Eight of the candidates vying to serve as the CNMI’s first non-voting congressional delegate stood shoulder to shoulder in a forum Tuesday night that put each of them in the hot seat without any idea what question would come next.
As the forum began, moderator Jon Anderson of Bridge Capital disclosed that candidate David Cing would be absent for the event and details later emerged that Cing had suspended his campaign. Anderson also noted an unexpected twist on the rules for the forum—the presence of a green “pass” card that gave the contenders the power to forgo answering at least one question throughout the course of the night.
The forum’s format consisted of randomly selected questions drawn from those submitted by members of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the event at the Fiesta Resort and Spa Saipan, students at Northern Marianas College and members of the chamber’s board.
The first question—on how to attract workers to fill the job vacancies that will likely be created by the federal takeover of local immigration rules—fell to Department of Public Lands official and talk show host John Oliver Gonzales.
“The question is: Do we have the political will and long term and master plan to develop our resident local workforce?” said Gonzales. “As your delegate, I will work diligently with the Department of Homeland Security, the INS, the Department of Interior and Congress so that we can provide regulations that protect the competitive economic tools for our development.”
Key to the CNMI’s economic future, he added, is ensuring the CNMI has access to skilled foreign workers and the Russian and Chinese tourism markets.
Businessman Chong Man Won later took a question on whether he would follow the will of the governor and the Legislature or put more stock in his own stance on federal issues. Won said the interests of the CNMI’s people should come first.
“Not every opinion everyone is going to agree with; some people are going to have their opinions and others will have their own,” he said. “But we have to look at what’s in the best interest of the people of the CNMI. Of course, I will not agree with the governor 100 percent and, of course, I will not agree with the Legislature 100 percent. We have to do what’s best for the people, whether we agree or disagree, it doesn’t matter.”
Retired judge Juan T. Lizama addressed a question on his stance concerning the prospect of a federal takeover of the Commonwealth Utilities Corp.
“CUC is a local matter,” he said, noting that the embattled utility needs to resolve internal organizational problems and improve its management. “CUC has to find a way to ensure that public utilities will be provided. We have to look at what’s happening with CUC management and the public has to be assured that what the management is doing is for the benefit of the general public.”
Whether Gov. Benigno Fitial’s recent lawsuit against the federal government over its takeover of local immigration rules is necessary was the subject of the question posed to the CNMI’s current resident representative in Washington, DC, Pete A. Tenorio.
“Absolutely, unequivocally no, it is not necessary,” he said. “The issue of the lawsuit is about abrogating self-government rights. I don’t see that as today’s issue because as a negotiator of the Covenant, I know that that issue is not in the Covenant.”
Tenorio later added that “the issue of [the lawsuit] is whether or not the government of the United States, through the enactment of the law, intruded into local internal labor. My answer is no. It did not and never did.”
Northern Islands Municipal Council member Felipe Atalig addressed what he sees as one of the most pressing issues the non-voting delegate will face: Te lack of familiarity with the CNMI among many members of Congress.
“For the past 35 years, the CNMI has not been adequately represented,” he said. “As a result, members of Congress have still not learned enough about the CNMI.”
Sen. Luis Crisostimo, taking part in a candidate forum for the first time in his election campaign, took a question on how the CNMI can take advantage of the pending military buildup in Guam. Marketing the CNMI as a tourist destination, he said, and making use of its agriculture sector could give it a major economic boost in light of the added military presence in the region.
“There is a market for commodity goods, services, service sectors such as leisure,” he said, pointing to local casinos and resorts. “We can also compete in farm produce, organic produce. We still cannot compete in volume but I assure you that in quality, we can.”
Decorated Vietnam War veteran John Davis managed to score a laugh out of the crowd when asked which presidential candidate he would work with best if elected.
“That was a joke, right?” he said. “I’m an American black man but I know that I have things in common with both John McCain and Barack Obama. What I have in common with John McCain, for instance, we’re both Vietnam veterans. But Barack Obama’s a black man and I’m a black man. Obviously, we have things in common. But, to answer the question, I believe I can work with both the candidates but for different reasons.”
Gregorio “Kilili” Sablan, a former lawmaker and former executive director of the Commonwealth Election Commission, took a question on whether the local Democratic and Republican parties should be affiliated with the national parties. Kilili also won some laughs from the audience.
“Because I am presently not a member or affiliated with either party, I couldn’t care less,” he said. “This delegate will have to work with both houses and both Democrats and Republicans. I will work with anybody, including independents, in Congress to advance the interests of the Marianas islands irrespective of their political affiliation.”