And now comes the fun part
Saipan — This month, the youngest governor in CNMI history will be succeeded by the oldest. Republican Gov. Ralph DLG Torres was resoundingly defeated by an Independent candidate, his lieutenant governor, Arnold I. Palacios, in the Nov. 25 runoff election. Torres became the first CNMI governor to lose his re-election bid since 2005 when then-Gov. Juan N. Babauta finished third in a four-way race, obtaining only 26.6 percent of the total votes cast.
Torres was 36 when he became governor in Dec. 2015 following the death of Gov. Eloy S. Inos. In 2018, Torres and running mate Palacios set a new CNMI election record by winning the gubernatorial race by a landslide, garnering over 62 percent of the total votes cast.
In the summer of 2021, however, Palacios told reporters that he had been “taken out” of the Republican slate, and that he and the very popular Republican mayor of Saipan, David M. Apatang, would most likely run as an Independent tandem.
And so, it came to pass.
Palacios, 67, is a former House speaker, Senate president, Department of Lands and Natural Resources secretary and Division of Fish and Wildlife director. His father, Dr. Francisco T. Palacios, was one of the NMI leaders who signed the 1975 Covenant which made the Northern Marianas a U.S. commonwealth. Dr. Palacios was a health department official of the Trust Territory government who served as speaker of the Saipan Congress and a member of the Congress of Micronesia Senate.
Clearly, the CNMI’s new and 10th governor — the first Independent chief executive in Commonwealth history — is an experienced politician who knows exactly what he’s getting into. The same thing can be said about his running mate, Mayor Apatang, who at 74 will be the 13th (and oldest) lt. governor in CNMI history.
The new administration, moreover, will include other former officials, and will face exactly the same challenges that their predecessors had to grapple with: plenty of government obligations and dwindling coffers.
Here are some of my other post-election observations:
• Since 2001, CNMI gubernatorial elections have been, more or less, Republican intramurals. The winners have been either the Republican ticket (2001, 2014, 2018) or a breakaway Republican faction (2005, 2009, 2022).
• The 2014 Democratic candidates for governor, lt. governor and congressional delegate backed the 2022 Republican ticket in the runoff.
• An “all-star” team of former CNMI officials — including three former governors — and those who were former bitter political opponents — went all out for Palacios-Apatang. The enemy of my enemy is my friend indeed.
• The Democrats who have been railing against Gov. Torres since 2018 finished 10 percentage points behind him and his running mate in the 2022 election.
• Tarred and feathered by his opponents since the FBI raided his office in 2019, Gov. Torres also had to deal with Supertyphoon Yutu, the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn. He was impeached by the House (following the defection of the pro-Palacios Republican members) and charged by the CNMI attorney general for traveling first class on the public’s dime and ignoring a House committee subpoena. And yet he topped the three-way gubernatorial race on Nov. 8, election day, and gained an additional 8 percentage points in the runoff. He lost 45.88 percent - 54.12 percent to his lt. governor. Ralph DLG Torres is only 43 years old.
• The last time the Democrats won a gubernatorial election was in 1993. In the 2022 runoff, most of their supporters broke for Palacios-Apatang who are genuinely grateful. How grateful? Prior to the runoff, the Independents signed a unity pledge with the leftist Democratic tandem who placed third on Election Day (garnering 28 percent of the votes cast). And following their runoff victory, the Palacios-Apatang team announced the inclusion of several Democrats on the transition committee.
• Apparently, most CNMI politicians who are dissatisfied with the Republican Party leadership would rather run as Independents than join the Democrats.
• The Palacios-Apatang administration and the Independent-Democrat led House of Representatives and Senate will inherit massive financial problems and, most likely, will blame the previous administration for the unholy mess which the new officials promised to “fix” when they were still running for office.
Incidentally, one of the anti-Torres lawmakers stated that the CNMI’s problems are “solvable” and can be fixed. As a Marianas Variety editorial pointed out, these problems include the urgent need to find a funding source for government payroll, healthcare/medical referrals, the Settlement Fund payments, the retirees’ 25 percent benefit, education, scholarships, public safety, the justice system, public works, payments to government vendors, etc. etc. The tourism-based economy is still down, and the CNMI’s federal ARPA funds will soon run out.
So, what’s the solution to these problems? How can they be fixed? Where are the legislative and/or policy proposals?
So far, crickets.
Zaldy Dandan is the editor of the NMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety. His fourth book, “If He Isn’t Insane Then He Should Be: Stories & Poems from Saipan,” is available on amazon.com/.