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‘Unknown unknowns’ and this year’s CNMI gubernatorial election

Live from Saipan By Zaldy Dandan

Saipan — This year, the Northern Mariana Islands will hold its 12th gubernatorial election, and as I write this, there are three candidates: the Republican incumbent, Ralph DLG Torres; his lt. governor, Arnold I. Palacios who is running as an independent; and Democratic Rep. Tina Sablan. Torres’s running mate, Vinnie F. Sablan, is a well-liked senator who, some say, is a future governor.

For his part, Palacios has teamed up with the island’s popular mayor, David M. Apatang who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. As for the Democrats, they have yet to announce their candidate for lt. governor.

The local Republicans have split because the lt. governor was dumped from the ticket, and the party’s leaders “miscalculated” his reaction.

In 1981 and 1997, there were two Democrats running for governor against one Republican who easily won the election. Would a Democrat win against two Republicans in November 2022? Basic arithmetic says yes.

But since 2009, the winner of an NMI gubernatorial election must garner 50 percent plus one 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.

CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres

Again, basic arithmetic indicates that in 2022 a runoff is likely. Who could be the top two? Like the supposedly “unpopular” governor in 2009, Governor Torres would be quite happy to finish second on general election day, and then mobilize the substantial powers of his office to cobble together a 50 percent plus one majority in the runoff. (In 2009, then-Gov. Benigno R. Fitial won the runoff by a 370-vote margin out of nearly 13,000 ballots cast.)

Could Governor Torres finish first or second on election day, Nov. 8, 2022?

The wishcasters and/or the avid political supporters would be more than happy to tell us why their candidates should win. But the election is 10 months away, and even an independent, scientific poll conducted today could not possibly “predict” the actual election result. Moreover, as Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco once said, you can only predict things after they’ve happened.

So many things will and can still happen throughout the year before election day. To quote another sage, the late Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know.”

Here’s what I think I know:

• Battered by corruption allegations since 2018 — the FBI’s raid of his office and home in 2019 didn’t help — the governor is no longer as popular as he was before, especially when the local economy was still humming. (In the October 2021 special election for a vacant House seat previously held by a Republican, the Democratic House candidate won in a landslide by running, basically, against the governor.)

• But then again, Ralph DLG Torres has been governor for the past six years, and is familiar with the many “built-in advantages” available to an incumbent candidate.

• It appears that the Republican and Democratic camps do not “hate” the lt. governor as much as they “hate” each other. This could work in the lt. governor’s favor if he makes it to the runoff.

• In the House of Representatives, the Democrat-independent bloc and the members supporting the lt. governor’s gubernatorial candidacy have introduced a resolution to impeach the governor. As I write this, Torres is about to be the second governor to be impeached in NMI history. (The first was Fitial.) In the nine-seat Senate, six votes are needed to convict him. Right now, the Republican-Independent leadership bloc in the Senate has seven members, five of whom are considered “solid” supporters of the governor. But how solid are they? If the governor is convicted in the Senate, the lt. governor will be the next governor — and the Senate president will be the new lt. governor.

• If Lt. Governor Palacios becomes governor he would be the candidate to beat in November. Would that be OK to the Democrats-independents and their gubernatorial hopeful? At one point, it appeared that the Democrat-independent bloc members were inclined to support Palacios’s candidacy. But then the CNMI’s congressional delegate and the governor’s foremost critic, Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, publicly (and severely) criticized the lt. governor.

Widely considered as the titular head of the NMI Democrat-independent bloc, Kilili earlier said he was thinking about running for governor. In October 2021, however, he announced his unqualified support for Rep. Tina Sablan’s gubernatorial candidacy.


Here are some known unknowns:

• What caused the break between the lt. governor and the congressional delegate, and how could it affect the election and/or the runoff?

• The voting public’s reaction to their government’s Covid-19 response; and

• The state of what is left of the local economy just before election day.

And here’s the unknown unknown:

• What exactly will happen from Jan. 1 to Nov. 7, 2022?

Happily for the NMI government — the largest employer of voters — the federal Covid relief funds are good for one more year. The seemingly inevitable financial deluge won’t be noticeable until January 2023, just after the newly elected (or re-elected) officials are sworn in.

As someone sane once said, if you want to go crazy, you should get into politics so it would not be noticed.

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 already available on

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