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The 2022 race for Guam delegate seat: Q&A with Sen. Telena Cruz Nelson

By Aurora Kohn

Antonio Won Pat, a Democrat, was the first Guam delegate elected to the U.S. Congress, where he served from 1973 to 1985. He was succeeded by Ben Garrido Blas, the only Republican to hold the non-voting seat, who served from 1985 to 1993.

For nearly four decades, the congressional seat has been the Democratic Party’s turf.

Robert Underwood held the seat from 1993 to 2003. He was followed by Madeleine Bordallo, who served multiple terms from 2003 until she was defeated by San Nicolas in the 2018 elections.

San Nicolas, who is serving his second term in Congress, is not seeking reelection. He has joined the gubernatorial race.

This year, Won Pat’s daughter, former Speaker Judi Won Pat, is seeking to follow in her father’s footsteps. The Democratic primary slated for Aug. 27 will pit Won Pat against Sen. Telena Cruz Nelson.

Sen. James Moylan is the Republican Party’s official candidate for the congressional seat.

In separate Q&As, the three candidates presented their action plans if elected to Congress. Their responses were slightly edited for space consideration.

Telena Cruz Nelson

This young candidate, who has been to armed combat in Afghanistan, has three terms under her belt as a senator. Now, Telena Cruz Nelson has her eye on becoming the next representative of Guam to the U.S. Congress.

Currently serving in the 36th Guam Legislature, Nelson continues to work for fair practices and treatment for teachers and counselors within the Guam Department of Education, protection of employees requesting shift changes to accommodate their family life, extending protections to part-time workers in the areas of family and medical leave, and pension plans to ensure equitable treatment in the workplace.

Nelson graduated from the University of Guam with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, and a master’s in public administration. She holds the rank of major with the Guam Army National Guard.

Nelson is a granddaughter of Theodore Sgambelluri Nelson, who served as vice speaker of the Guam Legislature.

What, in your opinion makes you the best choice to represent Guam in the U.S. Congress?

As a field grade officer, I bring a wealth of knowledge and experience in military operations, mobilization, program management, sustainment, training personnel and communication infrastructure. The experience and knowledge that I hold within those functions make me the most experienced candidate who is able to understand Guam's role in being a part of what is known as the second island chain within the Indo-Pacific Region to best leverage our island's capabilities, understanding the increased activity of China and Russia and the role that Guam plays in the second island chain as a sustainment line within the Indo-Pacific region.

This knowledge allows me to leverage Guam in Congress for greater equity in the National Defense Authorization Act, the Department of Defense, and the Department of the Interior.

As a combat veteran, I know that the experience of being in war changes an individual, and the return and transition home in a peacetime environment can be difficult and tumultuous, whether it be psychological, physical, or both.

For this reason, I worked closely with my colleagues to expand the Guam Veterans Affairs Office to increase the number of caseworkers and mental health assistance. As the federal and foreign affairs chair, I also continue working with various congressional committees to ensure that Guam veterans are included in legislation that will impact them and provide assistance to them. As an educator and the oversight chair of the Guam Department of Education, I have worked with the leadership in efforts to lift the third-party fiduciary and the importance of a continued relationship with USDOE to ensure that as a territory, we receive just treatment just as other states do.

What top three rights or benefits would you work to secure for Guam’s island community?

During my first term, I will build on the relationships that our office has made with the current congressional representatives in Washington D.C. More importantly, there are big tasks ahead, such as advocating for our Island representatives to be brought to the table during Compact of Free Association discussions and negotiations.

Secondly, I will work closely with members of the House and Senate to advocate for the continued FMAP rate that Guam is currently receiving for Medicaid reimbursement, which I will work diligently to accomplish.

Thirdly, I will work closely with members of the Armed Services Committee, advocating to include greater parity in funding, H2B visa waivers for labor and development, and inclusion of Supplemental Security Income benefits.

Do you think that Guam should limit the plebiscite on the issue of political status to native inhabitants? What would be your plan of action for Guam to have the opportunity to decide its political status and enact or adopt its own constitution?

Guam has been on the United Nation’s list of non-self-governing territories since 1946. The decolonization of Guam is mandated by the United Nations. The rights of all peoples to self-determinations are foundational to international law and the UN Charter.

I support the plebiscite where the people deprived of this right are the ones who decide Guam’s political status.

A plan of action would have to address the federal court’s decision in the Davis lawsuit. To come up with this plan, I would engage our most brilliant to collectively develop a viable plan of action that would address those impacted by colonization, be in the best interest of our community, environment, economy and future generations, and also hold up in court.

China of late has been aggressively pursuing diplomatic and economic relations with the island nations of Micronesia. In your view, what is the potential impact of these developments on Guam? How would you protect Guam’s interests?

While the U.S. does not officially recognize Taiwan, it has a relationship and a strong stance in support of its democratic values.

China’s expansion in Asia and the Pacific is significant. As a U.S. territory, Chinese expansionism may be a scary thought. However, as a culturally eastern society built on western ideals, we need to take an objective look at our history and interests and determine what is best for our island.

From an economic standpoint, China stands to be a great economic powerhouse, but at what cost?

As we struggle with our identity as an Asian-Pacific island culture within western society, we need to ensure we maintain our values.

Why should we be the tip of the U.S. spear without a proper representation? Guam’s interests should be at the forefront.

What do you think of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Vaello-Madero? Do you think there is an avenue left to Guam to secure Supplemental Security Income benefits for its qualified residents? If yes, what actions would you take as the Guam delegate to secure SSI benefits for Guam residents?

The Supreme Court’s decision is greatly disappointing. Our people in Guam should be afforded the same ability to receive SSI benefits as we are American citizens.

I believe it is possible for SSI to be available for our people, we see in other U.S. territories granted exemptions from the definition of “state” in the Social Security Act such as the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Our island contributes to payments of federal taxes in funds collected through Section 30. With further research, I will utilize this avenue to provide the necessary funding in a similar form of SSI benefits for our people. Concurrently, I will continue to work on having Guam included in the SSI program.

The Jones Act restricts maritime transportation of cargo to Guam to ships that are U.S.-owned, U.S.-crewed, U.S.- registered and U.S.-built. As a result of the Jones Act, Guam consumers shoulder the higher transportation costs of goods. Do you think that the Jones Act should continue to apply to Guam? How would you work for Guam’s interests on this issue?

The Jones Act should be modified to address today's global economy and allow for greater competition and less monopoly of the maritime industry. As your congresswoman, I will work with my colleagues and intergovernmental agencies to discern the necessary path that would best benefit and enhance our island's maritime commerce and industry, with the end state being to decrease the cost of goods for the people.

Guam plays a key role in the U.S. political strategy in Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. Do you believe that Guam is being treated fairly and justly compensated for the role it has been given? If not, what changes in Guam’s relationship with the U.S. would you work on during your term and how do you propose to achieve these changes?

Guam plays a critical role in the U.S. political strategy, being recognized as a strategic location within the second island chain. Therefore, we need to reassert our geopolitical importance. I believe that because of these realities and observing the political actions that China is taking toward Taiwan and the economic endeavors they are taking within Micronesia, Guam has enormous potential to demand greater cultural, social, and economic parity.

As your congresswoman, I will work to reaffirm Guam's geostrategic and political value within the House of Representatives and the Senate and work to secure a seat on the Armed Services Committee and possibly on subcommittees in education and commerce.

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