties in November’s general elections. Puerto Rico’s next governor will have to work alongside a federal control board that oversees the island’s finances and was created after the government declared bankruptcy.

Ahead of Sunday’s primaries, more than 4,900 inmates voted in prisons across the U.S. territory. The State Commission of Elections also received and counted tens of thousands of early ballots.

Follow AP’s coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean at https://apnews.com/hub/latin-america

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