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The Contemporary Pacific 15.1 (2003) 162-166

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Northern Mariana Islands

Samuel F McPhetres

The year in review was another one for the books. A four-way election for governor, a major local bank going belly up, the tragedy of September 11th, and a variety of other incidents and events combined to make this year typical of recent ones in the Northern Marianas.

First there were five and then four sets of gubernatorial candidates: Juan Babauta and Diego Benevente, Ben Fitial and David O Sablan, former Governor Froilan Tenorio and public school administrator Rita Inos, and finally former Lieutenant Governor Jesse Borja and legislator Bridget Ichihara. Outgoing Lieutenant Governor Jesus Sablan kept everyone guessing as to his intention to run even after losing the primary. He finally announced his withdrawal from the race. The campaign was pointed, to say the least. A new party was born, the Covenant party, led by Fitial. Froilan Tenorio ran under his own Reform party banner. Babauta ran as Republican, while Borja ran as a Democrat. Much of the campaign revolved around how much money each side spent and how much garment magnate Willy Tan donated to the various campaigns. In addition, the issue of whether to rehire lobbyist Jack Abramoff in Washington DC was a subject for all candidates to discuss. Interestingly enough, Ben Fitial, former employee of Willy Tan and a controversial Speaker of the House of Representatives, was the strongest advocate for Abramoff, who, it appears, actively assisted in the campaign of Fitial. Fitial's campaign was peppered with endorsements from right-wing congressmen in Washington DC, friends of Abramoff.

For once, money did not determine the election outcome. The Babauta/ Benevente team won handily with 44.9 percent of the vote. The Fitial/ Inos team came in second at 25.5 percent. Surprisingly, the Borja/Ichihara team came in a distant third with only 18.0 percent. Not too surprisingly, the Tenorio/Sablan pair came in last, attracting only 11.5 percent of the votes cast.

In addition to the gubernatorial race, there was a very heated dispute over the office of Washington representative. [End Page 162] There were three contenders for the office: Pedro A Tenorio, Agnes Manglona McPhetres, and Herman Guerrero. The results indicated that Tenorio, the former lieutenant governor and covenant negotiator, was preferred over the other two. He took 44.4 percent of the votes cast. Political newcomer McPhetres came in a respectable second with 34.2 percent followed by Guerrero with 21.4 percent.

In a very unusual exercise of the democratic process in the commonwealth, Virginia Sablan Onerheim, a judge in Superior Court (the first indigenous woman judge), was voted out by a surprising 61.8 percent of the voters. The constitution requires that every judge be reconfirmed in the first general election after the first four years to his or her first six-year term. In the previous general election, Judge Timothy Bellas was also voted out. In Onerheim's case, however, a very determined citizen mounted a well-coordinated campaign against her reconfirmation. The citizen had been extremely upset at a decision made by Onerheim concerning a child abuse case in which the woman accused her Nepalese housekeeper of mistreating the woman's baby. Based on expert testimony at trial, Onerheim decided that the babysitter was not guilty and dismissed the case. The angry mother used posters, videotapes, public meetings, and other media to persuade the voters to reject Onerheim.

The process was modified for this election, using scanning equipment for the first time. Machine counting created some new problems in terms of candidates' placement on the ballots. Given the large number of candidates, both sides of the ballot paper had to be utilized. This led to much confusion, particularly among older voters, and kept the precinct workers busy explaining procedures. In addition, for some time, rumors were floating around that since party candidates were listed together on one side of the page, a voter had to vote along straight party lines. In the end, however, the new procedure went very smoothly and the results for all...