Former CNMI Governor Declares He’ll Run As Independent

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Babauta breaks with Republicans over lack of primary elections

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, April 8, 2014) –The CNMI now heads for at least a four-way gubernatorial race, after the fourth tandem of former governor Juan Nekai Babauta and former senator Juan Sablan Torres declared yesterday their candidacy for governor and lieutenant governor, respectively. The two longtime Republicans are running as independents, weeks after the GOP thumbed down their request for a primary race.

Babauta said after the November elections, he will go back to the Republican Party that he once led.

In the presence of their families and supporters, Babauta and Torres officially declared their candidacy in their Gualo Rai headquarters at noon yesterday.

Juan "Liling" Reyes is the chairman of the Committee to Elect Babauta and Torres.

Babauta said it was an "unfortunate decision" on the part of the Republican Party to decide not to hold a primary race, knowing that he and Torres have been lifelong Republicans and that the public was not given an opportunity to make the choice of who they want to represent them.

"The erosion of public confidence I think is quite obvious that is going on. [Pieces of] legislation are being passed in the middle of the night. No committee report. No public hearings are held. They are being shoved down the throats of the people. That is just uncalled for," Babauta said.

He was referring to the recent passing and enactment of a measure legalizing casino gaming on Saipan, along with other bills. Babauta said he does not support legalizing casino gaming on Saipan.

Babauta and Torres decided to run as independents after the Republican Party said the GOP had already formally endorsed the candidacy of Gov. Eloy S. Inos and Senate President Ralph Torres (R-Saipan) in September. Babauta described it as a "pre-selection."

Ivan Blanco, chairman of the GOP Central Committee’s public relations team, said yesterday that "as we live in a democratic society, any person or persons have their right to put forth their candidacy to the voters to decide upon."

"It is up to the voters to decide which party will lead the CNMI forward into the near future. As GOP, we know we have the capability through hard work to continue the upward economic trend for the CNMI," he told Saipan Tribune.

Blanco said Babauta and Torres are registered Republicans "and the GOP would like to reiterate that we welcome them always."

Besides the independent Babauta-Torres ticket and the Republican team of Inos-Torres, two other teams are vying for the gubernatorial seat: Former speaker Heinz S. Hofschneider and Senate floor leader Ray Yumul (Ind-Saipan) as independents, and former Commonwealth Ports Authority executive director Edward "Tofila" M. Deleon Guerrero and former representative Daniel "Danny" O. Quitugua of the Democratic Party.

With at least four tickets vying for the top posts, the CNMI is headed for a gubernatorial runoff election if no team gets at least 50 percent plus one of the votes cast in the general elections.

Torres, also a former representative and former administrator of the NMI Retirement Fund, said if he and Babauta are given the chance, they would revive the now-defunct NMI Retirement Fund.

"I would like to bring back all those government employees into the system," he said. He added that he would like to emulate a Rhode Island pension system that was revived, adding that he is not ashamed to ask for help.

He said the Babauta-Torres team has a "working plan" to restore the 25-percent cut in retirees’ pension but it’s not going to be an overnight problem-solving.

"The money is there. It’s just that we have to apply it where it’s mostly needed," he added.

Torres said he is "very enthusiastic" to team up with Babauta in the November race.

He also said it is "unfortunate" that the political party that they were lifetime members of "refused" to accord the people the "opportunity to have a choice."

"I think the people had enough of the problems we are encountering. We hope to give that opportunity to the people and make the choice so we can better our lives. Right now, I think people are crying because they are suffering. CUC [Commonwealth Utilities Cor.] has made these people suffer because of the horrendous rates they are assessing our people," he said.

Babauta, for his part, said private customers are essentially subsidizing CUC because the government has not been paying its utility bills. Babauta said he and Torres will address this "inequity."

The former governor added that the CNMI could easily add $50 million to its annual revenue if only it properly enforces its tax laws.

Babauta and Torres said they want qualified and longtime foreign workers to remain in the CNMI.

They said a pathway to citizenship is a matter for the federal government to decide, adding that most longtime foreign workers they have talked to care more about their ability to continue to work legally in the CNMI rather than earn citizenship.

"We support legalized status for nonresident workers," Babauta said, adding that if it were for him, a CNMI-specific foreign worker program should continue and allow these workers to be able to easily go in and out of the CNMI.

At their announcement, they also presented a general outline of their priority issues including the economy, jobs, the Retirement Fund, healthcare costs, and the high cost of air transportation including between the CNMI and Guam.

"My running mate and I feel that the people of the CNMI are feeling very depressed at this time. We will work hard to lift the spirits of the people of the CNMI," he said.

Babauta, a former CNMI resident representative to Washington, D.C. for 12 years, added that he and Torres will complement each other’s expertise—his broad public policy background working with the federal government and other local and state governments, while Torres’ financial management background. Babauta also served as chief executive officer of the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. and served as a senator from 1986 to 1990.

"So we complement each other’s background. I think that we’re going to be a strong team in that respect," he added.

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