Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day: Faleomavaega Again a No Show


It has been just over seven months now that Faleomavaega continues to have been absent from public view.  Despite the insistence of friends, family and staff on island that he is “doing just fine,” few are fooled by the few public appearances he has made since suffering last October what are rumored to have been two strokes.  No one is certain because his office has provided no information on his health situation.   His two video appearances (one a brief Christmas message and the other a one-minute speech on the House Floor about Flag Day) and two photographs (one with ASG Homeland Security Director Utuali'i Iuniasolua T. Savusa and another with visiting Close Up Foundation students from home) seem staged and give little reassurance to anyone back here that he is alive, well and at his duty station in Washington.

To the contrary, although no one knows what he is doing in Washington, people are very aware that he was not here for Flag Day last month and now his participation in Memorial Day activities has been reduced to his office issuing a short statement on his behalf.   Readers of this blog will recall he shamefully piggybacked on this solemn holiday three years ago to launch a partisan attack  on Republicans in Congress, which, of course, our local media carried word for word.  An obviously more subdued Faleomavaega this year limited himself to remembrances of the war dead.

Not only has Faleomavaega missed Flag Day and Memorial Day here this year, we have heard from Washington sources that he also has missed countless meetings of caucuses and committees to which he belongs.  We have monitored on line the live broadcasts of committee hearings in which he normally would be expected to participate because of his interests, the subject matter or his responsibilities, particularly the House insular subcommittee, on which he is the senior Democrat, and the Asia Pacific subcommittee, on which he is the Ranking Democrat, but we can find no one who can say they have seen him at any hearings since last year.

Of course, absence from hearings and meetings is nothing new for Faleomavaega, who has shown a penchant for travel to the far corners of the earth over his quarter century in Congress and has shown little regard for the congressional calendar.  If he wants to go, he goes, whether Congress is in session or not.  It is doubtful any other member of Congress ever has been to Thursday Island, let alone twice, and few have been to Rapanui, where he went to insert himself into a local land dispute.  Both Thursday Island and Rapanui are parts of larger countries (Australia and Chile, respectively) in which he has no responsibilities in any of his committee assignments.

Recent Foreign Affairs Committee trips to East Asia, which he long has considered his back yard, and Ukraine were evidence that all is not well with the wandering delegate.  Although he is not on any subcommittee with responsibility for Ukraine, as a member of the Full Committee he would be invited and more often than not he could be counted on to be on any Congressional delegation that wanted him.  Then-Foreign Affairs subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jim Leach (R-IA) once was reported to have said that although Faleomavaega was annoying, he found it useful to have him around because when there was a need to have a bipartisan delegation to qualify for military aircraft, he could always count on Faleomavaega to sign up—no matter where they were going. 

Indeed, it must have grated Faleomavaega that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) a freshman congresswoman of Samoan descent who is younger than his children, has in at least one hearing served as Ranking Democrat in Faleomavaega’s absence and was a star on the subcommittee’s trip to Asia.  More about that in a subsequent post.

Faleomavaega has done the voters a disservice by remaining silent about his health and only time will tell if as a political calculation it turns out to backfire on him, should he run for re-election.  That is the question on everyone’s mind right now and it gets more and more so on every occasion, like today, when his absence is noticed and as the July 1 date approaches when the candidate filing period opens with the election office.  Indeed, speculation over the seven months of his absence has ranged from him being in a coma to dying of cancer.   

His movement to the House podium, albeit it slow, and his unslurred remarks to talk about Flag Day, the video of which he was eager to distribute on the island, do not suggest any residual physical effects of a stroke but there are credible sources here who say the problem is mental, with Faleomavaega suffering serious memory gaps.  It is said by some that he can be propped up for a short term photo opportunity or pointed to the microphone to deliver a prepared short speech but cannot think very well on his feet. Nevertheless, although he has not publicly announced his intentions, Faleomavaega is indeed officially a candidate in the eyes of the Federal Election Commission: he has a functioning campaign committee and already has raised funds for this election cycle.  

Moreover, he could win, just as U.S. Rep. Gladys Spellman (D-MD) did once even though she was in a coma at the time.  Indeed, Congress was in a dilemma over what to do because there is no prohibition against running while in a coma (or from behind bars, for that matter) and if the voters choose to elect someone anyway, that is their choice.  It was only when she did not revive that after six months they declared her seat vacant because she was unable to take the oath of office.  By the way, she remained ina coma for eight years before passing away at age 70, the same age Faleomavaega is now. 

