(Garapan, Saipan) It was a landslide. Gov. Ralph Torres and Sen. Vinnie Sablan did not stand a chance against the unified wave of Commonwealth voters, who had enough of the corruption the Torres administration has come to stand for.
There still are absentee ballots coming by mail. But they won’t be enough to overturn the 10-point lead Governor-elect Arnold Palacios and Lieutenant Governor-elect David Apatang have. And make no mistake; this is mandate. It is anticipated, that when the absentee ballots are counted from the runoff election for governor, more than 70 percent of the nearly 20,000 registered voters would have casted their votes.
Palacios-Apatang received 7,077 votes against Torres-Palacios’s 6,017, a statistical landslide. The winners will be the first non-republican CNMI leaders since former Gov. Benigno Fitial’s administration. And they will govern with a legislature of the same complexion: a majority coalition of democrats and independents in the Senate; and a supermajority of them in the House.
That coalition was key to Mr. Palacios’s victory. His slaughter of Mr. Torres in the runoff revealed the effectiveness of democrats Tina Sablan and Leila Fleming Staffler’s undivided support for the new governor within hours of the results from the November 8 general election.
“Democrats, independents, and reoublicans rallied to make sure that we would see the change in the leadership that we so badly need in the Commonwealth,” Ms. Sablan said in a post-victory news conference she and Mr. Palacios held with their respective runningmates. “Together, we won.”
The victory is unassailable. Even Mr. Torres and Mr. Sablan could not deny it. Their short-lived early-evening celebration, when governor’s chief of staff Wil Castro announced on stage at Torres’s home that the governor was in the lead, quickly turned somber as election day results trickled in. Those results should Palacios wiping Torres off the electoral map, winning all but two precincts (Tinian and the Northern Islands) by an average of 64 percent to 36 percent for election day-returns. Mr. Castro, who jumped up and down when the early voting results showed Torres in the lead, was no where to be found, when the election day results started populating the screens.
Instead, it was Mr. Sablan who took the lead; speaking of defeat, but never conceding during election night, as Mr. Torres stood behind him, uncontrollably swinging his arms back and forth.
Eventually, the vanquished and once-powerful team conceded the election, but via news release:
“We have received the numbers over the weekend, and the CNMI will see its newest Governor take this honorable position in January,” Mr. Torres stated in the news release, which ironically is printed on governor’s office letterhead absent the name of the lieutenant governor: Arnold Palacios.
Two days before the concession, at around 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, November 26, a humble and tired Palacios reminisced about the struggles and challenges of life in the CNMI, and promised to lead by example in stamping out corruption, and to provide opportunity to all, no matter your political, religious, or racial persuasion.
“This community needs to heal,” he said. It was a clarion call to ditch the tactics employed against him by the Torres campaign, in what many observers are saying was the nastiest election in CNMI history. Indeed, much of that ugliness came in the form of printed propaganda and personal attacks conjured by political operatives from Guam.
There was an added concern in the days leading to the election that the governor was actively trying to buy votes using federal funds via his BOOST program. The legislature currently is investigating these claims, and has subpoenaed a host of people associated with it.
There also was the fear that voters were being intimidated to side with Torres, as many either are employed in the Commonwealth government, or have government contracts.
At the end of the election, Torres didn’t stand a chance. The unity between the democrats and the independents against the corruption of the Torres administration prevailed.
The CNMI changed virtually overnight. The election ended Friday at 7 p.m. Around 2 a.m. Saturday, it became clear Mr. Palacios would become the next governor. And by the afternoon Saturday, people everywhere we went fist-bumped and gave thumbs up while declaring loudly and unreservedly, “Biba” to the election of Palacios. There was no more fear. People seemed free to express themselves.
That freedom is the key to the impending federal prosecution of Mr. Torres and those complicit in his crimes of corruption against the Commonwealth and the country. A Justice Department source confirmed to Kandit the FBI’s readiness in their case against Torres. All the Feds have been waiting for are witnesses to go on record against the governor. Those witnesses have been reluctant, because of the power the governor wields and the uncertainty about whether voters would keep him in office.
With that question now answered, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, it is reported, now feels optimistic that Torres administration officials with front row seats to the corruption will be willing to talk.