Disclosure: I am a member of the Democratic Party and will be supporting the Democrat in this year’s congressional election. Jesse C. Borja is a family friend who worked with my father on the Supreme Court and who I worked with for about a year when he was the Chair of the Mariana Islands Nature Alliance. Jesse was also the keynote speaker at the first Beautify CNMI anniversary celebration.
Six months from now, for only the second time in our history, the voters of the Northern Mariana Islands will elect a delegate to represent them in the United States Congress. So far four individuals have announced their candidacy: the incumbent, Gregorio Camacho Sablan is running as an Independent, Juan Nekai Babauta is his Republican challenger, Jesse Camacho Borja is his Democratic challenger, and Joseph Norita Camacho is his Covenant challenger.
In 2008 Representative Sablan won 24% of the vote in a nine-way race. Assuming that everyone who voted for him last time votes for him again (which is a bad assumption), 76% of the vote is still up for grabs. Sablan is now in a four-way contest, so my initial take is to put this race in the tossup column.
However, if I were a Las Vegas odds-maker and was forced to pick one, I’d put Sablan as the front-runner. In my opinion this race is his to lose, not the others to win. If Sablan can convince voters that he did a good job representing their interests during his first two years in office he should have no problem getting reelected.
I think he can make that argument; how successful he is in making it will be up to him (and the people that attack his record as the campaign proceeds). If I were Sablan I’d point to all the ARRA funds that have come to the Northern Mariana Islands in the last year and a half. I’d point to the introduction and passage in the House of Representatives of the submerged lands bill and the introduction of the Mariana Trench Visitor Center bill. I’d also point to the public meetings on each of the inhabited islands where he took questions from anyone who wanted to ask one.
On a personal level, I have appreciated the fact that Sablan has listened to my concerns as a voter and environmental advocate. He participated in the island wide cleanup that I organized in April 2009 and he and his staff have given me their time in his district office, in his Washington, DC office, over the phone, and via email. I cannot say the same thing for other elected officials in the Northern Mariana Islands. Some officials have refused to be involved in my environmental efforts because of the involvement of other elected officials with other political stripes; others still refuse to meet on issues pertaining to the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. Sablan may not always follow my advice, but he at least has the decency and respect to meet with me. When we can work together, we do; when we can’t, we don’t.
If the election were held today I believe that Sablan would win. As for the other three candidates, if one of them is going to defeat Sablan they are going to have to convince voters that Sablan has not done his job and that they would do a better job of representing the interests of the Northern Marianas.
I think that that argument can also be made. If I were a challenger to Sablan I would argue that the ARRA funds had nothing to do with him. It was the Fitial Administration that applied for and received millions of dollars in federal grants; Sablan is just taking credit for other people’s work. I’m not saying this is true; I’m just saying it would make a good stump speech.
I would also accuse Sablan of never wanting to take any sides, which is worse than being wrong or being a flip-flopper. He hasn’t taken a side on the immigration debate, whether or not the territorial waters surrounding Uracas, Maug, and Asuncion should remain a part of the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument once submerged lands are conferred to the Northern Mariana Islands, or which island in the Northern Marianas should be home to the Mariana Trench Visitors Center. As I campaigned against him I would say that now is not the time for indecision. The Northern Marianas need someone with a backbone, not somebody who is wishy-washy (I’d figure out a word that means wishy-washy in Chamorro and use it).
I would also accuse Sablan of not standing up for the interests of the people of the Northern Mariana Islands. I don’t really know how I’d make that charge, but I’d make it. Maybe you could say that he’s not standing up to Guam’s attempts to steal the social and economic benefits of the monument; you could also make baseless accusations about giving up our right to self-determination. There’s also the never fail accusation that he wants to give Filipinos US citizenship, destroying our culture and our economy in one fell swoop. A large percentage of people in the Northern Marianas are hard-wired to accept accusations of a federal takeover. You wouldn’t have to prove your charges to them either; they’d stop thinking as soon as you said the words, “federal takeover.”
