For the 2022 general election this coming November, one of the most important issues that should be considered by the people of the CNMI is the ability of those elected to public office to govern the CNMI competently, fairly and in accordance with the rule of law. As we know, when we have a government that is competent, fair and follows the rule of law, the welfare and well-being of all the people of the commonwealth is promoted and fostered.
Forty-four years ago, the CNMI began its journey at self-government, as a member of the American political family. Although the CNMI is not a State, it is a self-governing political entity within the American political family. But although it is not a State, the CNMI is also not “a territory or property belonging to the United States” under the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution. As such, the CNMI is not subject to the “plenary powers of Congress” as is the case with the U.S. territories, such as Guam and the Virgin Islands. Our right to internal self-government pursuant to the NMI Covenant is similar to the right of a State to govern itself internally.
Under the terms of the NMI Covenant, the Federal Government cannot interfere with the right of the CNMI to govern itself internally. But the right of the CNMI to govern itself internally implies that our political leaders have a solemn duty and obligation to govern the commonwealth competently, fairly and in accordance with the constitution and laws of the CNMI.
Both our elected and appointed leaders have a constitutional duty to govern and serve the CNMI for the benefit of all the people, both the majority and the minority. That is the essence of good leadership and good government. Our political leaders have a solemn duty to govern for the benefit of all the people of the CNMI: not just those who supported their candidacy; not just their family members; and, certainly, not for the benefit of their close friends and cronies. Once the general election is over, the task of working for the welfare and well-being of all the people of the CNMI begins in earnest. And, as we should all be mindful, such solemn obligation on the part of our leaders is a serious undertaking. It is not a game, because people’s lives and livelihood, as well as their rights and liberties, are at stake. Public service is a public trust.
If the CNMI, however, is to continue down the same path that our political leaders have been taking us for most of the past twenty years, i.e., a practice where the CNMI government is run primarily to benefit the friend and cronies of those who won the election, then corruption in government will continue to take place; and the rule of law in the CNMI will continue to be an afterthought. If this unhealthy, and at times illegal, practice becomes entrenched in our political system, then at some point down the road the CNMI’s exercise at self-government will be compromised and most likely will fail.
No one needs to tell us that the success of any governmental operation or endeavor is directly related to the qualification, competency and vision of the leaders whom we elect to public office. And we should know, by now, that when our leaders fail to govern impartially, fairly and competently as we have seen many times during the past two decades, it is the people of the CNMI who ultimately suffer the consequences of our leaders’ actions or inaction. This is something that the people of the CNMI can neither afford nor allow to happen. Why? Because the failure of our leaders to carry out their duties and responsibilities under our constitution and laws ultimately calls into question our ability as a people to govern ourselves effectively and competently. This is something that the people of the CNMI should never allow or permit to happen. After more than four centuries of colonization by Spain, Germany and Japan, the people of the CNMI can neither afford nor allow our exercise at CNMI self-government to fail after only forty years.
What the voters of the CNMI should do between now and the coming general election—to insure that our exercise at self-government will not become a failure–is to now take the time to examine the competency, qualification and fitness for office of each of the gubernatorial and legislative candidates running for public office. The candidates whom we elect this November to lead the CNMI will determine whether our exercise at local self-government will or will not become a failure. So much is riding at stake in this coming election. It, therefore, behooves (and I don’t mean to sound academic by using this word) every voter in the CNMI to go over some of the basic criteria that each candidate running for public office must possess and should have before they are elected to public office.
First, the people of the CNMI should examine and must be satisfied that a candidate for public office possesses the requisite educational experience, maturity, work experience and personal qualities of leadership to make important public policy decisions and actions that will affect the entire CNMI and its people.
Second, if a candidate is an incumbent of the office he/she is now serving in, the people should ask whether he/she has carried out his duties and responsibilities as chief executive or as a member of the legislature—fairly, effectively, competently and in accordance with the constitution and laws of the CNMI. The people of the CNMI, in effect, need “to grade” our executive and legislative branch members for their past performance in office, if they have been holding public office and are now running for re-election.
Third, does the candidate have a set of plans, goals and objectives that would promote the welfare and well-being of all the people of the commonwealth? For example, what are his/her plans to turn around the stagnant economy of the CNMI? What are his/her plans to make the delivery of public health services in the CNMI meet the needs of the people of the CNMI? What are his/her plans to improve and upgrade our public infrastructures, many of which are old and deteriorating?
Fourth, if the Federal Government substantially reduces ARPA and other federal financial assistance for the CNMI during the coming fiscal year—as most likely would be the case–what are the candidate’s plans to make up for the substantial shortfall in public funds needed to meet the operational costs of the CNMI government and provide essential public service? Will the CNMI instead become like Puerto Rico when that territory became bankrupt in 2014 with roughly $70 billion in debt? Will the Federal Government have to step in and run our local finances because, like Puerto Rico, our local leaders have very little idea or plan regarding how to extricate the CNMI from its financial deficits and its inability to service its government-issued obligation bonds? Does the CNMI want to become another Puerto Rico? Of course not.
Fifth, will the candidates for executive office continue to run and operate the CNMI personnel service system as if it is a part of (if not within) the governor’s office, handing out jobs and employment mostly to friends, cronies and supporters? Never mind the applicants who have the credentials, background and education to fill vacant civil service positions.
Sixth, are our political leaders going to continue the CNMI government procurement practice whereby “sole source contracts” for projects and other government procurement have now become the rule for government procurement; and where “competitive bidding” for public projects and government requisitions is now apparently the exception?
One could go on and on asking other critical questions about each aspect of CNMI government practice and operation that directly affects the lives and livelihood of the people of the CNMI. The government talks a lot about “universal garbage collection” but the issue of garbage collection and trash disposal in the CNMI is still a major problem in the islands. We need action, not slogans like “Yes, We Can” to address these public service issues that our political leaders have time and time again failed to effectively address, resolve and rectify. But I shall stop here, so that the voters of the CNMI could think of any other critical issue(s) affecting the people of the CNMI, individually and collectively.
Jose S. Dela Cruz resides on Navy Hill, Saipan. He is the first chief justice of the CNMI Supreme Court.