Guam Democrats on defense
The old-timers who have dominated every news cycle are out of the legislative race, paving the way for fresh faces, political returnees, habitual candidates and unfamiliar neophytes who will embody a new start in the 35th Guam Legislature.
The Aug. 25 primary is a crowded lot, with 20 Democrats and 19 Republicans hoping to make the cut for the general elections on Nov. 6. Each party will field a 15-candidate slate. How the legislative field will shape up is, at this point, anyone’s guess — an uncertainty that may cause anxiety within the Guam Democratic Party, which for the longest time has been holding the majority control of the legislature.
The 34th Guam Legislature has nine Democrats versus six Republicans. With five senior Democrats — Speaker Benjamin Cruz, Sen. Frank Aguon Jr., Sen. Michael San Nicolas, Sen. Dennis Rodriguez and Sen. Tom Ada— bowing out of the senatorial arena, the party is largely on defense.
Cruz is seeking the public auditor position. San Nicolas is gunning for Congress. Aguon and Rodriguez are on the campaign trail for the gubernatorial seat. Ada is retiring.
Four incumbent first-term Democratic senators— Therese Terlaje, Telena C. Nelson, Regine B. Lee and Joe San Agustin— are up for reelection, while former senators Tina Muna Barnes and Adolfo Palacios are hoping to return. Assuming their successful campaigns, they would be tasked to hold the fort if the Democratic Party continues its path to a legislative majority on Nov. 6.
Seeking reelection at the Republican camp are Sens. Mary C. Torres, Louise B. Muna and William Castro. Sen. James Espaldon and one-term senator Fernando Estevez are abandoning the political scene.
Previous elections were easier to predict, with the incumbent legislative composition pretty much serving as the template for the next. The 2016 elections, however, came as a bolt from the blue. Seven incumbents, including then Speaker Judi Won Pat and Sen. Rory Respicio, were dislodged by political newcomers in an election that saw the voters’ rebellion against the political establishment amid discontent with unpopular legislative decisions. One particularly controversial measure that led to the ouster of the incumbents was the salary raises for government officials, including members of the legislature.
This year's elections can be a puzzle, as well. At the Aug. 25 primary, seven incumbent Democrats and Republicans are running alongside a pool of new hopefuls— some without name-recall nor built-in support — who will be tested on the political stage.
“Am I inclined to vote for newcomers? It depends,” says Amor Urquico Say of Hagatna. “Educational achievement is one of my criteria, especially for senators. They are lawmakers; they should be knowledgeable about anything and everything that is going around. I’ve briefly reviewed the candidates’ profiles— so far so good.”
For Angelina V.S. Jose of Agana Heights, a candidate’s talking points and educational background top her criteria. “I’d like to determine their qualifications based on more stringent criteria but those are the only way I can make decisions from afar. I do not know them personally so I am making decisions based on the issues they care about. Educational background is important for me because it shows their discipline. If you didn’t bother to finish school, how can I trust you to lead me?”
Some are cynical of elections. “I will probably not even vote. It’s a joke,” said former journalist Jacq Guzman of Maite. "Some of the senators are doing an OK job. It's the administration I am disappointed in." When asked to comment about the list of candidates, she said, “I don’t think about them a lot.”
For Yeon Sook Park , an artist from Tamuning, personal traits matter. "I look at their family upbringing and heartwarming attitude with strong leadership," she said.
But clearly, the island’s political patronage tradition remains a factor that influences what some voters mark on the ballot. “I will vote for the people I know, especially those who can give me a job,” said a Tamuning resident, who requested that he be identified only by his initials. M.T. “No. I am not joking. Why do we pretend that elections in Guam will be any different this time? We also need to keep the incumbent senators because they will have to continue what they started.”
A version of this story was published in the September 2018 issue of our print edition.