The Tipping Point: Pay raises, Jon Fernandez and other things that prompt a purge in the Legislature

December 4, 2016

 

On a gloomy post-election Saturday afternoon, Speaker Judi Won Pat walks barefoot around her office, boxing up books, papers, pictures, gifts and other souvenirs from her seemingly endless political career. It’s still more than a month and another session to go till the next legislature comes in, but she couldn’t wait to pack up. “There’s no reason for me to stay here another minute,” she chuckles, in an attempt to mask her disappointment at the game-changing election results.

 

A nine-term senator, Won Pat thought she had it in the bag. Given the Guam voters’ habit and history, the outgoing speaker had reason to make that presumption and be a bit complacent. Previous elections had shown the voters’ predilection for using the incumbent legislature as the template for the next, as if they simply found it more convenient to mark the boxes next to familiar names, notwithstanding their performance.

 

But on Nov. 8, Guam voters pulled a surprise, launching a purge of old-timers amid a growing community activism against unpopular legislative decisions. They dislodged seven incumbents— including Won Pat who landed on the 20th spot — in a stinging rebuke of the 34th Legislature. Their seats are taken by political newcomers.

 

Won Pat acknowledged that the election results were a reflection of a new political climate that fosters a clamor for a change. “I really believe that’s what it is,” Won Pat said. “It’s the same as the climate in the US — with millennials favoring Bernie Sanders, for example. Then you have people who feel they don’t have anyone they are aligned with — I saw that here.”

 

Just the same, for those who lost their reelection bids, a post-mortem soul-searching is in order. If you’d ask them, they’d certainly claim they did what they believe is best for the community. “I did a lot of things that I feel are and will be beneficial in the years to come,” Won Pat said. “I addressed a lot of issues that weren’t addressed before I came to the legislature, such as the building and renovation of schools. Those facilities will be here for generations to come.”

 

In the last 20 years, Guam had seen three speakers lose at the general elections. Before Won Pat, there was Don Parkinson who lost in 1996, and Ben Pangelinan in 2004.

 

2016  sweep

 

What did they do wrong? The first thing that comes to mind — among others — is the decision to give themselves, and other government officials, hefty pay raises despite public sentiment against it. Add the fact that it was passed without a public hearing.

“When the (Adelup-proposed pay raise) bill came down to the Legislature, it came with all the papers, including the Hay Study. It took a while before we were able to pay the Hay Study because we wanted to make there was money. We asked many questions; there were so many roundtable meetings and we dissected the bill because we really wanted to make sure there was money. They kept coming back to us, saying, yes, there is money.”

 

Won Pat was among the senators who later reconsidered their positions and voted in favor of the pay-raise rollback. “After everybody got their raises, we started hearing that the government is behind on releasing allotments; we started realizing that not much money is coming. That’s when I decided to change my position,” she said.

 

As a senator and speaker of the legislature, Won Pat said she made decisions based on full information, testimony and consideration of the impact of a bill. “I don’t go with a pre-decision,” she said, “I sit there and listen before I start to formulate my decisions.”

 

While indicative of the electorate’s desire to see a new breed of leaders, the results of the legislative race are nuanced by a lack of consistency in the voters’ decisions as to which senators to let go and whom to keep, vis-à-vis their votes and actions in the 33rd Legislature.

 

Even for Won Pat, it came as a puzzle. “It’s ironic that some of my colleagues — I’m not going to name names — who at the very beginning said we deserved the raises, and then later changed their minds, didn’t get hit. I was the first one to change my mind, yet I got it.”

 

“Pay raises were a tangent, not a core issue at the election,” said Ron McNinch, University of Guam associate professor.

Democratic Sen. Frank. Aguon Jr., an eight-termer at the legislature, topped the race; while two-term Republican Sen. Brant McCreadie ranked 30th and came as the tail ender. At least two senators, Dennis Rodriguez and Tommy Morrison (R), who voted against the repeal of the controversial pay raises for senators and other government officials, managed to survive the sweep.

 

Other incumbents lucky enough to keep their seats are Sens. Michael San Nicolas (D), Benjamin J.F. Cruz (D), Tom Ada (D) and Jim Espaldon (R), Mary Torres (R). They will be joined by newcomers Therese Terlaje (D), Telena Nelson (D), Wil Castro (R), Regine Biscoe Lee (D), Louisa Muna (R), Fernando Estevez (R), and Joe S. San Agustin (D). As of this writing, Sen. Tina Muna Barnes was 42 votes away from the 15th spot held precariously by San Agustin. Other incumbents who lost their reelection bids were Democrats Nerissa Underwood and Rory Respicio and Republicans Tony Ada and Frank Blas.

 

So what bumped them off?

 

“For the three Republicans, they were likely affected by a number of fairly apparent concerns,” McNinch said. “For example, Blas championed the litigation bill that affected the Catholic Church. Tony Ada had several factors that limited his campaign capacity. McCreadie was off island for personal reasons much of the campaign season and proposed a late bond bill that was not taken well.”

