GovernorFelix Camacho (R)
RepresentativeDel. Madeleine Bordallo (D)
Some 7,800 miles west of Los Angeles and 3,800 miles west of Hawaii, 17 hours of flying time from Washington, D.C., is Guam, where America’s day begins. Guam lies west of the International Date Line, and people there are in the early hours of Tuesday when the rest of us are well into Monday afternoon. The Interior Department came to Guam to see whether there were Y2K problems, as the clock struck midnight, January 1, 2000, while it was 9 a.m., December 31, 1999 in Washington. Geographically, it is in the center of the Mariana Islands, but Guam is legally separate. While the Northern Marianas were administered by the United States as a United Nations trust territory until they became the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas (CNMI) in 1978, Guam was ruled by Navy captains from 1898 to 1949, except for 32 months of Japanese occupation during World War II. In 1950, the Guam Organic Act made Guamanians U.S. citizens. Guam’s first civilian governor, Carlton Skinner, who as a captain integrated the crew of his Navy ship in 1943, established the University of Guam and wrote its constitution. Guam elects its local government, GovGuam, but Congress still retains final power over the territory. It gave Guam a non-voting delegate to the House in 1972.
Guam, as the Washington Post’s Blaine Harden put it, “marries the beauty of Bali with the banality of Kmart.” It is 36 miles long by four to nine miles wide, with 178,000 people. Thirty-seven percent are Chamorro (descendants of the original islanders) or from elsewhere in Micronesia, 26% are Filipino, 11% other Pacific Islander, 6% other Asian, 7% white and 12% other or “mixed”; 85% of Guamanians are Catholic. The Catholic Church helped defeat a proposal for casino gambling 61%-39% in 2004, despite the competition for tourists. Proposals for slot machines in race tracks in 2006 and 2008 also failed. Guam is tropical, but not an easy environment. In August 1993, it lived through an earthquake rated at 8.2 on the Richter scale, comparable to San Francisco’s in 1906. In December 2002, Supertyphoon Pongsona, with winds up to 184 miles per hour, caused hundreds of millions in damage. And Guam suffers from an invasive species, the semi-poisonous brown tree snake, which has killed off nearly all of the island’s bird population and severely disrupted the island’s ecosystem. The 10-foot long snakes climb up electric poles and cut off the current and have been known to attack infants. Their population peaked in the 1980s, but no one knows how to get rid of them.
Economically, Guam depends on tourism and service businesses, but most of all on the U.S. military. Bases occupy one-third of the land, and 60% of income comes from the federal government, which has produced a per capita gross domestic product higher than in any other Pacific islands except Hawaii. The ups and downs of military deployments have a strong impact on Guam’s economy. The drawdown in the 20 years after the Vietnam War, from 30,000 personnel to 5,000 in the late 1980s, resulted in plummeting housing values and high unemployment. Guam, 3,700 miles closer to Asia than Hawaii, is valuable strategically, especially in light of events such as the September 11 attacks, popular protests in South Korea and Japan against the U.S. military presence there, the threats of the North Korean government, and the need to supply operations in South Asia.
By 2005, military spending here was nearly double the levels of the mid-1990s. The Navy spent $30 million dredging Apra Harbor and repairing World War II-era wharves; $500 million was spent on construction at Andersen Air Force Base. Guam is a good site for training. The Marines rent typhoon-damaged structures for urban warfare exercises and the southern jungles are good for rural warfare training. In October 2005, the United States and Japan agreed that 8,000 Marines would be relocated from Okinawa to Guam by 2012. They would more than double the military presence, and make Guam the strategic “tip of the spear” in the Pacific, as Rear Admiral John Bird put it. Japan agreed to provide $6 billion for the transfer, but the United States will have to spend billions more. Guam’s population is expected to swell by 40,000, straining already near-capacity water and wastewater systems. “No American community can shoulder the challenges of a 30% increase in population,” Gov. Felix Camacho said in May 2008. GovGuam, which has been borrowing money to meet current expenses, is seeking $2 billion to $3 billion from the federal government to pay for infrastructure and other costs.
For much of the 1990s, Guam sought a change in status, to give the Guam government control over immigration. Chamorros said they want to block others from coming in, establishing citizenship and making them a minority. Another motive was to bring in guest workers as the surrounding Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands had done with its exemption from federal immigration laws. This push went nowhere for years, and in 2007, Congress stripped the CNMI of its exemption as well. This led to demands from both Guam and the CNMI, which had been attracting Chinese tourists to its gambling parlors, for a waiver to the visa requirements for Chinese and Russian tourists.
Guam votes for Democrats more often than Republicans, but politics here are a family matter. Gov. Camacho’s father was also governor; his former lieutenant governor, Kaleo Moylan, is the son of the elder Camacho’s lieutenant governor. Del. Madeleine Bordallo, wife of former Democratic Gov. Ricardo Bordallo, won the 2002 Democratic nomination by beating Judith Won Pat, daughter of former Del. Antonio Borja Won Pat. In 2006, there were two primary contests for governor, on the Republican side between Camacho and Moylan, whom he had dumped from the ticket; on the Democratic side between former Del. Richard Underwood and former Gov. Carl Gutierrez, whose wife Underwood had bested in the 2002 primary.
Guam, of course, does not cast any electoral votes for president, but has a part in presidential politics. It elects delegates to party national conventions—6 for Republican President George W. Bush and 6 for Democrat John Kerry in 2004. In 2008, Guam Democrats scheduled a primary on May 3, when the Democratic contest was still raging and the winds of political war wafted clear across the Pacific. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama both ran television ads. Former President Bill Clinton called in to a morning Guam radio show, while Obama opened an office in the capital of Hagatna, with three paid staffers. Obama stressed his Hawaiian roots and ties to the Pacific islands. Clinton called for a presidential vote for Guam and supported some of Del. Bordallo’s proposed legislation. The final result was closer than anywhere else: Obama won 2,264 votes to Clinton’s 2,257. That meant, under Democrats’ proportional representation delegate allocation rules, that they split evenly Guam’s four delegate votes. Guam Republicans held a convention on March 8, after John McCain clinched the Republican nomination. All nine delegates supported him. In its November election, Guam conducts a straw poll for president, and has voted for the winner every time since 1984. In 2000 George W. Bush beat Al Gore 52%-47%; in 2004, after the big military buildup, Bush beat John Kerry 65%-35%. Barack Obama beat John McCain 62%-37% in 2008.