PERSON OF THE YEAR
Young and inexperienced was how some of Ralph DLG Torres’ critics described him. Eyebrows were raised when the late governor Eloy S. Inos chose him as his running mate in the 2014 general elections. Their opponents even likened the partnership to a sinking ship.
Just some of the issues that were hurled against the Inos-Torres ticket was the CNMI government’s mounting debt with the Commonwealth Utilities Corp., unpaid land compensation, the lack of resources for the Department of Public Safety, and lack of medical materials, as well as specialists and professional staff, for the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.
Inos’ health was also a concern. A number of people said that if Inos were to die, an inexperienced 30-something Torres would get the reins of the CNMI.
“Being an elected official—whether as governor, lieutenant governor, a member of the House or Senate, or a mayor—you are chosen by the people. Majority of the people believe and want you to govern them,” Torres told Saipan Tribune in an hourlong interview for this yearend issue.
“Our community was more than willing to give us a chance to govern them. We were against the odds on how they campaigned against us. They made an issue of the governor’s health, my age, and saying how inexperienced I am.”
Yet despite all the talk, Torres ably held the fort whenever Inos was away, either for personal or health reasons, before completely taking over as the CNMI’s chief executive officer that held the fate of more than 20,000 residents.
His supporters think he has done a good job, especially with how the economy is getting back to its feet. They believe he has stepped out of the shadows of his predecessor and mentor, and his four siblings. The CNMI economy continues to climb from many years of slump.
Based on the 2015 data compiled by U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Commonwealth’s economy increased by 0.7 percent, from 2.8 percent in 2014 to 3.5 percent in 2015,marking the fourth straight year that the CNMI’s gross domestic product increased following years of being at the negative level, including a negative 17.5 percent economic activity in 2009, the lowest for the Commonwealth.
Stepping out from the shadows
Torres said he doesn’t see his inexperience as a disadvantage or liability. All politicians start from scratch before becoming veteran public servants, he said. “As I said in the past, everyone needs to be given the opportunity in order for that person to get the experience. Nobody is born a president or governor, you need to study and train yourself. Sure, I don’t have the same experience that others have, but there’s nothing in the [CNMI] Constitution that say about that requirement.”
“The Constitution doesn’t say how many years have you served or needed to serve. It doesn’t say how many [college] degrees do you have or need to finish. Being 35 years old is one of the requirements. If you meet the criteria and win, that individual needs to step up and prove to the people that they can do the work in the office where they were elected.”
Inos died in office in December 2015 in Seattle. Torres became governor with then-Senate president Victor B. Hocog being elevated to the lieutenant governor post.
Torres first ran and won as a representative of Precinct 1 in 2007. He became a member of the Senate in the 17th Legislature and became the youngest Senate president—at 33 years old—in the history of the CNMI during the 18th.
Benefits of economic turnaround
After almost a year of being captain of the ship of state, the CNMI is slowly reaping the fruits of changes and policies that he helped create while a member of the Legislature and the Executive Branch as Inos’ deputy. He has also made a name for himself, getting out of the shadows of the late governor and his four siblings.
“We are seeing the economic gains. Our economy is getting better; we were able to pay for the first time land compensation where we don’t need to float bonds. For the first time we can address all interest-bearing accounts,” said Torres, who signed House Bill 19-212 last week that appropriated $9 million from the $40.9 million supplemental budget to settle land compensation claims and other judgments.
The government owes $83 million in land compensation and other judgments but Torres said the appropriated amount is a start in settling some of the administration’s debt. “I wish I had $83 million to pay all obligations but we don’t. We need to set guidelines on how to get paid and how we should pay these obligations across the board.”
Increasing the salaries of government personnel has been one of the late governor’s goals.
“Growing the economy is the only way for us to have a higher revenue for the government and pay those employees who did not get any salary increase for the past 15 years. We gave the current government employees the wage increase and we gave out bonuses for the retirees.”
Addressing social issues like the war on “ice” would also continue after the Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, and Community Guidance Center programs received an additional $1 million.
“All of these had been the vision of the late governor. When he passed away we made sure we [the current Lt. Gov. Hocog] continue his vision because that’s what why we were voted for under the GOP.”
Looking forward to 2017
Torres sees a more robust economy in the coming year, with several projects—including the Imperial Pacific Resort opening—and tourist arrivals going up. He said this would translate to higher revenues for the government.
“Our projection is that we will have a higher budget for next fiscal year,” said Torres. “Another thing that I’m excited for next year is Docomo’s [Pacific] ongoing fiber optic project.”
“I’m just blessed with my political career. That’s why there’s no single day that I don’t take advantage of it by doing what is best for the CNMI because of the vote of confidence given to me by the people. Why do I work hard to address the issues? I want to make sure the retirees get their pension and people’s lives to get better.”
“Our work is not yet done. We’re going to push for better health care and address issues at the hospital and CUC. The Public School System just got an extra $10 million. Our next priority is to provide new equipment for the hospital and give doctors the support they need.”
Deciding to run
Running for public office was not in Torres’ playbook. All that changed after a few years when he returned to Saipan after graduating from Boise State in Idaho. He was talking to Dave Camacho, from the Pakpak family, at the back of his older brother Vic’s truck after working the whole day at their family property in Sadog Tasi.
That was in 2006 and he was complaining about the current state of Saipan. He was talking about some changes that needed to be done and how some things should be done to improve the community. Camacho told him that he should run for the House of Representatives.
He said he was surprised but Camacho said, “I can hear it in your voice that you want to make changes and you want to have these changes. After you graduated from Boise State, you now see the big difference when you‘re growing up then and what it is right now. Run and I’ll support you.’”
“That’s why when I went home I told my wife [Diann Torres], ‘I want to run.’ And she looked at me and answered, ‘Run to where,’” said Torres with a laugh. “I kind of stopped for a few seconds and told her, ‘Run for Congress.’ That’s when she told me that she supports my decision and added that I should talk to my parents and my siblings.”
He flew to Boise to get his parents’ blessing. He ran and won a seat in the House in 2017. After the 16th Legislature, he earned one of the two seats at stake in the Senate.
Torres and his five siblings—four brothers and a sister—grew up in a one-story house in Koblerville, a house built by their parents.
“My mom worked as a teacher at the William S. Reyes Elementary School and part-time every weekend at Joeten back then, while my dad was a field officer for the government and a dispatcher at CUC. Mom and Dad had to wait for every paycheck to buy materials for our house.”
“We lived back then in a tin house. Each paycheck, they bought 10 blocks and when it reaches 40, Dad would call some of his friends to help him build the house. We all grew up doing chores in the farm, taking care of pigs, cows, and chickens. We also love to go fishing, my dad fished at night and in the morning we had fish for breakfast. We grew up loving to eat fish.”
He is passing on this simple lifestyle to their six children. “The important thing is the thoughtfulness, the value of giving a gift no matter how simple it is. Our kids are happy with what we give them.”