Friday, May 15, 2009

Delegate Watch III

Representative Greg Sablan was interviewed by recently. The story was posted today.

He does us proud in this article. Thanks, Greg.
Gregorio 'Kilili' Sablan wants to show the Northern Mariana Islands' better side

Gregorio “Kilili” Sablan has come to Washington to make amends.

Sablan is the first-ever delegate for the Northern Mariana Islands. But before he can do much of anything for his constituents, he has to convince his colleagues at the Capitol that the Northern Marianas are more than just a haven for sweatshop labor and Jack Abramoff’s handicraft.

“The one thing I do here is I tell everybody the truth,” Sablan said in a recent interview with POLITICO. “Mr. Abramoff — I never met the gentleman. Over 99 percent of our people never met Mr. Abramoff. I think we got taken for a ride.”

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands hired Abramoff in 1995 to help it fend off congressional efforts to impose U.S. labor laws on its textile and clothing manufacturers. Abramoff made millions off the engagement, and, along the way, he sent dozens of members on junkets to the archipelago in the South Pacific.

When Abramoff went down — he’s currently serving a four-year sentence in federal prison — the Northern Marianas’ reputation in Washington went down, too. Or would have, if it weren’t at rock bottom already, what with the steady stream of harrowing stories pouring out of the capital, Saipan. The underage children being forced into sexual servitude. The forced abortions. The workers boated in from Asia, who wore their fingers down to nubs sewing buttons in garment factories for less than minimum wage.

“A perfect petri dish of capitalism” is how former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay would summarize this to The Washington Post.

But others took a dimmer view of what had become of the Marianas since the commonwealth signed a covenant with the United States in 1976. And no one was more vocal in criticizing the commonwealth than Rep. George Miller, the veteran California Democrat and close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

So when Sablan arrived in Washington, he says his first order of business was to see Miller.

“Mr. Miller has been harshly criticized from the Northern Mariana Islands,” Sablan says. “I told him that, if we have done anything to personally insult him, I apologize on behalf of the Northern Mariana Islands.”

Sablan says he offered Miller “a new chapter in the relationship ... and I assured him of my sincerity, and I asked him to approach this relationship with a new approach and an open mind. And I feel that he has done that.”

Miller calls Sablan’s approach “a critical development for the CNMI.”

“For years,” he says, “lobbyists like Jack Abramoff could claim to ‘represent’ the commonwealth’s interests but were really working against the interests of workers and families there.”

Sablan acknowledges that much of the blame for the Abramoff mess lies with the local politicians in the Marianas — some still in positions of power. “He would not have taken us for a ride if the handful of people that were in official positions didn’t allow him to take us for a ride,” he says.

But the job of apologizing has, nevertheless, fallen to him.

“I think he’s done a good job at that,” says Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.). “Nobody wants to punish or withhold or deny any services or considerations because of Abramoff’s presence there.”

There is still work to be done. Sablan says he’s heard, not infrequently, that the Abramoff taint has members and staffers leery about visiting the Marianas. He has been working hard on organizing a members trip — and although he’s cautious with the details, he says he’s hopeful it will come together before year’s end.

He needs Washington’s attention, and quick. Since the garment trade went kaput in 2006, the islands’ general economic state has gone from dreadful for many to abominable for most. Nowhere in Saipan is the water safe to drink, and the next-largest island, Tinian, is without a single sewer line. Sablan says that the federal government has plans to fix these problems, that it’s “just a matter of getting this prioritized.”

And there’s the rub.

“What was an infrastructure problem will eventually be a health problem,” Sablan says.

The Senate bill former President George W. Bush signed into the books last May, which provided for a CNMI nonvoting delegate in the House, also extended U.S. immigration law to the islands. A previous law requires the islands to increase their minimum wage 50 cents each year until it conforms to the federal standard.

Prior to winning the delegate seat, Sablan worked for two Northern Marianas governors. Most recently, he headed the Commonwealth Election Commission, a job he appreciated because, he says, “I was obligated to be fair, even though some of the politicians happen to be my friends, my relatives or people who don’t like me.”

Now he must navigate the commonwealth’s highly nepotistic and quasi-dynastic local political scene, while trying to present a reform-minded face to Congress. It’s a delicate endeavor, which may be why as effusive as Sablan has been in his Abramoff atoning, he’s careful not to single out anyone in particular back home.

He says he has differences with local politicians, but that it’s best he works them out in private. Sablan chuckles when asked if it’d be better for the islands if those politicians were removed from the equation.

“Look, Mr. Abramoff is already in jail,” he finally says. “We don’t have anybody else to go to bed with.”

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