Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Goodbye, 2009

This week’s Under the Pala Pala will be the last of 2009. Next year I am moving to Florida and I have every intention of continuing this weekly commentary, but it may be a few weeks before I settle into writing again. I will continue to use this email address if you would like to contact me.

Under the Pala Pala VI

In 2009 I dove the center of an underwater volcano’s crater, hiked to a waterfall 1000 miles from the nearest McDonalds, rocked a mohawk for an interview on primetime network television, and made a bid to become the first Irish American mayor in Micronesian history. I also witnessed an outgoing president of the United States set aside a huge swath of ocean and an incoming president take the oath of office. It was a good year; perhaps the best I’ve ever had.

2009 was a watershed year for the Commonwealth. We witnessed the end of the garment era when the last sweatshop closed up in January and the beginning of the Homeland Security era when the federal government took control of immigration in November.

As the year rolled out the gates I knew that the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument was only days away from being designated. I received an invitation to the White House and along with Ike Cabrera, Agnes McPhetres, and Ben and Josie Fitial, represented the people of the Commonwealth as President George W. Bush put his signature to the document creating a protected area for which many, myself included, had staked their reputations and put their lives on hold for.

The designation was covered in virtually every newspaper, news magazine, news website, and television channel on the planet, shining a level of media attention on our shores unseen since the waning days of World War II. Nothing the Marianas Visitors Authority has done in the last 10 years has matched the level of interest the monument generated and continues to generate.

NBC Nightly News visited Saipan to film a story that ran in primetime on Earth Day. Several Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument, including myself, were interviewed for the piece. They also produced a web-only featurette called “Voices of Saipan.” Outdoor Magazine will run a story in 2010 about the expedition we took to the monument back in July, which I am sure will be followed by more stories as the monument management plan is drafted and as protections are increased.

The 10-day expedition to the monument I helped organize in July fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit all of the islands in the Marianas archipelago, including the three islands within the monument. Dennis Chan, the 18-year old local boy who won a seat on the boat with an essay he wrote, and I are the only living people I know who have slept on Maug.

Highlights of that trip were diving the Maug crater, rounding Uracas, the most northern point of the Marianas, hiking for six hours across Pagan, and meeting the Saures boys on Agrigan.

In addition to that expedition, I did my fair share of traveling this year. I spent almost the entire month of January away from home, first in DC to witness the signing of the monument, then in Florida to visit family, and then back to DC to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama. Along the way I met with friends I have not seen in years. Thank you, Facebook.

I stopped back on Saipan for a day before shipping off to Pohnpei for two weeks for an environmental retreat with Micronesians in Island Conservation and afterwards some R&R with my monument cohort, Laurie Peterka,.

I also accepted an EPA award in San Francisco (Cheesecake Factory!), with a day trip to see the cherry blossoms in Narita while in transit, went to Guam for a soccer game, and testified before federal officials in Honolulu (another Cheesecake Factory!).

2009 was also the year of the Covenant Party resurgence. After running the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation into the ground and subjecting us to untold hours of blackouts, raiding the CNMI Retirement Fund to cover day-to-day government operations, and having his Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of Commerce thrown in federal lockup for fraud, conspiracy, and theft, Benigno Fitial was reelected as our governor by less than 400 votes in a runoff election against Republican Heinz Hofschneider.

I threw my support behind Heinz in the run-up to the runoff after a Fitial Administration official asked for my vote, their reasoning for why I should vote for Fitial being so that they could keep their job. I was disgusted.

Most people point to the hiring frenzy by Fitial in the weeks and months before the election as the reason behind the success of his campaign; The Marianas Variety reported that nearly 1000 people were added to the payroll.

With the exception of their support for Beautify CNMI (which would have been a no-brainer regardless of who was governor), I cannot point to a single policy decision made by the Fitial Administration that has improved life for our people. Not one. I was and continue to be very disappointed in their victory.

I am also disappointed in my failure to become the next Mayor of Saipan. I was reluctant to run, one of the reasons I was so late in announcing my bid. Now having the experience of being a candidate I can say that I have no intention of ever running for office again, but I probably wouldn’t be speaking honestly. I have not made a decision whether to run again in 2014, but I also haven’t made a decision to not run.

People tell me that I should run for House in three years or try again for Mayor in five, but that is never what I wanted for my life. I want to save coral reefs and rainforests; it was never my intention to become a politician. The current mayor absconded his responsibilities to the public and instead spent over $¼ million of taxpayer money, a very hefty percentage of his annual budget, traveling the globe. I ran for Mayor because I could have cleaned up the stray dogs and taken Beautify CNMI to a new level, but I lost so now I am moving on. It is time to get that Masters degree and Ph.D. even though the months I spent running for Mayor and the $22,000 it cost my donors (some guy named Angelo O’Connor Villagomez was my largest donor) earned me lessons and skills no college could offer, no course teach. I am forever grateful to the 1,612 people who voted for me and promise I am not retreating. I am reloading.


Under the Pala Pala is the weekly commentary of Angelo O’Connor Villagomez. To subscribe via email visit www.AngeloVillagomez.com.


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