Torres vs. Babauta: The race is on
How will the death of the garment industry and the rise of the casino influence the November elections?
Saipan— The CNMI’s gubernatorial race is a two-cornered fight between the incumbent Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and former governor Juan N. Babauta. Some political observers speculate this is a one-sided contest that pits the well-oiled political machinery of the local Republican Party that’s backing Torres against the Independent Babauta. Torres has picked Senate President Arnold I. Palacios as his running mate, while Babauta has teamed up Dr. Rita A. Sablan.
Both gubernatorial candidates have their own shares of fame and shame that reflect the tests of their leadership. Both carry credentials along with their own baggage that the CNMI voters have to weigh.
Torres has been “on-the-job training” for almost two years on Capitol Hill. He had been serving as governor in acting capacity most of the time when his mentor, the late former Gov. Eloy S. Inos, was frequently off-island for his medical trips due to a lingering disease. He lost his battle in December 2015 after an unsuccessful surgery in the mainland.
Before his death, Inos and Torres went against the Hofschneider-Yumul tandem in the 2014 gubernatorial elections after their respective tickets were the top vote getters in a four-way race that included Independent bets Babauta and Juan T. Sablan, and the CNMI Democratic Party’s Edward M. Deleon Guerrero and Daniel O. Quitugua.
The economic turnaround that the CNMI experienced a few years back helped the Inos-Torres ticket win the election. The casino gaming law on Saipan was enacted under the Inos administration, while Torres was then the Senate president. House Bill 18-179 legalized casino in the CNMI, paving the way for the multibillion dollar company, Imperial Pacific International, to invest in the CNMI through casino gaming.
Inos’ administration supported casino as one of the new source of revenues that could help the CNMI’s economy, which at the time was still feeling the effects of the garment industry shutdown and the Asian financial crisis. The CNMI economy hit an all-time low of -17.5 percent in 2009.
In 2015, the Hong Kong-based Imperial Pacific opened with a temporary casino at the T Galleria Saipan while its initial gaming facility, the Imperial Palace hotel-resort, was being built in the heart of the Garapan tourist district. Amid a polarizing controversy it has generated in the community, IPI has pumped in over half-a-billion dollars to the local economy with the budget every fiscal year seeing significant increase since 2014.
When Inos passed away in 2015, Torres became the CNMI’s youngest governor. Then Senate President Victor B. Hocog was elevated to the lt. governor post with Senator Palacios assuming the leadership in the CNMI Legislature’s upper chamber.
Now the local GOP has selected Torres and Palacios in hopes of retaining its hold as the CNMI’s ruling party. The Republicans currently has the super majority in the 20th CNMI Legislature, both in the House and Senate.
They are again seeking to have full control of the Legislature with several independents in the last Congress jumping to join the Republican ship. The GOP will be fielding a full slate in all precincts on Saipan, a mixture of incumbents and seasoned politicians against a handful of independent candidates led by House Minority Leader Edmund S. Villagomez and the vocal oppositionist Edward K. Propst.
However, some say that Torres still lacks the leadership quality of a veteran leader. But his campaign may argue that Torres is backed by a seasoned politician, Palacios, who previously held cabinet and other positions in the government before being elected to office and eventually becoming the House Speaker of the 16th Legislature, and then becoming Senate president of the 20th Legislature.
Despite the economic bliss, the Torres administration’s reputation is not exactly impeccable. It is plagued by allegations of corruption and suspicion of being under IPI’s control. Amid criticisms, the administration has given IPI several extensions to finish its casino-hotel project in Garapan. In a series of stories, Bloomberg detailed the alleged payments made to CNMI officials. Their relatives were also alleged to have benefitted from IPI through land dealings and other payouts. The law firm of the governor’s siblings, Torres Brothers, was also implicated for allegedly handling all supposed proceedings between them and IPI.
In contrast to the economic upswing that characterizes Torres administration, Babauta had a poor economic record. He was the governor when the CNMI economy began to decline after more than 30 garment factories closed shop one after the other following the enactment of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The garment factories moved to nearby countries in Southeast Asia to take advantage of cheap labor and little oversight over alleged labor shenanigans that were rampant when they were operating on Saipan. Compared to Saipan, where they had to follow and comply with federal labor laws and other regulations, and frequent surprise visits from officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the U.S. Labor and immigration.
Both gubernatorial candidates have their own shares of fame and shame, reflecting the tests of their leadership. Both carry credentials along with their own baggage that the CNMI voters have to weigh.
But Babauta’s diehard supporters — mostly former Republicans — say the former governor should be given a second chance. Babauta, then a Republican—lost his reelection bid to Benigno Fitial, who ran as an Independent in 2005.
Some observe that Babauta lacks the charisma of other popular CNMI politicians or the people skills to deal with various local and federal officials. But the supporters of the Babauta-Sablan ticket say their standard bearer won’t be working to please a certain group of people but would rather serve everyone, even those who would not vote for them.
And in contrast to Torres’ relatively fresh political experience, Babauta invokes his long years in the political arena and his experience in dealing with the feds. He was elected as the third CNMI Resident Representative in Washington D.C. in 1989. He took office in January 1990, succeeding Froilan Tenorio. He served as resident representative for three 4-year terms from January 1990 until leaving office in January 2002 to become governor.
Babauta's public service career began with his election to a four-year term as senator, serving in the Fifth and Sixth Northern Marianas Commonwealth Legislatures.
One of his notable accomplishments while serving as the resident representative in the nation’s capital was the CNMI’s inclusion in the Federal Communication Commission’s Telecommunication and Rate Integration program that provides domestic area code for the commonwealth.
CNMI voters would get to choose their next leaders on Nov. 6, between the GOP’s Torres-Palacios ticket that aims to continue the economic progress that the Commonwealth has gained in the past years or Babauta-Sablan Independent bets that touts experience and solutions to the problems that have plagued the community in the past.
The election is just less than six months away and one this is for sure it would get uglier as the race heats up where more than 30 seats are up for grabs. The CNMI community waits in bated breath.