Stop us if you’ve heard this one, but Puerto Rico has a new governor. After a constitutional snafu Wednesday, Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez— not Secretary of State Pedro Pierluisi— became the U.S. commonwealth’s third governor in a week. Seen as a loyalist to the disgraced former chief executive, Ricardo Rossello, Vazquez is the woman nobody wanted to become governor, including the woman herself. Instead, she assumed office Wednesday as the world’s newest, and most reluctant, head of government.
Both Rossello and Puerto Rico’s previous Secretary of State, Luis Rivera Marin, resigned in the wake of the island’s “RickyLeaks” scandal. On July 31, in the dying days of his governorship, Rossello appointed the former Resident Commissioner to fill Rivera Marin’s vacancy. He then called the Legislative Assembly, which had been in recess, into extraordinary session for the sole purpose of confirming Pierluisi. On August 2, the House voted in favor of confirmation. Believing that to be sufficient— and citing a 2005 law which waives the confirmation requirement should the governor resign— Pierluisi was sworn in as the commonwealth’s thirteenth governor. Then, the fun began.
Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, a Rossello rival with is own gubernatorial ambitions, never held the vote. Instead, he intended to postpone it until after Rossello had left office, thus denying Pierluisi a spot in the gubernatorial line of succession. On Monday, Rivera Schatz filed a lawsuit, asking the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico to remove Pierluisi immediately. Since he had not been properly confirmed by both houses of the Legislative Assembly, as required by the Commonwealth’s constitution, Pierluisi was an illegitimate governor. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed, requiring him to vacate the premises by 5 PM Eastern, and putting an end to Pedro Pierluisi’s administration after five days.
As soon as Rossello hinted at resignation last week, the hashtag #WandaRenuncia (“Wanda, Resign”) began trending, just as #RickyRenuncia had. Clearly, protesters who wanted Rossello out had no desire for Vazquez, who herself had only been appointed in 2017, to take over. The feeling was abundantly mutual. Vazquez told anyone who would listen that she had no interest in becoming governor, and would only take the job if forced. On Wednesday, she was forced. “I arrive at this position by constitutional provision and by opinion of law, but with the greatest respect and determination to serve my people and to push Puerto Rico forward,” Vazquez said in a statement after being sworn in.
What began as popular outrage over leaked text messages between the 40-year old governor and his buddies quickly escalated into the commonwealth’s biggest political crisis in modern history, with no comparable second. To make matters even more farcical, all the principles involved in this game of political musical chairs are members of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party. Vazquez herself has come under fire for failing to investigate members of her own party for mishandling of provisions in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. She is also alleged to have improperly opened a domestic violence investigation against a political rival, and intervened on behalf of her daughter in the case of a home theft.
After months of outrage at the political and economic situation on the island, and momentary euphoria that people power had prevailed, a sense of confusion and unease seems to have now gripped the island. Puerto Ricans just want their civics lesson to the world to be over. Governor Vazquez has been given a tough hand she didn’t want. With elections coming next year, she won’t have much time to play it.