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By Steve Limtiaco

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Jan. 6) – Democrat Benjamin J. Cruz late yesterday evening appeared well on his way back to the Guam Legislature, with a significant lead over Republican candidate Telo Taitague and Democrat Tom Ada in the special election.

"I am really humbled by the confidence given to me by the people of Guam," Cruz said. "It's really a bittersweet victory because we have lost one of the greatest statesmen in Tony Unpingco. ... I'll try to make sure I honor his memory as well as their confidence in me."

And voters voiced strong opposition to slot-machine Proposal A, with more than 60 percent rejecting it at the polls.

The special election was called in order to fill the legislative vacancy caused by the October death of Republican Sen. Antonio "Tony" Unpingco.

The island's high court ordered the slot-machine initiative on the ballot as well, despite the commission's initial decision to exclude it.

Cruz said the first issue he wanted to contribute to an oversight hearing on the shortcomings of Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. Cruz said he also hoped to begin talks with the Public Utilities Commission to find a way to make rising utilities costs more affordable for families.

"I will do everything in my power to make sure that I serve the interests of the people of Guam," he said.

The estimated cost of the election was about $180,000, according to Guam Election Commission Executive Director Gerald Taitano. He said fewer precinct officials were hired for this election -- three per precinct instead of the usual five -- because Guam law gives the commission the authority to reduce staffing during a special election.

The polls closed at 8 p.m., with voter turnout about 44 percent in some precincts. That is consistent with the last special election to fill a vacant legislative seat, in 1993, when voter turnout was about 40 percent.

There were 21,181 ballots issued yesterday, according to the commission, which means voter turnout was 44.1 percent, based on 48,008 voters who were registered in time for this election.

There were no election-related issues to be addressed by the commission, whose members immediately gave the staff permission to begin running the vote-counting machines.

The first ballot boxes arrived about 8:30 p.m. at the tabulation center at Guam Community College in Mangilao, and voting machines were started about an hour later.

Results were being counted so quickly that the commission dispensed with its normal process of releasing results by precinct and instead released the total results of several precincts at a time.

The first results were released about 10:40 p.m. and results from more than half of the island's 54 precincts were released by the commission at about 11:15 p.m., including all of the precincts in the largest village of Dededo.

When 50 percent of the precinct results came in, Ada conceded the race and commended Cruz.

"Certainly that gap is so large that I just don't see it closing at all, so we broke camp and we'll go home and get some much-needed rest," he said. "I commend him for the fine work that he did during this campaign. At the very beginning we met and we agreed that this thing would be kept on the 'high road' and certainly that was done. I think he'll do a fine job. "

Cruz, before the ballots were counted, expressed disappointment at the low interest in this election.

"I was hoping that people would be more concerned about what was happening with the proposition, ... and the possible outcome of the election and the majority in the Legislature," he said.

Acting minority leader Sen. Rory Respicio on Friday said the Legislature's Democrats planned to meet with the candidates today.

Respicio and Republican acting Speaker Eddie Calvo on Friday both said the election of a Democrat would give Democrats the majority vote in terms of passing bills, but Republicans still will retain leadership positions and committee chairmanships because it would require at least 12 votes to remove those senators.

Even before polls closed, Cruz's supporters united at the residence of former Gov. Carl Gutierrez, Cruz's long-time friend and political colleague, to celebrate the candidate.

Most supporters said they felt Cruz's experience -- especially his career as a judge for the Superior Court of Guam and chief justice of the Supreme Court of Guam -- made him the obvious choice to help escort Guam through the coming military buildup.

"Never did I ever meet another guy like B.J., a guy who knows both worlds," said Daniel DeLeon Guerrero, a Pagat, Mangilao resident. "He can understand the American law and he can understand the Chamorro law that has always been here."

DeLeon Guerrero said he felt the Legislature needed the watchful eye of a judge to keep it honest.

Cruz didn't join the festivities at Gutierrez's house until well after polls closed. Instead, he and his campaign team spent much of the evening by Wettengel Elementary School in Dededo, campaigning to last-minute voters.

With Respicio by his side, Cruz waved to traffic, promoting his candidacy and discouraging Proposal A, which would allow slot machines at Guam Greyhound Racetrack.

Low voter turnout was the focus of Tom Ada's thoughts when he arrived around 8 p.m. last night at the Guam Community College.

It wasn't until about 20 minutes later, when the first set of buses carrying ballot boxes for tabulation arrived, that two of his supporters arrived with a pickup towing a trailer loaded with a tent and several benches.

In what Democratic Guam Election Commission member Larry Ramirez described as an "unusual" move, the former Democratic senator decided to set up camp in a parking lot outside the tabulation room at the Guam Community College.

"That hustle and bustle just wasn't there," Ada said in describing yesterday's voter turnout after driving throughout the island and visiting various polling sites.

Ada said many people seemed to have their minds more on the Christmas season than on the election. And because of this he's had to modify his campaign approach -- including a decision not to set up courtesy tents at the polling sites.

Ada also was concerned that there was confusion over where certain polling sites were supposed to be, particularly in Mangilao and Yigo.

"There were some inaccuracies in the information," Ada said, referring to information about polling sites provided by the Election Commission.

As Republican senatorial candidate Telo Taitague stood across the street from Wettengel Elementary School in Dededo before polls closed last night, she spoke in between shouts and waves about her confidence in her campaign.

"(I'm) excited. The amount of support I'm getting, it's amazing," Taitague said. "I'm very blessed by it. I have a lot of great friends here tonight and they're doing their doing their best to help me. They believe in me and I believe in them."

Groups of supporters stood across from the entrance to the parking lot and timed their shouts to ensure that people could hear them as they exited their cars.

People who drove by were waved to and shouted at and asked to take a chance on the only rookie in the race.

"I need your help, give me a chance," blared Taitague at passing traffic.

Among Taitague's supporters at the Dededo polling site was Lt. Gov. Mike Cruz.

Veronica Lujan, 38, of Tamuning, another supporter, was armed with a "Vote for Telo" sign and sported a T-shirt supporting the candidate.

"I'm here because I believe in her. I believe that she's committed. She's a very strong-willed person. She sticks to her guns," Lujan said.

"She has conveyed as much as she can for as long as she could during her campaign. She's doing a really great job. If people want to get to know Telo they should try and give her a chance."

Cruz commended both of his opponents.

"They have shown one can run for office and not go into personal attacks," he said.

"If only every campaign was as clean and issue-oriented as this one."

-- Pacific Daily News reporters Brett Kelman and Stephanie Godlewski and Assistant Local News Editor Carlos Pangelinan contributed to this report

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