Democratic showdown: Leon Guerrero, San Nicolas trade barbs on debate stage
By Aurora Kohn
Confronting each other during the first gubernatorial debate, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero and Congressman Michael San Nicolas on Tuesday traded accusations that the other failed in resolving a broad range of issues besetting Guam.
Leon Guerrero and San Nicolas, who are seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination in the August primary, answered a host of questions during the 2022 Gubernatorial Debate jointly hosted by Kandit News and The Point.
Former Gov. Felix P. Camacho, the Republican Party’s gubernatorial candidate, did not respond to the invitation to join the debate, according to Troy Torres, president of Kandit News.
The debate was conducted in three rounds. Among the topics covered included infrastructure development, tourism, the social and economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, compact migration, business privilege tax, military buildup, ancestral lands, federal benefits and Guam’s political status.
The live-streamed debate ended abruptly when Leon Guerrero said she was “catching her breath.” The governor started coughing during the second round of the debate but continued to answer questions despite the coughs.
During her opening statement, Leon Guerrero enumerated the problems that confronted her administration at the start of her four-year term and reported her administration’s accomplishments.
“I hope tonight to show how our administration has delivered, keeping our people safe, and investing in the revitalization of infrastructure, new programs to help families to buy their first home, universal health care, basic internet for all, new money for childcare, better schools, a new hospital and new industries that would diversify our economy, all achieved while keeping our finances stable and our children’s future safe,” said Leon Guerrero.
For his part, San Nicolas said he is running for governor to address the problems of Guam “so that the same headlines, the same topics, the same problems aren’t going to be things that we are going to be having debates on 20 years later.”
“We were able to resolve congressional issues in four years. It does not take two terms to fix things, if you go in there with the focus if you go in there with the purpose and you make the people the whole reason why you’re doing the work that you do, “ San Nicolas said.
San Nicolas said addressing the lack of qualified personnel at the Guam Behavioral and Wellness Center is key to resolving the island's mental health problem. He added that addressing the economic and drug problems that could push people to suicide was also critical.
Leon Guerrero said her administration has invested in GBHWC by hiring psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, counselors and social workers.
San Nicolas disputed the governor’s claims, citing the case of a physician’s assistant who is dispensing psychiatric medication at the center.
Leon Guerrero said Guam “should work closer in Congress to get those land returns back as that is how it usually happens.”
San Nicolas said under the National Defense Authorization Act, the governor can petition the Navy to begin the process of returning excess lands.
He said he had written to Leon Guerrero to inquire if she had asked for the return of excess lands. He said he had not received a response from the governor.
Leon Guerrero said she was told the return of excess lands required a congressional process.
San Nicolas said there was a lack of transparency from the administration regarding the status of the Simon Sanchez High School rehabilitation project.
Leon Guerrero promised that construction “will happen by the end of this year.”
Leon Guerrero said she has submitted a list of recommendations and amendments to the Compact of Free Association after her request to participate in the U.S. negotiations with the freely associated states or FAS was declined.
She said she has asked the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to ensure that FAS citizens traveling to Guam fulfill their stated purpose.
San Nicolas said he has succeeded in obtaining Medicaid coverage for compact migrants to help offset the cost incurred by Guam for hosting them.
If elected governor, San Nicolas said he would work closely with the Guam delegate to make sure the territory’s “voice is heard at the Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight of compact negotiations.”
San Nicolas said his priority would be the recruitment and retention of public safety officers by improving benefits to include “housing allowances and more robust health insurance coverage.”
He said the governor’s offer of a monetary incentive for retirees to return to service does not provide long-term solutions to the problem.
Leon Guerrero said her administration recently increased the police officers' starting salary from $11 per hour to $18 per hour to attract new recruits. In addition, she said her administration is working closely with neighborhood watch programs to expand these programs because public safety is a “community-wide issue.”
San Nicolas also suggested that the public prosecutor be made into an elective position so that he or she is held accountable regarding plea-bargaining decisions for criminals. Leon Guerrero agreed with San Nicolas’ suggestion.
Guam’s political status
Leon Guerrero maintains her position that the political status vote should be limited to native inhabitants. “People can get involved with political status through a constitution once we are ready to decide with ourselves, “Leon Guerrero said.
San Nicolas said everyone should be allowed to participate in the political status plebiscite, in accordance with the U.S. standard of universal suffrage.
“What’s morally wrong is to constantly tell our CHamoru people that we are somehow going to be able to do a CHamoru-only vote and it’s going to move forward. Congress will not entertain a vote that is only done by a single group of people. If we really want to advance the issue, let’s allow everyone to participate in the vote, “ San Nicolas said.
Asked how they would expand training opportunities for the local workforce and reduce Guam's reliance on foreign workers, Leon Guerrero said, “H2B workers are critical to our construction industry and to our infrastructure improvement.”
Leon Guerrero asked Congress to “please include in the legislation civilian projects to be part of the H2B workers coming here for approval.”
Leon Guerrero added that her administration has “shifted and redirected the skills of our laborers into ship repairs, construction, cybersecurity, trucking and so forth.”
San Nicolas, for his part, said Guam has to invest more in Guam Community College and the University of Guam to provide programs such as “cybersecurity training because that is a very growing program throughout the world.”
San Nicolas said Leon Guerrero’s move to tap the National Guard to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic was “excellent.” However, he added that the administration sowed “divisiveness” with some of its policy statements.
Leon Guerrero disagreed that the community was divided. “We worked to get a 97 percent vaccination rate – the first in the nation. “
Business Privilege Tax
Leon Guerrero is not inclined to roll back the BPT increase, which she said was “reasonable and affordable.” She noted that small businesses are only paying 3 percent.
San Nicolas said, “We need to make every effort to reduce tax burdens. The more money we can put back into circulation—whether it’s into businesses or in the community—is going to help grow our economy.”