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Fitial wins close runoff election

By Haidee V. Eugenio SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Dec. 8, 2009) - Gov. Benigno R. Fitial of the Covenant Party will be serving for another five years starting January 2010 after sealing his victory over Republican Rep. Heinz S. Hofschneider when the counting of absentee ballots wrapped up yesterday in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Fitial, 64, is the first CNMI governor to be re-elected since 2003.

Official election tally showed that Fitial and his running mate Lt. Gov. Eloy S. Inos got a total of 6,610 votes, a 370-vote lead over the 6,240 votes that Hofschneider and House Speaker Arnold I. Palacios (R-Saipan) received.

Fitial is also the first governor to serve a five-year term instead of the regular four years as a result of a newly ratified legislative initiative that requires the holding of general elections on even-numbered years.

Were it not for a new runoff election law, the Hofschneider-Palacios team would have won by only eight votes over the Fitial-Inos tandem during the four-way gubernatorial race on Nov. 7.

The eight-vote lead was the closest gubernatorial race in CNMI history.

But because none of the four original candidates got at least 50 percent plus one of the votes cast in the Nov. 7 general elections, a runoff election was held on Nov. 23. The two other candidates in that election were independents.

The Republicans and the Covenant team, however, had to wait until Dec. 7 for the official counting of additional absentee votes.

"Now that the election is over and the result of the election is official, I would like to ask all people of the CNMI to come together, and help me and the lieutenant governor so we can all move forward," Fitial said right after the lighting ceremony for the First Lady's Vision Foundation Christmas tree in front of the Pedro P. Tenorio Multi-Purpose Center in Susupe.

First lady Josie Fitial, for her part, said she's thankful for the support given to her husband's team.

In a statement, Fitial and Inos thanked their opponents "as they ran a formidable race."

Fitial and Inos also thanked all voters for once again giving them their vote of confidence to lead the Commonwealth for the next five years.

"As recipients of the majority votes, we recognize that the voters understand that we are making great progress on the road to recovery and prosperity. We have much to do and are well prepared to continue and enact policies that will benefit all residents. We will leave no stone unturned in our efforts but we realize that we cannot do this alone. We would like to reach out to all the residents and ask for their support and assistance," they said.

They said "now is the time to put politics aside and work together toward a more prosperous future."

Fitial's 501-vote overall lead in the CNMI's first gubernatorial runoff election on Nov. 23 narrowed to 370 after the counting of 725 absentee votes yesterday.

Hofschneider got more absentee votes than Fitial yesterday, 428-297, but it was not enough to topple the incumbent governor's overall lead.

Commonwealth Election Commission executive director Robert Guerrero read the unofficial tally at 4:07pm at the Multi-Purpose Center where the manual counting of ballots was held.

The commission, chaired by Frances M. Sablan, certified the elections results before 5pm.

Fitial got 6,610 total votes, while Hofschneider got 6,240.

The commission said it received 944 envelopes, and six of them contained multiple ballots. A total of 725 absentee ballots were counted; the rest were either spoiled ballots, postmarked after Nov. 23, had no stamp, or had no postmarked dates.

Around 4:30pm, Fitial and Inos addressed their supporters at the Covenant Party headquarters on Middle Road.

Covenant Party chair Gregorio "Kachuma" Camacho also addressed the crowd, along with House Floor Leader Joseph N. Camacho, a former independent lieutenant governor candidate, Rep. Oscar M. Babauta (Cov-Saipan), and Special Assistant for Administration Esther Fleming.

Inos, the first appointed CNMI lieutenant governor, said it feels different to have a "direct mandate" from the people.

"This is very rewarding," he added.

Fitial appointed Inos lieutenant governor when former Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Villagomez was convicted in federal court on corruption charges.

Inos said he never dreamed of being elected into office as lieutenant governor.

"I came from a poor family. We all worked our way through but we're fortunate to advance our education. That paid off. That's my advice to young folks-do not forget the value of higher education. It brings a lot of empowerment," he said.

As of 7 last night, Fitial had yet to receive a call from Hofschneider.

But Fitial said he's not expecting a call from his opponent. Even when he first won in the 2005 gubernatorial election, Hofschneider didn't call him to concede the election, he said.

"Even if Heinz doesn't call me, I plan to call him. It could be [Tuesday]," Fitial said.

The Hofschneider-Palacios tandem advocated "change" in leadership, versus Fitial-Inos's "proven leadership, proven experience."

Camacho said it's Hofschneider and Palacios' prerogative to challenge the election results, should they decide to do so.

"They can do that. But I don't see the need to do that," he said.

Fitial and Inos separately echoed Camacho's statement.

"That would be up to them if they want to challenge the results," the governor said.

Fitial and Inos said they will be releasing information on their transition team in the coming days.

"This transition team will be performing a top to bottom review of all government operations in an effort to ensure that government resources are being spent wisely and policies are being carried out that provide a real and true benefit to every citizen," they said.

Effective yesterday afternoon, Camacho was appointed chairman of the Transition Committee.

Former Public Safety Commissioner Clyde Norita was appointed vice chair of the Transition Committee.

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