Thursday, October 22, 2009

Family Feud, Campaign Style

You can't get involved in Commonwealth politics without having to choose between relatives. Take the Governor's race, for example. Do I vote for the candidate married to my Dad's first cousin, the candidate whose godfather was my grandfather, or the candidate supported by the majority of my first cousins? For Senate do I vote for my second cousin, my father's second cousin, my distant cousin, the candidate who has accepted me into their family and calls me brother, or do I just vote the party line?

The Mayor's race is no different. One of the candidates is my father's second cousin. I'll let you guess which one. With that said, please enjoy this series of letters that has appeared in the papers over the last three days.

First up is Frank Benavente, who wrote me a letter published in Wednesday's Saipan Tribune:
'Making it harder for us to live'

This is a response to the letter of Dianne Esplin about the candidate for mayor, Mr. Angelo Villagomez. Why should we vote for Angelo? What has he done, besides make it harder for us fisherman to make ends meet? He spearheaded this monument that we have now. The monument took away all the best fishing spots for us fishermen. What about our families? Are you or Angelo going to give us more money for our fish? Are you going to pay for our gas to go out further and fish? I bet you won't. Angelo does not care for us unfortunate folks that do not have the high-paying, behind-the-desk, and more educated jobs. He doesn't care about us who have to work hard at various jobs just to make ends meet. Angelo is the worst possible choice for mayor; there are others who are running that are smarter and more determined than he is. I urge the people of Saipan to vote for a better person. Angelo is not the right man for mayor! I myself have not chosen my vote for mayor, but Angelo won't get it!

Frank Benavente
As Terlaje, Saipan
This kind of letter is nothing new for me. I've had to put up with propaganda like this for almost two years now and I like to think that most people can see right through the rhetoric. Maug is not a popular fishing spot and Uncle Joe isn't going up there on Saturday afternoons to catch atulai for the novena. I wasn't going to even respond, but Alexander Villagomez went ahead and did it for me with this scathing letter that appeared in Thursday's Saipan Tribune:
Caught out in a lie

On Oct. 21, somebody with the last name of Benavente wrote a letter linking Angelo Villagomez to the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. Mr. Benavente claims the monument took away all the best fishing spots and that fishermen now have to go out farther to fish.

Does Mr. Benavente know how to read a map? The monument is 300 miles north of Saipan and I can tell you from stories my father told me that it takes 48 hours of non-stop travel to reach that part of the Marianas.

And fishermen have to go farther to catch fish now? What is farther away than the monument? The only thing north of Uracas is Japan. It isn't even legal for American fishing vessels to fish in Japan! The monument has affected not a single fisherman, especially since the regulations for the monument are two years away. You just got caught in a lie, Mr. Benavente.

But you know what? If Mr. Benavente were to travel to the monument, which I doubt he ever has, he'd be able to fish! The monument only bans commercial fishing! And although I do not know him, I do not believe Mr. Benavente owns a Taiwanese long liner, so were he to ever visit the monument he would be able to catch as many fish as he wanted.

On top of that, Angelo was the strongest proponent of providing for indigenous fishing rights in the monument proclamation. And you know what? President Bush included them! Indigenous fishing rights are now codified in federal law! That never existed for Chamorros or Refaluwasch before Angelo campaigned for them. Talk about defending the indigenous people! Is Mr. Benavente indigenous? Well, guess what? Angelo fought for your fishing rights!

Mr. Benavente then goes on to attack Angelo for being educated. I've known Angelo my entire life and you probably don't know that he worked minimum wage jobs to make it through college. He went to school full time, drove straight to work, and when he got home stayed up late, tired as he was, finishing his homework. I know this because I lived with him at the time. Has Mr. Benavente ever worked a minimum wage job in his life? Angelo has two degrees, is smart and a hard worker and could have a high paying job elsewhere, but he chose to come back to Saipan to work in the low paying non-profit sector. How can you possibly criticize him for that? When he plants trees in front of your children's school or organizes a cleanup in your village, how is that not caring about you?

