The Covid-19 pandemic has magnified the weaknesses of Guam’s political status, according to congressional candidates Dr. Robert Underwood and Sen. Wil Castro, who have hit the campaign trail, promising a stronger representation for the island in the nation’s capital.
Like other U.S. territories, Guam can only elect one non-voting representative to the U.S. House of Representatives, where the incumbent delegate, Michael San Nicolas, has been at the center of controversy. He is being investigated for allegedly receiving excessive campaign funds and for allegedly having an inappropriate relationship with a staffer.
Following are excerpts from the Pacific Island Times interviews with Underwood and Castro. (San Nicolas was contacted for this story, but did not meet the deadline to reply.)
Dr. Robert Underwood: ‘Unified voice’
“Guam needs representation in Washington D.C. that we can communicate with and that we can be proud of,” Dr. Robert Underwood said. “We also need the powerful base of traditional values combined with forward thinking in order to deal with the 21st century challenges coming out of the current pandemic.”
Underwood said this is a crucial time to ensure that Guam's voice is clear and represents a unified Guam.
When he retired as president of the University of Guam, Underwood said he was not interested in returning to politics. However, he said, the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted Guam’s handicap as a territory.
“The pandemic has challenged our economy and our health care system in dramatic ways. In dealing with the changes to come and the opportunities ahead, we need a strong unified voice in Washington D.C. which represents our best hopes and our best values,” he said.
Underwood, who served as Guam’s delegate to Congress from 1993 to 2003, believes that his decades of experience in politics is vital in his journey back to Congress.
“My previous service in Washington D.C. as Guam's delegate helped me develop a keen understanding on how to work with others in a difficult environment,” he said.
“I was able to resolve long standing land issues, pave the way for recognition of our World War II generation and war claims and build the National Guard Readiness Center even as the opposite party held a majority in the House of Representatives,” he said.
Underwood wants to use the knowledge he gained as UOG president to promote Guam values and better the community. “Public service, and not just public office, has been the cornerstone of my life. I was inspired during my time at the University of Guam to understand that enduring values and social progress are connected by community leadership and educational advancement,” he said.
In the current pandemic crisis, Underwood said, Guam needs leadership based on the values that make the island strong and united. “When we examine the problems that we have with providing high-paying jobs for our young people, dealing with community safety, and educational opportunity, it is clear that we need a unified and unifying voice. This is especially true in Washington DC where we have only one voice,” he said.
Underwood believes that fixing Guam’s economy can lead to a better livelihood for the community.
“The main issues remain dealing with the economy, providing health care for all and educational opportunity for the next generation,” said the former congressman. “In dealing with the new normal, we must also remember who we are normally. We are a proud island people who expect leadership for the 21st century to be based on our stable community values of respect and caring for each other.”
As the longest serving president of the University of Guam, Underwood said he was reminded that “our future lies in the eyes of our young people. As I handed out 7,000 diplomas, they taught me as much as I taught them. They demanded enduring values and progressive thinking. Both are essential ingredients to bring out the best in ourselves and to represent who us in Washington D.C.”
Sen. Wil Castro: ‘New direction’
Sen. Wil Castro said he would bring a different leadership style and policy direction if he gets elected to Congress.
“The pandemic has adversely effected the economy in more ways than one. This situation only compounds Guam’s status and disposition in terms of economic development,” said the Harvard graduate.
The Covid-19 pandemic, Castro said, “amplified the kind of things we deal with on a day-to-day basis. An example, issues relative to immigration, labor, transportation—whether it’s cargo of goods or human transport or a transport of intellectual properties between the islands through humans when we go place to place—there are federal policies that govern that and in my opinion that could be less restrictive.”
Castro said his policy direction would be consistent with what the people of Guam want.
“There are a lot of issues that are outside the jurisdiction of the federal government that are more local. There are a lot of federal issues that local senators can’t affect. I believe the number one issue in this community is economic development right now,” he said.
Castro said the island needs a more sustainable economy instead of relying heavily on tourism. “When they shut down inbound flights from Asian markets, it has crippled the tourism sector of this economy. When you do that people are laid off and cannot come back to work and then they cannot feed their family,” the senator said.
The people of Guam will deal with financial difficulties in the next six to 16 months, Castro said. “That’s going to be my number one issue: economic development as it relates to the people of Guam. Look past the federal subsidies of public unemployment. Look past the stimulus packages that are going in to keep this government afloat and other governments throughout the U.S.”
He said Guam leaders need to have better conversations about building the island’s economy amid its limitations.
“In terms of releasing some of the more restrictive, or if you want to use the term loosely, oppressive policy, how many flights come to Guam, what can come to Guam, what kinds of goods can be shipped to Guam,” Castro said.
“Things like that are very important to us in terms of determining or articulating ourselves and our own destiny. It’s one thing to say what you want to do. It’s another thing to have the ability to do that.”
The senator said he is aware of how government policies can sometimes impede economic enhancement.
“The chief issue is economic development in context of federal policy making. There are other issues relative to greater rights, access and opportunities for the people of Guam,” Castro said. “That’s my role as a representative to the people of Guam to Congress—not Congress’s representative to Guam. There’s a stark contrast in what I call our operational philosophy. I don’t see myself as Congress’s representative to the people. I am Guam’s rep to Congress. I’ll always remember that and act upon that.”