A reality-check: Thank you, Gov. Torres


ROBERT HUNTERAbout this time of the year back in 2014 I wrote a letter to the editor titled “Let’s Keep Moving Forward” as a response to individuals, who in the runup to an election, were attacking former Governor Eloy S. Inos. Some of these individuals are the same ones who have relentlessly attacked Governor Torres. In a few short months, former Governor Inos had put himself and his credibility on the line to come to a permanent resolution to the decades of retirement program funding issues. He did this despite the attacks from the other side about how he was shortchanging the program and calling for his removal. The long and short of it was… Governor Inos was right and his naysayers were plain wrong.

Governor Inos placed a lot of trust in then Lt. Governor Torres, the tremendously difficult work of the Commonwealth, primarily the rebuilding of the CNMI after Super Typhoon Soudelor, which was exceptionally managed. Upon Governor Inos’ passing in 2015, Lt. Governor Torres via the Constitution assumed the role of governor. Some of the same individuals who have led the non-stop attacks against him, were at the time vocally challenging his assumption to the position on social media and blogs, despite the clear language of our Constitution.

It’s important that we recall what the state of the Commonwealth was back in 2013 and 2014. We were into the eighth year of hemorrhaging jobs, tourism had hit rock bottom, crimes like theft were at levels we had never seen, the retirement fund was not making pension payments on time, reducing payments, and in threat of running completely out of funding, public services were severely depleted, we had lost our control of immigration, and well, the future of the CNMI looked incredibly bleak. On top of all of this, we were hit by Soudelor, the most destructive Super Typhoon we’d seen to that date. There would be no resumption of tourism, there would be no turn in the job market, there would be no repairing our dilapidated public facilities, there would be no increases in pay, there would be no seeing a robust economy. That obviously wasn’t the feeling of and didn’t stop Governor Inos and his young Lt. Governor Ralph Torres from immediately working to change this reality.

Governor Inos assumed the governorship and hit the ground running immediately, personally interjecting himself into the retirement fund case which was at the federal court. He was key to working with the court to craft the Settlement Fund, which inarguably saved pensions. I know this because I was there, a member of an active employee organization who was trying to intervene in the ongoing retirement fund lawsuit, to ensure the interests of long-time active employee members of the retirement fund were protected and represented.

I did not know Governor Inos that well, but I was incredibly affected by his showing up in person at the federal court to work with the judge and parties to forge a way forward. I was supremely proud. His detractors, who bemoaned his decisions (again, some of the same folks who’ve relentlessly attacked Governor Torres), who were also working for their own interests and completely unwilling to compromise, as time has proven, were simply wrong.

Sadly, Governor Inos’ time in office was brief. I think I would not be wrong to suggest that many in the community were worried. We were seeing positive changes, we were in the midst of a disaster recovery, and our Governor was gone. I knew little about Governor Torres. It was a very uncertain time.

On top of tackling the eight-year-long severe economic depression, our new Governor was faced with handling the management of the worst disaster to beset the CNMI in its history, Super Typhoon Soudelor… and by all accounts he did an exemplary job. He championed getting our visitor-industry back online and growing again, seeing new airlines enter the market for the first time in decades. We saw investors coming into the CNMI like we had not seen since the 80s. We saw new businesses open. We saw a total turnaround in the job market. We saw average pay rise to the highest levels in CNMI history. More citizens were employed than at any time in CNMI history. The Governor led the push to see public employee pay raised across the board for the first time in over 20 years. The Governor’s work with the federal government saw the effects of the reduction in foreign labor stymied. We saw new parks opened, new community centers opened, community and youth centers renovated, and our sports facilities cleaned up. We saw tourist sites cleaned up. We saw roads paved. We saw public safety offices open in the villages. And although we were hit with, and set back by, the one-two punches of Super Typhoon Yutu and the COVID-19 pandemic, and Typhoon Mankghut that devastated Rota, the leadership of Governor Torres through all of these incredible challenges, has positively affected every resident of the Commonwealth.  It has in fact been exemplary leadership in the face of our worst disasters.

Despite all of the enormous challenges Governor Torres has had to tackle and has done so in exceptional fashion, and despite all of the incredible successes and significant progress in-between the natural disasters, his political detractors have been constant in their attacks. These individuals have acknowledged none of the incredible work of the Governor but have worked overtime to try to negate any of the accomplishments, criticize, and thwart successes at every turn. As they have been unsuccessful unseating him in regular elections, their rhetoric has been ramped up. More recently, they have used the cover and resources of their offices to try to do what they’ve been unable to do through fair elections… remove him.