Our local media either is not interested or is too lazy to go to the Federal Election Commission records where they would learn that Faleomavaega already has raised over $40,000 for this election cycle, which is a substantial amount for a small race like this one.  Indeed, it may be more money already than any other congressional candidate ever has raised for an entire campaign here.  It would not be that hard to research from FEC records.

His contributions come largely from tuna interests and people with Asian surnames, and many donations are for $2,000 or more, including one person at the maximum $2,600 allowed.  Surely these folks are not just throwing money down a rat hole.   Faleomavaega must be sending them a signal, probably through his chief enforcer, Lisa Williams, that he intends to run again.  His congressional office chief of staff, the feared and hated Williams, also is often on his campaign payroll as a fundraiser in election years. 

It is probably the uncertainty of Faleomavaega’s intentions that are keeping most potential candidates on the sidelines for now.  Only two people have announced their candidacies so far: ASCC employee Fuala'au 'Rosie' Tago Lancaster, a retired army warrant officer, and the Governor’s deputy senior policy adviser, Tua’au Kereti Mata’utia.  Both have run before and run poorly, and neither is considered much of a threat.  Lancaster has not reported to FEC any money raised this cycle and Mata’utia has not even registered a committee with the federal regulatory body (and did not do so last time, either, although he is a lawyer and should know his federal obligations).

Names of potential candidates being mentioned in the rumor mill include Faleomavaega’s sister Vaitinasa Dr. Salu Hunkin-Finau, who is director of Education for the government and a failed gubernatorial candidate in 2012, and Fai’ivae Alex Godinet, who is long-time director of Faleomavaega’s district office but has never run for office.  Both are thought to be “heirs-apparent” behind one of whom Faleomavaega conceivably would through his weight and lend his organization, should he bow out.  A third potential candidate who falls into that category is Homeland Security Director Savusa, who not only had his photo taken with Faleomavaega on a recent trip to Washington but has been “nominated” by him to serve on a Pentagon committee reviewing a proposal to establish a National Guard unit in the territory.  More about that in a later blog post.  Savusa was an unsuccessful candidate for lt. governor in 2012. 

Beyond those three potential heirs-apparent, none of whom likely would run if Faleomavaega decided to seek re-election, speculation has centered on former governor Togiola Tulafono, who had a contentious relationship with Faleomavaega during his almost 10 years in office, once even publicly calling for him to retire. Togiola has not filed any paperwork with the FEC.  Finally, there is Aumua Amata Radewagen, who has run unsuccessfully several times in the past but could be a contender in a multi-candidate race if she could hold her base vote.  Her committee remains active at FEC but she has raised only a token $850 this cycle and while she has kept in the public eye, she has not signaled her plans.  Whether Faleomavaega runs or not, it could be as much as a five-person race this fall or maybe more, if one of the usual delusional loons on the island also jumps into the contest.

We are updating our poll to add the names of all these speculated candidates.  Regrettably, this blog system’s polling app will not allow us to modify the current poll, so we are going to have to take it down and start over.  Our apologies to the enthusiastic Matau’tia supports who have voted him so far the overwhelming favorite to succeed Faleomavaega.  They are just going to have to vote again in the new poll, as will the supporters of any other candidates, if they are of a mind.  The results, of course, are entirely unscientific.

One final note.  This is the sort of speculative or analytical article that virtually every newspaper in America—including those in the other territories—publishes before elections.  Don’t hold your breath, however, waiting for one in our leading media:  Radio 93KHJ-FM or Samoa News.  In fairness, the radio station’s news format does not lend itself well to long form analysis.  Samoa News, on the other hand, does have the capacity but simply does not carry much political news beyond a single story about a candidate when he or she announces a candidacy.  There long has been speculation in the community that Samoa News has an unwritten policy not to carry political news as a means of driving up revenue by forcing candidates to spend more money with them on advertising.  Shameful and unethical by most U.S. journalism standards, but not illegal.

Speaking of local media, they seem again to have reverted once again to publishing Faleomavaega’s news releases without any caveats on their veracity.

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