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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Candidates quizzed at public forum

Members of the Kagman community got a chance to listen to and interact with the congressional candidates at a forum Saturday evening.

At the three-hour event organized by the Kagman Komunidat Association, the candidates were quizzed about their qualifications and their views on topics such as Gov. Benigno R. Fitial’s lawsuit on the new immigration law, the Commonwealth’s relationship with the U.S. government, and the struggling local economy.

Seven of the nine candidates showed up to present their plans. Sen. Luis Crisostimo and Saipan and Northern Islands Municipal Council member Felipe Atalig did not respond to invitations to attend.

The winner in the Nov. 4 election will become the Northern Marianas’ first ever delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The forum began with a first round of five questions prepared by the Kagman Komunidat Association. Each candidate had two minutes to respond to each question. The second round consisted of questions from the audience. This time, a one-minute limitation was imposed. Finally, each candidate was given five minutes to deliver his closing remarks.

Washington Resident Rep. Pete A. Tenorio touted as a selling point the experience he gained and the relationships he built over the seven years he has served as the CNMI’s representative to the nation’s capital. Although Congress is ruled by the Democratic Party, Tenorio maintains that a delegate with strong ties to the national Republican Party—such as himself—can open more doors for the CNMI than any independent candidate with no party affiliation.

Former Sen. David Cing, who is representing the NMI Democratic Party, made the same argument, despite his party not being recognized by the national organization. “You can’t just be anybody to get anything done in Congress,” he said.

But businessman Chong Won, a first-time candidate for public office, disagreed. He said sincerity and an ability to articulate one’s point are more important than political ties.

Most of the candidates opposed the lawsuit the governor has filed in a bid to block the pending takeover of local labor and immigration. Gregorio Kilili Sablan, a former lawmaker and former executive director of the Commonwealth Election Commission, said that he, if elected, would take the diplomatic approach and help get the governor’s concerns addressed through negotiation or legislation. For his part, retired judge Juan T. Lizama admitted he had not read the governor’s complaint; yet, he expressed hope the governor’s action would not backlash on any legislation the CNMI’s delegate may introduce in Congress.

Asked about the economy, most agreed that the Commonwealth needs to tap more into federal grants and attract foreign investments that would create jobs for the indigenous. Local TV talk show host John Oliver Gonzales said one of the first things he will do, if elected, is to “hire the best grant writers” to make sure the CNMI gets as much federal funds as possible.

John Davis, a high school teacher, was the only one to speak against federal aid and foreign investments. He stressed the importance of economic self-sufficiency, saying the CNMI should not be reduced to begging for help. “We have to start taking care of ourselves,” he said.

Community members who attended the event said they appreciate having had the chance to get to know the congressional candidates.

“I think this was a great opportunity for the candidates to come out and introduce themselves,” said Rep. Tina Sablan. “There are quite a few candidates who really hadn’t been involved in politics before. It was wonderful that the community had a chance to get to know them, as well as the more seasoned politicians. Unfortunately, two of the candidates didn’t show up.”

Asked to comment on the candidates’ performance, Sablan said each candidate had qualities and statements that she found notable. Some examples she cited were Tenorio’s experience in public service, Davis’ “blunt honesty,” and the fresh quality of Gregorio Sablan’s election platform.

She said she hopes there will be more opportunity for the community to interact with the candidates.

House Floor Leader Joseph James Camacho praised what he described as Gregorio Sablan’s “tempered” responses to the questions. “I like that he emphasized the importance of working together with the federal government while, at the same time, continuing to represent the people here in the Commonwealth. I think he delivered that message very clearly,” Camacho said.

Gregorio Cruz, president of the Taotao Tano citizen group, said he found the forum to be “very educational.” Cruz, who co-hosted the event with high school teacher Ambrose Bennett, said he was most impressed by Won’s performance at the forum.

“I think Mr. Chong Won really touched a lot of people tonight. All the rest talked about general campaign stuff, but I think he spoke from the heart. Despite his inexperience, his statements really got to me,” Cruz said.

For his part, businessman Alex Sablan said, “I think the candidates did a good job of answering the questions. After tonight’s performance, everybody can have an opportunity to make a good decision about who the best candidate is.”

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