Unhappy with the results of the first round of investigative hearings, the political opponents of the Governor decided to hold a re-do. Spearheaded by a career-long political opponent of the Governor and announced gubernatorial opponent in the upcoming election, “no conflict of interest here” Tina Sablan, who has never retreated from lying as necessary to besmirch the administration’s record and who in her personal business has willfully (and dangerously) violated Commonwealth laws (and by the way, if this is false, I’m still waiting for the lawsuit…), and whose actual accomplishments would fit into the space of a single period in Governor Torres’ novel-long list of accomplishments, she sees this JGO circus as the instrument needed to finally steal political power.  She’s been throwing around the possibility of “impeachment” after all, for many years now. Can’t win ‘em through a legitimate election… let’s impeach.

And then there are Sablan’s “flawed-squad”. You’ve got the representative who escaped an ethics investigation hearing related to serious allegations of sexual impropriety involving minors and students, by resigning and then coming back into the legislature when his party members were in the majority. These are allegations that lead to the identification of eight women, seven of whom made statements, and several of whom were underage at the time of the alleged incidents. You better believe that even one of these same allegations were made against a political opponent of the current House majority, ethics investigations and calls for removal would be in immediate order. Instead, the hypocritical majority has turned a completely blind eye to these very serious allegations. Ice chests and SD Cards acquisitioned by the Governor’s office for work, and business-class seating and utilities that every CNMI governor has received is the utmost concern of the House? Not allegations of gross sexual misconduct that involved minors and students? Seriously?

I won’t out individual by individual, you get my drift. You’ve got a gaggle of politically-motivated individuals with zero accomplishments under their belts who see this as their opportunity to finally thwart the voters and steal the political power they’ve been working overtime for. They have the resources of their offices and zero other ideas of real merit for the CNMI, except to forward their political positions. All one needs to do is look at their histories. What have they garnered for the CNMI? What great improvements have they championed for their precincts? What resources of note have they brought to the CNMI? Have they created community or have they created divisiveness? Have they ushered in new development, new industry, or better industry? In order to understand their motivations, it is important to examine what they have accomplished over their careers.  You’ll find that collective “list” extremely brief.

By contrast, our young Governor Torres has been one of the most productive and most effective governors in CNMI history. His administrations have seen the first time in CNMI history that the retiree pensions have been prioritized. Gone are the days of daily headlines threatening nonpayment of pensions and, in fact, the Settlement Fund administration has consistently given the administration high marks. Gone are the days of losing, mismanaging, and not taking advantage of grants, with the CNMI receiving more federal grant assistance than at any time in its history and seeing the return of grants lost in previous administrations. Gone are the days where, despite present challenges, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

While we are making our way out of this COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen what Governor Torres is capable of doing post-disaster. He led the CNMI to record tourism, investor, job, and pay numbers following Soudelor. Following the disastrous Super Typhoon Yutu and before the pandemic, the CNMI was on-track once again to booming tourism. Unlike the bleak days of the long-term economic downturn of the mid-2000s through early 2010s, we know we have a leader in Governor Torres who knows how to resuscitate and grow the economy. In fact, despite the ongoing pandemic, the administration has been laying the foundation for the reboot of the economy, by improving visitor sites, securing historic grants to build world-class sports facilities and world-class festival and event facilities, meeting with new airlines to create new markets, and see beautification and improvement projects through his Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors. The list of accomplishments by Governor Torres’ administrations is exceptional, and no matter how hard his politically-motivated detractors work to negate those accomplishments… they are record.  If you benefit from increased food assistance, if you appreciate the construction of the traditional canoe at the Seafaring Traditions Program, if you were a recipient of assistance through the pandemic, if you appreciate our repaired walk paths, if you aren’t suffering from low or no water for days and weeks at a time or power outages every other day, if you could not retain employment without the increased child care assistance, if you were cared for through the shelter for months following Yutu, if you were glad the CNMI was able to provide the COVID-19 vaccinations well-ahead of most states, if you enjoy the Inos Peace Park, the new San Vicente Children’s Park, the Motocross Park, the CNMI Soccer Training Facility, or any of the other new or rejuvenated community and youth centers… you have the administration and Governor Torres to thank.

