No other political leadership change in CNMI history is as symbolic of peoples’ push for transparency in government and serves another reminder that “no one is above the law” as the resignation of former governor Benigno R. Fitial on Feb. 20, days after the House of Representatives impeached him on 18 charges of corruption, felony, and neglect of duty. Historian Sam McPhetres said it could inspire what he coined the “Pacific Spring,” reminiscent of the “Arab Spring” that forced rulers from their power by demonstrations, protests, and civil wars in the Arab world in recent years.
Historian Don Farrell, now working on the last chapter of the Modern History of the Northern Mariana Islands, said the larger picture is the similarity with the administration of former U.S. president Richard Nixon.
“It was certainly significant, demonstrating that no one is above the law and validating the CNMI Constitution… Most of all, the Fitial resignation resonated with ‘People Power’ as with the Nixon resignation,” Farrell told Saipan Tribune yesterday.
Farrell also pointed out the determination of a vocal minority in the 17th House of Representatives—led by then minority leader and now House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan)—who attempted to impeach Fitial in 2012. But their effort was blocked by the pro-Fitial majority, led then by speaker Eli Cabrera.
“The people responded by making that vocal minority the majority in the 2012 mid-term election. They followed through with their election pledge and reignited the impeachment procedure and continued to push the issue until Fitial resigned. This demonstrates that a vocal minority can achieve objectives and that being in a minority is no excuse for inaction,” Farrell said.
He said such an outpouring of “People Power” has not been seen in the CNMI since the people conducted a referendum against casino gambling on Saipan during the first CNMI Legislature.
Fitial stepped down days ahead of the start of his impeachment trial at the Senate—unprecedented in the CNMI or in any other U.S. insular area in the Pacific.
His lieutenant governor, Eloy Songao Inos, became CNMI governor on Feb. 20. Jude Untalan Hofschneider became lieutenant governor, barely weeks after assuming the Senate presidency.
As Farrell pointed out, Nixon came into office in January 1969, with Spiro T. Agnew as his vice president. Agnew was implicated in illegal activities, forcing his resignation. Gerald Ford was chosen to fill the vacancy.
Fitial’s first lieutenant governor, Timothy Villagomez, was found guilty of corruption at the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. and was replaced by then secretary of Finance, and now governor, Inos.
When Nixon was forced to resign or face trial before the U.S. Senate, Ford became president and former presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller became vice president. In the subsequent presidential election, Ford defeated Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, but the people of America spoke and elected Democrat Jimmy Carter, Farrell said.
“When Fitial chose to resign rather than face trial before the CNMI Senate, Inos was elevated to governor and Jude Hofschneider, shortly after assuming the office of President of the CNMI Senate, was elevated to lieutenant governor,” he added.
Farrell said other CNMI public officials have been found guilty of crimes and removed from office, but the impeachment and succession in the office of the governor demonstrates not only that “crime does not pay,” but also that “the voting public is becoming more mature.”
“As Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan stated, the people are becoming more mature. Voters are choosing candidates based on the issues that really matter, not just family, business or ethnic loyalties,” Farrell said.
As with Ford in the 1976 general election, Inos will face the people in the 2014 general election.
“In both cases,” Farrell said, “neither candidate had been elected to executive office.”
“The two elections cannot be compared, because in the CNMI, the party structures have changed, perhaps are still changing, whereas party loyalties clearly influenced the outcome in 1976. The American people were so disgusted with Republican Party politics, especially the war in Vietnam, that people reacted by electing a Democrat who was not an attorney or recognized politician,” he said.
In the 2014 CNMI general election, Farrell said the people will have the opportunity to grade Inos based on his performance after nearly two years in office.
“With major issues at hand, particularly the proposed military buildup and lingering problems with the Retirement Fund, CUC and CHC [Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.], the next general election will certainly test the maturity of the CNMI voting public,” Farrell added.
Although started a year earlier, the impeachment process and Fitial’s resignation dwarfed any other local political stories of 2013.
“It will certainly consume one section of the last chapter of the Modern History of the Northern Mariana Islands, due to be published this spring by the Public School System,” Farrell said.