After nearly two weeks of massive protests, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced on Wednesday evening that he would resign from office, effective Aug. 2.
Rosselló has been besieged ever since a series of online chats between the governor and his allies leaked in which participants lobbied violent, misogynist, and homophobic insults at their enemies and joked about Puerto Ricans who died during Hurricane Maria.
Rosselló, who is both a member of the island’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) and a Democrat, is the first Puerto Rican governor to ever resign, but it’s not clear yet who will succeed him for the final year-and-a-half of his term. Normally the commonwealth’s secretary of state would take over, but Luis Rivera Marin resigned from that very post earlier this month because of his own role in the chat scandal.
The next person in the line of succession is Justice Minister Wanda Vázquez, a Rosselló appointee and fellow PNP member. However, the New York Times reports that there’s been speculation that a new secretary of state could be nominated and confirmed by the legislature before Aug. 2, meaning that person would take over as governor instead of Vázquez. There’s also talk that Vázquez could become governor and then appoint a new secretary of state who would quickly replace her in the island’s top post.
Vázquez herself hedged, saying she was ready to become governor “if necessary,” so she seems aware that there’s a chance someone else will succeed Rosselló. And it may be for the best if Vázquez is passed over, as she’s made a number of enemies during her long tenure in politics, including from women’s advocacy groups who have faulted her handling of gender violence issues. Critics have also accused Vázquez of being too slow to investigate the Rosselló administration over missing relief money that was intended to help Maria victims.
The new governor, whoever it is, will be in for a very challenging tenure. Rosselló, the son of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló, was elected in 2016 and inherited an already-precarious situation. Puerto Rico was in the midst of a years-long debt crisis that has resulted in pension cuts, school closures, and the mass migration of hundreds of thousands of residents to the U.S. mainland. In 2017 the commonwealth essentially filed for bankruptcy, and a federal board was put in charge of its finances.
Matters grew worse later that year when Maria led to the deaths at least 2,975 Puerto Ricans. The hurricane also resulted in a further exodus of hundreds of thousands more residents. Rosselló attracted widespread criticism at home for his handling of the crisis and the slow recovery, including his refusal to challenge Donald Trump’s assertion that the storm was not a “real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina was.
Rosselló’s situation deteriorated further earlier this month when two former senior officials in his administration were arrested by the FBI for allegedly directing federal funds to contractors they had ties to. Days later, Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism released hundreds of pages of incendiary chats sent between Rosselló and his top allies and cabinet members from 2018 into January of this year.
These conversations, nicknamed the “Ricky Leaks,” featured Rosselló attacking former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (who is from Puerto Rico), saying that people should “beat up that whore.” They also included an exchange in which Chief Fiscal Officer Christian Sobrino Vega said he was “salivating to shoot” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who has announced that she’ll run for governor in 2020 as a member of the rival Popular Democratic Party. The governor responded, “You’d be doing me a grand favor.”
Sobrino Vega also lobbed homophobic insults at pop icon Ricky Martin, who is gay, and also joked about the bodies filling the morgues after Maria. The participants also discussed government contracts, prompting law enforcement to begin investigating whether they’d illegally revealed confidential details.
Rosselló announced on Sunday that he wouldn’t seek a second term in 2020, but that did nothing to appease the hundreds of thousands of protestors calling for his resignation. Pressure escalated on Wednesday when a leaked report from attorneys commissioned by Puerto Rico House President Carlos Méndez Núñez concluded that Rosselló had committed five impeachable offenses, including using public resources for political purposes and letting government officials misuse public money.
In response, Méndez Núñez, a member of Rosselló’s PNP, told the governor that if he did not resign, the legislature would begin impeachment proceedings. On late Wednesday evening, after hours of confusion about the governor’s plans, Rosselló finally confirmed that quit on Aug. 2.
P.S. Rosselló’s departure extends the commonwealth’s decades-long streak of one-term governors. The last governor to win a second term was Rosselló’s father, Pedro Rosselló, whose 51-45 re-election win in 1996 gave him the island’s widest margin of victory in 32 years. However, the elder Rosselló is himself a controversial figure, and his expensive developed projects helped spark Puerto Rico’s long-term debt crisis. Pedro Rosselló attempted a comeback in 2004 but was narrowly defeated; four years later, he badly lost the PNP primary for governor.
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