Newsmakers of the year

Posted on Dec 30 2011
By Saipan Tribune

Gov. Benigno R. Fitial and Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos

For the first time in CNMI history, the governor and the lieutenant governor belong to two different parties.

Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, founder of the Covenant Party 2001, rejoined the Republican Party in January this year until he became its president again in November.

But Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos, a former Finance secretary, stayed with the Covenant Party, and there’s no indication he will follow Fitial’s lead. Other Covenant Party lawmakers have also stayed with the party.

Despite their reported rift over professional and personal reasons, Fitial and Inos have remained civil with each other and have continued working together to run the CNMI government. Fitial can’t seek reelection for a third term, while Inos seems to be waiting for his turn to become governor. Fitial and Inos had been friends for years.

Some Republican lawmakers are not supporting Fitial’s presidency of the party he abandoned 10 years ago only to lead it again. Fitial, in an interview with reporters, said his message to Republicans who are not happy with him to “drink milk.” Days later, Fitial asked lawmakers from different parties whether they want to join him and run under the Republican Party. The governor gave these lawmakers up to today to make a decision.

In 2011, Fitial has traveled far and near for both official functions and personal reasons such as medical checkups. At one point, Fitial and his administration officials were accused of spending lavishly on steaks and lobsters during their off-island travel while the CNMI is in deep financial turmoil. (Haidee V. Eugenio)

David Gulick

The face of federalization in the CNMI might easily be David Gulick, Honolulu district director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. USCIS is an agency under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security handling immigration benefits.

For most of 2011, as well as 2009 and 2010, Gulick was one of the most sought-after guest speakers in almost every formal and informal function in the CNMI-be it a Saipan Chamber of Commerce membership meeting, a church assembly or a neighborhood meeting.

Gulick met with almost every entity in the CNMI affected by the federal takeover of local immigration to directly answer questions and share information about, among other things, the final worker rule, the application for a Commonwealth-only worker status, and parole for eligible foreigners.

As observers put it, Gulick and his team from Honolulu, Guam, California and even Washington, D.C. have given enough consensus and consideration to the CNMI’s unique immigration situation to help make the federalization transition as smooth as possible. There were lots of hiccups but Gulick and his USCIS team helped fight tooth and nail on behalf of the CNMI, they said. (Haidee V. Eugenio)

Reps. Froilan Tenorio and Diego Benavente 

Rep. Froilan Tenorio (Cov-Saipan) has no qualms speaking his mind out. He remains relentless in his push to legalize casino operations on Saipan even after the Senate killed his casino bill last year. His call to the Fitial administration to lay off non-essential government employees starting with Rota and Tinian has stirred a controversy that observers pointed to, again, his casino bill’s defeat in the Senate where six of nine members are from Rota and Tinian.

And true to his word, he stepped down in January this year as House speaker during a tension-filled election for his replacement as speaker, a post that the minority thought it could win back.

With unexpected change of heart, at least two members made Eli Cabrera (R-Saipan) speaker over then representative Diego Benavente who was nominated in absentia.

Six months later, Benavente resigned as a member of the House of Representatives for family reasons. But he remains visible on Capital Hill, speaking his mind out on a host of issues.

Rep Janet Maratita (Ind-Rota) replaced Benavente as the second-highest vote-getter from their precinct. This is the first time the House has three female members at the same time-Maratita, Vice Speaker Felicidad Ogumoro (Cov-Saipan) and Rep. Teresita Santos (Ind-Rota). (Haidee V. Eugenio)

Rabby Syed

He’s been called names and threatened several times but United Workers Movement-NMI president Rabby Syed has been a champion of foreign workers’ rights and has been in the forefront of decades-long push for improved immigration status for long-term foreign workers in the CNMI.

Be it peaceful rallies, vigils, public hearings, Occupy USCIS, information drives, providing free taxi rides on certain holidays, donation drives to assist needy families or provide relief efforts to victims of disasters in the CNMI or outside, Syed is always there.

Syed visited Washington, D.C. in October this year to carry CNMI long-term foreign workers’ message: “Grant us improved immigration status.” He has made known his position on H.R. 1466, the final transitional worker rule, on pending labor bills, and all other issues affecting migrant workers and their families.

Amid the chaos, Syed has never lost sight of his goal on behalf of long-term foreign workers in the CNMI: A grant of improved status, specifically “green card, pathway to U.S. citizenship.” But Syed is not alone in this fight. Along with other worker groups, Syed has been able to bring dozens and hundreds of foreign workers and their supporters together when needed. (Haidee V. Eugenio)

Dr. Rita A. Sablan

Education Commissioner Dr. Rita A. Sablan made it among this year’s newsmakers after she made significant strides in the Public School System, particularly in the renovation and modernization of all public schools and the distribution of thousands of laptops in secondary schools.

The commissioner is also at the center of a storm of accusations made by ousted Marianas High School principal Craig Garrison.

Sablan was also key on the historic conference call in July with U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The implementation of the highly qualified personnel mandate in CNMI public schools this year was also a credit to her strong leadership. (Moneth Deposa)

Sixto K. Igisomar

Sixto K. Igisomar wears two hats for equally controversial government agencies: the NMI Retirement Fund and the Department of Commerce.

Being the chairman of the pension agency’s board of trustees, Igisomar gained both “support and criticism” from members of the community for his firm stand on the status of the pension fund, the problems behind its near collapse, and the definitive actions needed for the Fund’s recovery.

Igisomar, on numerous occasions, spoke against the ills that brought the pension plan to what it is today. Consistent and straight with his words, the chairman laid out to the public-especially to the retirees-how the problem arose and possible resolutions. On behalf of the board, he also received his fair share of blame from the Fund’s detractors with regards to some drastic decisions the Fund made.

Igisomar never ceases to defend the Fund and its board, emphasizing the fiduciary duty they perform for retirees. A frequent guest at the Legislature, public hearings, and outreach meetings, Igisomar is also the familiar face behind the Fund’s strong position on a number of harmful legislation pending in both the House and the Senate. The chairman, who is also the spokesperson for the board, was party to a number of cases involving the Fund.

Igisomar’s profile in the public became even more pronounced when he assumed the top post at Commerce as secretary. He replaced Michael Ada, who, along with the Commerce Department, was in the spotlight after getting a controversial sole-source contract funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (Moneth Deposa)

Juan N. Babauta

From serving as a $1-dollar-a year special adviser to the governor for federal regional council, Juan N. Babauta made it into the headlines this year after he was unanimously selected by the new Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. board as its chief executive officer last Oct. 24.

Babauta, a former governor and political opponent of Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, was also instrumental in the transfer of Fitial to the Republican Party along with his key Covenant Party supporters.

It can be recalled that just days after he was hired as special adviser, Babauta was elected the GOP president succeeding Juan I Tenorio who stepped down from the position. Babauta’s election as the party’s new head also sparked controversy among old members citing the unconstitutionality of the poll. This rift with some members was apparently “solved” later, but not when Fitial took over Babauta’s position as GOP president on Nov. 7. (Moneth Deposa)

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