 

On the Democratic side, McNinch said, Respicio, as the banner bearer for the majority, bore the brunt of much of the democratic majority criticism. Barnes championed marijuana for the sick and was bogged down in a bureaucratic jungle for two years. “It was largely of her own making,” McNinch said.

 

The Jon Fernandez factor

 

Won Pat suspects her election defeat may have been the result of a demolition job by the office of the governor, with whom she had been at odds for refusing to hold an oversight hearing on the educations board’s decision to terminate Education Superintendent Jon Fernandez’s contract resulting from sexual harassment allegations. “I knew that three days before the election, the governor’s people, upon his direction, went out in full force, having them canvass the entire island,” Won Pat said. “I knew the governor and his people wanted to go after me and (Sen.) Nerissa (Underwood).”

 

Gov. Eddie Calvo, disagreeing with the board’s decision, repeatedly asked Won Pat to convene a hearing on Fernandez’s case when Underwood refused a similar request by Sen. Tommy Morrison. The governor had also called on Won Pat to convene a roundtable meeting to discuss the investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against an associate professor at the University of Guam.

 

“As a speaker, I always respect the chairs of different committees. I don’t micromanage their committees,” Won Pat said. Besides, she added, she didn’t want the legislature to interfere with the education board, which she said must remain politics-free.

Won Pat said one of her accomplishments as a senator was forming an independent education board with hiring and firing power.  She said she created the same systems at UOG and Guam Community College, where the selection process for university and college presidents would be “insulated” and free from political influence.

 

McNinch said the general sentiment reflected the results of the education Board election. “Peter Alexis Ada, the top defender of Jon Fernandez received 17,626 vote and Ken Chargualaf, Fernandez’s major critic received just 11,251 votes,” McNinch said.

 

“It was unfair to the legislature that the school board started this fire a month before the election. But for some odd reason, the senators let it burn. The legislature had to live with their house burning down. A simple lid on this minor political stove fire could have worked,” he added.

 

The next mission

 

Won Pat is one of the eight children of the late Antonio Borja Won Pat, Guam’s first delegate to U.S. Congress, and Ana Salas Perez. An educator by profession, she served as a delegate to the Guam 1977 Constitutional Convention when she was 27. A graduate of Montgomery College, Won Pat first tried her luck in the legislative race after her sister, Sen. Marilyn Won Pat, died unexpectedly after winning her bid for reelection. Encouraged by her family, Judi ran — but lost — in the subsequent special election to fill the seat of her sister. “I was a nobody ,” Judi Won Pat said.

 

Her second try was a charm. She was elected senator in 1994. Her foray into the speakership in 2008 was preceded by a political tragicomedy. The 29th Guam Legislature had a bare majority of eight Republican senators. A special election was held after the passing of Republican Sen. Antonio R. Unpingco. The former Chief Justice Benjamin J.F. Cruz, a Democrat, was elected to fill the vacancy, switching the majority position to the Democratic Party.

 

Early in the morning on March 7, 2008, the Democratic majority held session and appointed Won Pat as the new speaker, becoming the first woman to hold the position. But the Republicans, now the minority, refused to allow a change in leadership. During the session, Republican senator Ray Tenorio barged into the session hall and grabbed the gavel from Won Pat, an infamous spectacle that has gone down the history as the most entertaining episode in the Guam Legislature. “I laugh when I think of that,” Won Pat said. “When he tried to grab the gavel away from me, I had bursitis in right arm. I wasn’t gonna fight him and struggle and make a scene; that’s not me. I just let it go. I just gave it to him and ask him to leave. Then I took my high heels off and used it as the gavel.”

 

Throughout her political career, Won Pat admitted to making legislative decisions that displeased some sectors and eventually cost her votes. “I remained focused despite all the different factions in the community that have vested interests. Because I didn’t agree with them or they didn’t agree with me, I lost their votes,” she said.

 

Won Pat cited as an example a group of realtors who opposed her bills that would impose restrictions on development of properties in southern Guam. She also suspects that her position on the military buildup contributed to her loss. “I was first attacked as being part of the ‘Fab 5,’” she said, referring to the label attached to the five senators who are perceived to be anti-military. “So you have a group already right there who is anti-me.”  

 

Won Pat has started packing up and clearing out her office as she braces for a new life in the private sector. “I don’t have any regrets. I know I have done what I said I would do,” she said.

 

When I look back at my life, I saw how my paths worked for me. Everywhere I go, it’s taking me to the direction where I am supposed to be. That’s what I am excited about. I want to pack everything  

and start my new mission.”

 

Any intention to return to politics? “I always keep my door open. People know what I have always been aspiring for.”

 

Congress? “I never hide it.”

 

 

 

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