I recommend Mr. Benavente spend some time reading the declaration for the monument. He would learn that it does not affect local fishermen, but it sure does improve tourism. He'd learn that it is 300 miles away, in a part of the Marianas he's never visited. He'd also learn that recreational, sustenance, subsistence, and indigenous fishing are all allowed in every single inch of the monument, and that his arguments are lies made to discredit someone who cares deeply for his people and who has put into action those things he said he would do.

Mr. Benavente is free to vote for his candidate of choice, but he should not spin outlandish tales of local fishermen having to fish in Japan to put food on their family's tables. Being the first campaign to sling mud reflects poorly on him and it reflects poorly on the candidate that shares his last name.

Alexander Villagomez
Fina Sisu, Saipan
Friday's paper had not one, but two, responses! The first is a response to Alexander's letter from Roman's daugher, Darrah Benavente:
No mud slinging necessary

On Wednesday evening I sat with my father reading the article by Frank Benavente. We commented on the article as well as the obvious last name. On Oct. 22, an Alexander Villagomez wrote in response to that letter. What caught my attention was Alexander's assumption that Frank was involved in my father's campaign.

There are many things I have heard about my father, some good and some bad. Those who know my father or have met him at one time or another have seen he has no qualms discussing his point of view or asking for yours. My father has been in the public eye for many years and with it came scrutiny; as a family we have accepted this and maintained a dignified silence. Yet, as Alexander has seen fit to clarify his point of view with a firsthand account and defend a mayoral candidate, I will do so accordingly.

My father has never engaged in mud slinging. He has run in three elections and regardless of the result never attempted to defame his running mates. He has never used petty tactics to undermine the campaign of another. He has not promised scores of jobs to people. It is also known that he has never conducted any fundraising activities to operate his campaign as he believes his role is not to take money from people but to work to help them keep it. What my father has done is run a clean election with respect for all this running mates; visited with people across the island to hear their concerns; offered alternatives that he sees are progressive; take advice and consider your point of view.

Thus far I have only once alluded to Alexander's or Frank's last names. As Alexander has demonstrated, here in the CNMI we are all judged by our last names. Yet it does not matter that Roman and Frank are Benaventes or that Angelo and Alexander are Villagomezs or Tenorio or Camacho or Flores (you get the idea). What does matter and what we should all ask ourselves is after the inauguration in January 2010, which candidate will not shut the door on you when you walk in unannounced to voice a concern? My father, Roman Cepeda Benavente, is a man who is an experienced public servant. My father is a man with family values and tradition, balanced with a keen eye for change. Now that, Alexander, you can believe came directly from the campaign. No mud slinging necessary.

Darrah Benavente-Tagabuel
Koblerville, Saipan
The second is a response to Frank's letter from my Mom:

This is in response to the letter to the editor written by Frank Benavente, in which he stated that Angelo Villagomez is responsible for making it harder for fishermen to find fish with which to support their family because he spearheaded the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument.

I feel confident that someone in the local community can address this issue better than I can, and make it clear why Mr. Benavente is misinformed on this matter. However, I would like to address the other issue that Mr. Benavente raised about Angelo not being in touch with the realities of making a living.

Angelo has worked to support himself since he was in high school. He had a part-time job after school in high school, and also worked while he put himself through college for both of his college degrees. How do I know this? Because I am his mom, and back then as a single mother, I couldn't do it all on my own, and Angelo always helped out.

There may be an incorrect image out there of Angelo as someone who has been given everything in this life, but that is not true. He has had to work very hard for what he has, and as a result I know that he appreciates how hard most of us have to work to make it in this world.

I know that there are other very smart and determined people running for mayor. I would urge the people of Saipan to vote for Angelo because he is an honest man, an educated man, someone who values hard work and most importantly, he is someone who is a creative problem solver. I do know that Angelo Villagomez will work very hard to be the best mayor of Saipan.

Donna OConnor Villagomez
Ford Winter Park, Florida
Ah, politics.

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