SAIPAN – The CNMI Democratic bloc and their Independent allies assumed the leadership of the 22nd House of Representatives on Tuesday after Independent Rep. Edmund Villagomez was elected speaker by a vote of 11-9.
His opponent was Republican Rep. Ivan Blanco, who became his party's nominee for speaker after Rep. Angel Demapan withdrew his candidacy following several roll-call votes that ended in a 10-10 tie.
The House has nine Republicans, eight Democrats and three independents, two of whom are aligned with the Democrats while one caucuses with the Republicans.
"In the interest of moving forward (and) in the interest of beginning the work for our people, I believe that our people and our colleagues deserve other options to consider today," Demapan told his colleagues.
"And so this time ... I am announcing my withdrawal from the race for the speaker (so that) other options (can) be considered (and) we can break the impasse ... and begin the service to our people," he added.
Republican Rep. J.P. Sablan then nominated Blanco for the speakership.
In the ensuing roll-call vote, Republican Ralph Yumul voted for Villagomez, who received 11 votes while Blanco received 9.
Elected unanimously as vice speaker was Republican Blas Jonathan Attao, while Yumul defeated Demapan for the floor leader's position by a vote of 11-9 with Yumul once again voting with the Democratic bloc.
In an interview after the session, Speaker Villagomez said he is looking forward to a "collaborative leadership."
"I am very grateful for the opportunity, for the privilege and honor given to me to serve as their speaker. I am forever grateful even to those who did not vote for me. I am here for them as well," he said adding that he now looks forward to working with all the members "in moving the CNMI forward."
"We have a lot of issues that we are facing and we need to all work together to tackle these issues, not just here in the House but also in the Senate and the administration as well," Villagomez said.
He said the organizational session was probably the longest in CNMI House history, but it was also part of the democratic process.
He reiterated the need for "collaborative leadership in serving the people."
"As you can see," he added, "I am an independent and the speaker while the vice speaker and (the) floor leader are Republicans."
As speaker, Villagomez assigns the committee chairmanships, and all went to his Democratic/Independent allies:
- Ways and Means – Donald Manglona of Rota
- Natural Resources Committee – Sheila Babauta
- Health and Welfare Committee – Tina Sablan
- Education – Leila Staffler
- Judiciary and Governmental Operations – Celina Babauta
- Federal and Foreign Affairs Committee – Vicente Camacho
- Public Utilities, Transportation and Communications – Richard Lizama
- Commerce, Tourism and Cannabis – Denita Yangetmai
- Gaming – Edwin Propst
The speaker also tasked Reps. Tina Sablan, Leila Staffler and Ralph Yumul to form an ad hoc committee that will promulgate the House rules.
In a separate interview, Rep. Ivan Blanco said he has the highest respect for Villagomez' ability "to lead this body forward during these unprecedented times."
"I also want to congratulate Vice Speaker Attao, Floor Leader Yumul and all the respective standing committee chairpersons. I look forward to working with them as we continue to help our people. I also thank the members who supported me throughout the process."
Blanco likewise thanked his family and all the supporters "who stood by me and the team throughout. We extend the new leadership our best wishes."
Rep. Tina Sablan said she and the rest of the Democratic-Independent bloc are "very pleased" with the result of the organizational session.
"We think that this is the beginning of a bipartisan and collaborative House," she said.
Propst said he would like to thank his colleagues for working diligently to end the impasse.
"Most especially, we want to thank our Commonwealth, our community for being patient. I know a lot of people were very anxious to get this over with. ... We feel confident in our leadership. We think that this is really a coalition. And we will be working together to help move the commonwealth forward and most especially to help our people," he said.
Demapan said in a democracy, "a lot of the things are decided by a vote. So at the end of the day, we respect the result of the votes. ... I respect the decision that my colleagues made today and we respect the new leadership and look forward to addressing together the issues facing the commonwealth."
Gov. Ralph Torres, a Republican, issued the following statement on Tuesday:
"I want to extend my sincerest congratulations to House Speaker Edmund Villagomez, House Vice Speaker Blas Jonathan Attao, and House Floor Leader Ralph Yumul and to Senate President Jude Hofschneider, Senate Vice President Justo Quitugua, Senate Floor Leader Vinnie Sablan and Senate Legislative Secretary Victor Hocog on their new leadership roles in the 22nd Northern Marianas Commonwealth Legislature.
"It is a great honor to work with our new legislative leadership and the members of both the 22nd Senate and House of Representatives. The selection of officers has been made, and I congratulate everyone in the Legislature for being duly elected by our people.
"My door is always open, and it is imperative that we continue to work together. I look forward to addressing issues collaboratively with the goal of overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic, rebuilding our economy, and improving the quality of life here in the Marianas."