Governor Torres has earned and deserves enumerable credit. If the buck stops with a governor when there are problems, they certainly stop with the governor with the successes. I did not know Governor Torres when I received a call from him one morning in 2016 asking if I would consider serving as the Secretary of the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs. It was a totally out-of-the-blue call, and I actually thought it was a prank call by a friend. I didn’t even own a cellphone at the time, so he had called via a landline. My appointment by Governor Torres, I later learned, spoke volumes about him. He didn’t care where you were from, what your politics were, whether you’d been involved in politics or you’d been a donor. I found over time, that he didn’t care about any of that. He cared about whether or not you could do the best job you could for the people. All one needs to do is look at the makeup of his cabinet and staff to know that. He’s appointed persons from all aspects of life, of all ages, a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and a variety of political leanings. The one thing I learned that Governor Torres most cared about, was people. If you brought a problem, concern, or plan to the Governor, his first concern was always the people involved, especially if children and man’amko were involved. I discovered, over my time, that the Governor is an extremely decent man, who always deferred to what he believed would most benefit the regular person. He cares about people. I grew into a great appreciation for the Governor because of this. It didn’t matter what decision on the table that there was to be made, he would defer to the one that was best for the people… even if for other reasons it was the most difficult choice. Some wonder why I have been such a staunch supporter of the Governor. This is why. As his political opponents have spent their every breath trying to demonize him for their own political gain, I have felt a personal obligation not to let them get away with that. Any of the Governor’s staff would confirm that he has constantly advised his staff to focus on the work, carry out the positive work, and ignore the political critics… unfortunately, tolerating bullies is not in my DNA.

Representative Edwin Propst spoke at my Senate confirmation hearing, relaying a high-school story I’d forgotten all about, where I stepped in to thwart a beating that he and another were the targets of. I did that because I’ve always felt an obligation to stand up to bullies and fight for those who are undeservedly being attacked. It is unfortunate that Propst, with his own very serious skeletons in his closet, has chosen to put on the hat of a bully and go after a successful Governor that he knew would not retaliate. It is unfortunate for Propst that I happened to be present as a staff.  For all of their strategically-designed accusatory bluster, Tina Sablan and some of her other close political cronies have their own very serious skeletons to deal with. But this is only about putting on a ruse of holding some moral high ground for the purpose of their political agenda. The reality is, they have gone about their activities as if the law does not apply to them and as if they get some sort of a pass. They can criticize, condemn, make false assertions, promulgate misinformation, use public resources anyway they want, and excuse and ignore the past serious infractions of anyone who jumps on their political bandwagon, but gosh-forbid you criticize or question them. Not too long ago I questioned Representative Tina Sablan about the wisdom of spending $150 an hour of public funds for a private attorney, when the Legislature already had salaried attorneys available to members. Her quick written response to me was “you don’t get to tell me how to run my office”. Could you imagine the Governor responding that way to Sablan’s inquiries?

With regard to the politically-motivated accusations of impropriety by the Governor, I can tell you firsthand that time and time again, when faced with decisions that have been politically expedient or politically beneficial, he has opted for neither but dismissed these in favor of doing the right thing. I witnessed this early on during my term as DCCA Secretary when there was a decision to be made related to a very politically connected company during an election. While it would have been absolutely legitimate and easily justifiable to sole-source the needed services of a particular company, the Governor insisted the work be bid out political ramifications be damned. He stated that even though this would pass muster and was time-sensitive, the fairer road would be to bid it out and insisted on that. Governor Torres wasn’t concerned about the political damage or losing potential political support, he cared about absolute fairness. This scenario has played out repeatedly, whether it was related to staffing, assignments, appointments, pressure from lobbying, or contractual opportunities. It is another one of the reasons I proudly support Governor Torres. Contrary to the skewed picture his political opponents have tried to paint, in every single dealing I have had with him or been witness to over the years, he has always opted to prioritize fairness, doing the right thing, and making the hard decisions, even at the expense of and without concern for damage to, his political support.

I am incredibly proud to have worked for the administrations of Governor Torres. It has been the highlight of my career. He is an extremely good man, a caring man, a good father, a good husband, and a decent and moral man. I’ve worked under or for over 25 years-worth of administrations, and there has been no more productive of an administration than those of Governor Torres’. And make no mistake, the efforts to remove him by his political opponents aren’t about him. The same persons involved in this effort worked towards impeaching Governor Fitial. The same persons involved in this called for the impeachment and challenged the ascension of Governor Inos. The same persons involved in this effort would be doing the same thing if it was the beloved Governor Pete Tenorio, Governor Guerrero, or any other governor. They just happened to come into politics in the last decade or so. This is about acquiring political power for them and nothing more. We’ve heard “impeachment” and “corruption” for ten years now, without anything materializing legally or through our own independent watchdog agencies. This impeachment effort led by members of the house, who are the Governor’s political opponents, is plainly political and nothing more.

I know that this has been long-winded, so I’ll go ahead and close this out with a “thank you” to Governor Torres for putting people before politics and with a fitting quote, “Remember, the only taste of success some people will have. is when they take a bite out of you.”

God bless Governor Torres and family, God bless the CNMI, and God bless those that hold in their hands the opportunity to do the right thing related to this politically-motivated effort against a good man, our Governor.

A blessed and fulfilling new year to all.

Robert Hunter is the chief policy advisor to the Office of the Governor.


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