By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
On the outside, the Congress building in Hagatna is a vision of peace and dignity. But legislative proceedings, streamlined for public viewing, reveal the political hostility inside the session hall.
Politics is commonly viewed as an ideological divide between the Democrats and the Republicans, an inevitable collision of the vicious partisan rift.
But in the 36th Guam Legislature, clashes can occur outside of ideological principles.
On Thursday last week, a public hearing on the Port Authority of Guam’s bond financing bill was abruptly called into recess following a verbal brawl among three Republican senators.
The shouting match began when Sen. Mary Torres, who was presiding over the public hearing, called for order and asked Sen. Joanne Brown to “refrain from interrupting” Port General Manager Rory Respicio, who was being questioned on the port authority’s wharf hotel project.
Torres pleaded with Brown to “please stop talking over me.”
Sen. Telo Taitague joined the fray.
The heated exchange reached its boiling point when Torres called on the legislature’s sergeant-at-arms to remove Brown and Taitague from the session hall before calling a recess of the public hearing.
Torres said Thursday’s incident highlighted the reason she decided not to seek another term in the legislature.
“It’s not a very good environment, politically, right now. The political arena in the legislature is more an issue of control and power, not integrity and principle. That deep division and polarization is not a healthy environment to work in," said Torres, who is serving her fourth term as a senator.
Last week’s public display of antagonism at the legislature was not an isolated incident, Torres said, revealing a lot of powerplay behind the scenes.
“It has become so polarized and divided that oftentimes we can’t even get through the business of the day because there’s so much infighting,” Torres said. “It doesn’t serve anybody any good.”
The most infamous spectacle of a partisan war took place in 2008 when then Sen. Ray Tenorio stormed the session hall and grabbed the gavel from then-Speaker Judi Won Pat. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party fought over control of the legislature following the death of Republican Sen. Antonio Unpingco, which led to a split majority in the 28th Guam Legislature.
While partisan disagreements are typical of politics, Torres said, the dynamics of the current Guam legislature are marred by a clash of personalities.
“You can anticipate that you are not even going to have a good debate on a topic because it’s always about character and motives that get interjected into the discussions on the floor,” Torres said.
“One of the standing rules is that we don’t bring in the person or motives as part of the discussion, because then it becomes personal. You’re not fighting for the issue; you’re fighting the person,” she added.
Authorship also comes into play in terms of what bills are to be entertained. “It always matters who introduces the bill for it to succeed. What does it matter who introduces the bill or how many cosponsors there are?” Torres asked. “What matters is the topic of the bill.”
Torres comes from a long political line. She is the daughter of the late Carlos Garcia Camacho, who served as the last appointed governor of Guam from 1969 to 1971 and the first elected governor from 1971 to 1975. She is the sister of former Gov. Felix Camacho, who is running for governor again this year. She is married to Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Torres.
Torres served as the general manager of the Port Authority of Guam and later as executive director of the Guam International Airport Authority before being elected senator in 2014.
The state of affairs at the legislature has deteriorated over the years, Torres said.
“It has gotten a little rowdy here— almost to a point where it’s just not dignified anymore,” she lamented.
“It has been different compared to how it was when I first came in the 33rd legislature. I was a minority and one of the few women in the body. Despite partisanship, there was a climate of congeniality. I had mentors who were to offer me guidance," she recalled.
While individual members of the legislature should be held accountable for their own actions and behaviors, Torres said, the quality of leadership is also a factor to be considered.
“I cannot and don’t want to blame any one person. I think that, collectively, it’s everybody’s responsibility to conduct themselves above board and conduct themselves in accordance with proper decorum and civility,” she said.
“But then again, leadership does make a difference. I don’t want to say that I blame the speaker but I do acknowledge that she has the ability to set the tone and to control to keep some decorum.”
Nowadays, she said, it is difficult to expect rational discussions because some proposals are driven by a “desire to control.”
“Any time there’s a situation where money comes into play, things get a little more tense. In the last two years, we had this infusion of federal funds," she said.
"All of a sudden, everybody is so interested in the disposition of those funds … and then when money is put out there, the response would be, ‘Are you doing that as a sort of bribery or vote-getting.'" So it’s like we can’t even decide what it is we are asking for."
Torres also expressed frustration with the tendency of some senators to flip-flop on some issues.
“People take positions and then they backtrack,” she said. “So you can’t even rely on a point-of-view being consistent."
Despite her decision not to run for the 37th Guam Legislature, Torres said she is not ready to retire from public service.
“I’m not done working. I feel that I still have a lot to contribute,” she said. “My doors are still open. I just need to step away for now.”