Puerto Rico Rep. Jesús Manuel Ortiz wins gubernatorial primary. Pro-statehood party still undecided

Puerto Rico Rep. Jesús Manuel Ortiz defeated Sen. Juan Zaragoza in a gubernatorial primary held Sunday by their Popular Democratic Party, which seeks a return to power in the general elections

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico Rep. Jesús Manuel Ortiz defeated Sen. Juan Zaragoza in a gubernatorial primary held Sunday by their Popular Democratic Party, which seeks a return to power in the upcoming general elections.

Zaragoza conceded defeat after obtaining 38% of the votes to his rival's 62%, even though only a little more than 60% of the votes had been counted.

Meanwhile, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi was still locked in a battle against Puerto Rico congresswoman Jenniffer González in a primary held by the pro-statehood New Progressive Party. The two ran on the same ticket four years ago, but González announced her plan to challenge Pierluisi in early December.

All candidates face disgruntled voters on an island still struggling with chronic power outages and awaiting completion of reconstruction projects following Hurricane Maria, which hit as a Category 4 storm in September 2017.

Other ongoing complaints include the difficulty of obtaining business permits, a fractured education system and the lack of access to capital markets after the local government emerged two years ago from the biggest U.S. municipal bankruptcy in history after announcing in 2015 that it was unable to pay its more than $70 billion public debt load. The debt was accumulated by governments that overspent, overestimated revenue and borrowed million despite a ballooning debt.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The future of Puerto Rico’s political status and its rebounding but fragile economy were at the center of fiery debates as the island’s two biggest political parties held contentious gubernatorial primaries Sunday.

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, head of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, was seeking a second term, running against Puerto Rico's representative in Congress, Jenniffer González. The two ran on the same ticket four years ago, but González announced her plan to challenge Pierluisi in early December. Public jabs between the two turned acrimonious.

Running alongside Pierluisi for the position of congressional representative was Puerto Rico Sen. William Villafañe, while senior U.S. naval military officer Elmer Román, a former secretary of state for Puerto Rico, sought the position under González.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico Sen. Juan Zaragoza, who was highly lauded for his work as the island’s former treasury secretary, ran against Rep. Jesús Manuel Ortiz to be the main candidate for the Popular Democratic Party, which supports the island’s status quo as a U.S. territory.

Attorney Pablo José Hernández was running unopposed to be the party's candidate for resident commissioner, the first person in 20 years to seek that nomination.

Voting centers closed Sunday evening, with political pundits warning that voter turnout appeared low and that electronic voting machines did not properly work in some towns, although it was too early to determine the magnitude of the problem.

All candidates faced disgruntled voters on an island still struggling with chronic power outages and high electric bills as it awaits completion of reconstruction projects following Hurricane Maria, which hit as a Category 4 storm in September 2017.

Power outages were reported at more than a dozen voting centers, including one where Ortiz arrived to cast his vote, forcing officials to revert to a manual process. Heavy rains also pelted parts of the island, with flood warnings issued for nearly a dozen towns and cities.

Power outages remain such a big concern that the State Commission of Elections rented more than a dozen generators and a private power company identified 81 alternate voting sites with guaranteed electricity.

“It's been years since I last voted,” said Benito López, a 66-year-old retiree wearing a T-shirt that read, "The Island of Enchantment." He planned to cast a vote for a candidate he would not reveal “to see if there's any improvement and change.”

Other voter complaints include the difficulty of obtaining business permits, a fractured education system, and the island's lack of access to capital markets after the local government emerged two years ago from the largest debt restructuring in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, more than $9 billion of debt owed by Puerto Rico’s power company, the largest of any government agency, remains unresolved. A federal judge overseeing a bankruptcy-like process has yet to rule on a restructuring plan following bitter negotiations between the government and bondholders.

“They have broken Puerto Rico,” said 79-year-old Cecilio Rodríguez of the current and previous administrations as he waited to cast his vote. “Economic development must be a priority.”

For other voters, stopping the exodus of doctors from Puerto Rico and improving the U.S. territory's crumbling health system is a priority.

“The patients are the ones who have to stay here and endure this. It's not fair,” said Dr. Alfredo Rivera Freytes, an anesthesiologist who left Puerto Rico for the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas because of the ongoing problems with the local health system.

He returned two years ago with plans to retire, but found himself working again because of the need for anesthesiologists in Puerto Rico.

Ahead of the primaries, Pierluisi has touted record tourist numbers, ongoing hurricane reconstruction and growing economic development among his successes as he seeks re-election. He has pledged to prioritize projects targeting children and the island's growing elderly population, among other things.

An event marking the end of his campaign held a week before the primaries was headlined by former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who resigned in August 2019 following nearly two weeks of massive protests touched off by a leak of crude and insulting chat messages between him and his top advisers.

His opponent, González, did not hold a campaign closer. She has pledged to crack down on corruption, award more funds to agencies to help victims of violence amid a surge in killings of women, and stem an exodus of doctors and other medical workers to the U.S. mainland.

Meanwhile, Zaragoza has promised to prioritize climate change and renewable energy, decentralize the island's education department and improve access to health. His opponent, Ortiz, has pledged to improve the licensing process to retain doctors, simplify the island's tax system and revamp health care.

Puerto Rico’s next governor will have to work alongside a federal control board that oversees the island’s finances and was created after the government declared bankruptcy.

Ahead of Sunday's primaries, more than 4,900 inmates voted in prisons across the U.S. territory. The State Commission of Elections also has received and counted more than 122,000 early ballots.

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