I have personally never campaigned negatively, but I would not be surprised if all of the issues I just listed were brought up in the letters to the editor sections of the newspapers. The candidates themselves won’t make the charges, but the individuals that speak ahead of them at political rallies will.
As scary as it sounds, I think that Joe Camacho will have an easier time pulling votes from Sablan than the other two challengers. There is a certain segment of the voting population that will flock to Camacho once he starts spewing the anti-American rhetoric of the Covenant Party. Whether or not his loyalty issues counterbalance that is yet to be seen; Camacho campaigned for Sablan in the last election and has professed to believe in three different political philosophies in as many years.
Camacho will also have the support of the incumbent Fitial Administration. Government workers in support of Camacho are bound to be vocally supportive, while government workers supporting other candidates will shy away from their campaigns for fear of losing their jobs. I predict that the most vocal supporters of the other three candidates will either be unemployed, retired, or work in the private sector.
Never in a million years would I cast a vote for Camacho, but he at least meets my minimum requirements for the job. He is a practicing attorney and from all accounts is an intelligent person. I just disagree with his political philosophy (whatever it is this year). I predict that Camacho will get the fewest votes on Election Day (if nobody else enters the race).
Juan Babauta is an interesting candidate. I first met him when I was still in college and when he was the Resident Representative for the Northern Mariana Islands. His term as governor was just ending when I moved back to Saipan and I felt the public sentiment back then was that he was the worst governor the Northern Marianas had ever had. This was, of course, before Benigno Fitial was able to prove himself as the worst governor the Northern Marianas ever had.
When Babauta ran for governor last year I did not think him a serious candidate. I was shocked when he received 2984 votes in the Republican Primary. And yes, one of those votes was mine. I voted for Babauta because of his support for the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument and because of his choice for Lt. Governor, Galvin Guerrero. I would have voted for Heinz, who was actually a stronger supporter of the monument, but his selection for Lt. Governor, Arnold Palacios, gave me half a head of gray hair during the monument ordeal. I made it up to Heinz, however, for voting for him and Arnold during the regular election and the run-off election.
In this race I think that Babauta is a serious candidate, especially if he gets the support of the Republican Party (read: Ralph Torres). I would be content with a Babauta victory. Although I think that if the election were held today Sablan would be the winner, on Election Day I think the race is going to be a tossup between Babauta, Sablan and Jesse Borja.
Jesse Borja is the most credentialed of the four candidates. He went to the best college of the four, went to a better law school than Camacho, sat on the Northern Marianas Supreme Court, was a one-term lt. governor and is the most successful of the four.
Jesse has been out of politics for about a decade, which will be a hindrance. Sablan, Babauta, and Camacho have all run for office in the last two years and are starting off with more organization and a better grasp of their supporters. In this election Jesse has the support of the Democratic Party, but the party is not very strong and no democrats currently hold public office. Even so, I will be supporting Jesse and will ask my supporters to support him.
With six months to go the race is shaping up to be an interesting one. I wouldn’t be surprised if more candidates threw their hat into the ring, either. I expected John Oliver Gonzales, who placed third in the 2008 Election, to make another run and I’ll be shocked if no ego-driven candidates (i.e. Juan Demapan for Mayor 2009 and Felipe Atalig for Delegate 2008) enter the race.
The worst-case scenario for the race would be a Covenant victory; that would be disastrous. The Covenant Party and the governor have zero credibility in Washington, DC and Joe Camacho and the interests of the Northern Marianas would get steamrolled in the name of Jack Abramoff. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans would allow Camacho to caucus with them; the Northern Marianas would not belong to the majority or the minority. We’d be hung out to dry like everyone else associated with the corruption scandals that destroyed the careers of Tom Delay, Richard Pombo and John Doolittle.
That’s just my opinion, though.