On Nov. 4, Northern Marianas voters will pick the Commonwealth’s first ever delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. Nine candidates who come from diverse backgrounds have joined the race.
The nine are Pete A. Tenorio, the CNMI’s resident representative to Washington, D.C. for the past seven years, incumbent senator Luis Crisostimo, former Election Commission executive director Gregorio C. Sablan, retired judge Juan T. Lizama, former senator David Cing, Saipan municipal councilor Felipe Atalig, local television talk show host John Oliver Gonzales, high school teacher John Davis, and businessman Chong Won.
Of the candidates, only Tenorio, a Republican, has strong ties with a national political party. Cing represents the Northern Marianas Democratic Party, which has yet to get official recognition from its national counterpart. Crisostimo claims to be a member of the national Democratic Party, but is running as an independent after the local Democrats declined to endorse him. All of the other candidates are running as independents.
With three weeks to go before the election, concerns are already being raised that the crowded race is unlikely to result in the winning candidate securing a clear voter mandate—a prospect that could leave him open to greater public scrutiny than someone elected by a majority vote might be subjected to.
“It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just reality,” Rep. Tina Sablan said of the winning candidate’s likely lack of mandate. “But it will be a challenge for the CNMI’s first delegate. For example, the delegate’s critics are likely to continually remind people of the fact that ‘only 15 percent’ of the voters—or whatever it turns out to be—actually supported him.”
But Representative Sablan also said that a lack of mandate is not insurmountable. “Much will depend on his performance during the term of course, but my feeling is that if it is less than stellar, then the incumbent delegate might be dealing with formidable challenges in 2011,” she said.
Although historic, the Commonwealth’s first federal election has not attracted much interest in terms of voter registration. Less than 13,000 voters have registered to participate, barely one-fourth of the Commonwealth’s estimated population and a 15-percent drop from the voter registration for last year’s midterm election.
Gregorio Sablan, a candidate and a former chief of the Commonwealth Election Commission, noted that the small number of voters is typical of elections for one position only. Such elections do not attract as much as interest as, for instance, a gubernatorial election, where many government jobs are on the line.
The Northern Marianas is the last U.S. jurisdiction to get congressional representation. The law, which in May 2008 granted the Commonwealth the delegate seat, also allowed Washington to take over labor and immigration controls in the Commonwealth.
Under the measure, Northern Marianas will have a representative with limited voting powers to the U.S. House of Representatives. Similar to House members and other delegates, the CNMI delegate will be elected to Congress every two years. He can serve on committees, as well as vote on legislation at the committee level. But floor voting will not be permitted.
The CNMI delegate will receive the same compensation, allowances, and benefits as a member of the House of Representatives. Each member of Congress is paid almost $170,000 a year.
To be eligible, a candidate must be at least 25 years old, a U.S. citizen and CNMI resident for at least seven years before the election, and a qualified CNMI voter on the date of the election. A candidate for CNMI delegate must not be running for any other office.
The CNMI delegate will assume office on the third day of January after the election.