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Three-way! History repeating itself

Live from Saipan By Zaldy Dandan

Saipan — Election Day is Nov. 8, 2022. There are three candidates for CNMI governor as I write this: Republican Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, Democrat Rep. Tina Sablan and Republican Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios who is running as an independent.

Since the first commonwealth election in 1977, there have been five two-way gubernatorial races (1977, 1985, 1989, 1993and, 2018) ; four four-way races (2001, 2005, 2009, 2014); and two three-way races (1981, 1997 — this year’s election not yet included.)

In 1981, the incumbent governor was a Democrat seeking a second term. It had been a tumultuous first term. The local tourism industry was still in its early stages, and commonwealth government operations were heavily dependent on federal funds. It seemed that the Democratic governor and the Republican lawmakers couldn’t agree on anything. And there was squabbling among the Dems themselves. The governor and his lt. governor were no longer on speaking terms.

A convention was supposed to choose the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1981. Initially, there were three candidates: the governor, the lt. governor and a Saipan senator. A few days before the convention in June, the lt. governor withdrew his candidacy.

At the convention, the Dems voted 311 to 247 to nominate the Saipan senator. But according to the governor’s camp, he had won by a single vote, 322 to 321. Marianas Variety reported that the party president wanted to hold a party meeting to settle the dispute, but he canceled it “for fear that there could be physical violence.”

In July, the party’s central executive committee announced that the Saipan senator would be the nominee. The governor’s camp accused the committee of violating the party’s bylaws. “The party chairman is acting dictatorially,” a supporter of the governor said.

A lawsuit was filed. The trial court ruled in favor of the Saipan senator. He told Variety, “I hope that [the governor] does not go back on his word that he would support whoever the court decides.”


For their part, the House Democrats said they would tell the governor that a third-party candidacy “will lead to the almost certain victory” of the Republican candidate. But according to the Democratic candidate himself, the Saipan senator, “the voting trend has been on issues and candidates rather than strictly on party lines” and “because of these voting trends, I’m hopeful that my chance of winning the election exists.”

Famous last words.

On Sept. 11, 1981, Variety reported that the incumbent governor would seek a second term as a third-party candidate, saying that he had a “better chance” of winning in November. Like his Democratic rival, the governor believed that the split among the Democrats “does not automatically assure the Republicans of victory.”

He said the “‘uniqueness of the Northern Marianas,’ with people jumping party lines, family ties, ethnic groupings, past performance and standing in the community, makes the equation entirely different. Only God knows what will be the outcome. And he is not telling us at this time.”

And what were some of the major election issues in the year of our Lord 1981?


In a forum organized by the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, the Republican candidate promised sufficient water supply and new equipment to bring the power supply “up to par.” He said he would facilitate the entry of new and preferred industries and tap new revenue sources. But he was also thinking along “lines of austerity,” saying that “the number of government workers will gradually be reduced.” The government, however, needed to hire “qualified people for financial management.”

The incumbent governor could not attend the forum “because of an earlier commitment.” As for his Democratic rival, he told the chamber that the islands’ “economic problems have been neglected through apathy, greed and ignorance.”

He vowed to improve infrastructure “through prudent physical planning.” He promised the creation of “a favorable investment and business atmosphere.” He said the government should be “frugal” while serving “the public’s needs.” He “acknowledged that the government has workers it doesn’t need” but “he would not fire them. ‘They won’t suffer.’”

In a full-page advertisement titled “Keep our Commonwealth MOVING,” the incumbent governor said voters should judge candidates “by how well each of us has performed during the past years, and what the results were. Judge each of us by our accomplishments, judge us by the changes that have been occurring steadily and quietly since we were a Trust Territory District, judge us by the things we have promised and have delivered. Our party’s platform was developed from the experience we have gained thus far, and we will continue to build on this experience. We intend to improve what has been started and to do those new things that must be done, using all the expertise that we, working as a team, have acquired in the past four years. The important thing is that our accomplishments are now on record.”

His campaign slogan was “Continuity in Progress and Leadership” while the Republicans said it was “Time for a Change and a New Beginning.”

In an open letter to the people of the CNMI, the GOP candidate for lt. governor asked, among many other things:

“Why is our government so grossly corrupted that outside people are afraid of our government?”

“Why are the constitutional powers of the governor so grossly abused and violated by our governor that it appears nothing can be done about such abuse and violation?”

In a gubernatorial debate in October, the Republican candidate asked his Democratic counterpart, “You fully supported the [incumbent governor’s] administration for three years, now you refer to it as a mess — what took you so long?”

In a paid advertisement, the Democratic candidate said his Republican counterpart, who was also the Senate president, “reward[ed] his Senate employees with whopping pay raises when the commonwealth is in the middle of a financial crisis.”

All three gubernatorial candidates accused each other of corruption. (One allegedly had a “Chinese connection.”) Each believed he would win.

So who won? The Republican candidate. He garnered an impressive 56 percent of the votes cast. The two Dems split the rest.

In 1997, the Dems were split again, allowing the Republican candidate to win, again, but this time with less than 50 percent of the votes cast.

However, since 2009, the winner of a gubernatorial election must garner 50 percent plus 1 of the votes cast. Otherwise, there will be a runoff between the top two candidates. There were runoffs in 2009 and 2014, and both were won by the incumbent.

The current Republican governor has just been impeached as I write this. His reputation has been tarred and feathered by his opponents. His party is split. The economy remains in a coma. The pandemic is still raging.

Can he make it to the runoff?

Zaldy Dandan is editor of the NMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety. Send feedback to His fourth book, If He Isn’t Insane Then He Should Be: Stories & Poems from Saipan, is available on

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