Freshman Sen. Emmett Hansen II has his priorities all in a row, and they boil down to one subject dear to his heart: the island of St. Croix.
One of two newly elected Crucian senators, Hansen is vocal and articulate on the subject, and he has concrete plans and fresh approaches to St. Croix's economic and social ills.
Sitting in his tiny office in the Earle B. Ottley Legislature Building on St. Thomas, Hansen looks in wonder as his telephone keeps ringing on Wednesday afternoon. "It hasn't rung this much since I've been here," he says, apologizing for the interruptions. "I guess it was the news conference this morning."
Hansen and the other five senators of a newly formed minority caucus had invited the news media to the Palms Court Harborview Hotel earlier in the day to announce their agenda for the 24th Legislature. He had spoken of his concerns about St. Croix and his intentions to handle his tenure on a severely limited budget.
Why did he run for office? "It may sound trite, but I love the Virgin Islands," Hansen says. "I've done everything else in my power to stay in the V.I., and this was the last resort to do something to effect a change."
Granting that he came into a divisive Senate, Hansen says, "When it's tight, your perception is sharpest. I ran a solution-based campaign because I'm going to make something happen."
A history of involvement
Hansen says friends, family and even strangers had been urging him to run for the Senate for the past six years, but because of the tenor of past legislatures, he had refused. Forty years old and at midcareer, he says, "I've had several attractive job offers from the States, but if I took a stateside job, that would be it until retirement."
The new senator has a strong record of community involvement. He is currently the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce vice president for community affairs. He hosted the WTJX-TV "Topics" program for four years and previously served stints reporting for the St. Croix Avis and the V.I. Daily News.
He attended high school on both St. Croix and St. Thomas, graduating from Charlotte Amalie High in 1979. He graduated from Dillard University in New Orleans and expects to receive his master's degree in public administration from the University of the Virgin Islands in May.
He also served as director of development for Lutheran Social Services, supervising federally funded projects such as the Ebenezer Gardens home on St. Thomas and Genip Gardens on St. Croix. Most recently, he was a counselor with the UVI Small Business Development Center, where he gave guidance and financial packaging assistance to present and prospective local small business owners.
Tackling the obstacles to change
The senator sees a lack of infrastructure and of a basic, cohesive economic development plan as the main stumbling blocks to St. Croix's growth. "After Hurricane Hugo in 1989, St. Croix worked on a social plan, but no economic plan I plan to change that," he says. Noting that St. Thomas and St. John have one focus, tourism, he says St. Croix is scattered. "One screams light industry, somebody else is opting for tourism; we need a land-based focus," he says.
Hansen says he is working closely with Carmelo Rivera, St. Croix Chamber of Commerce president, to organize community meetings, "not gripe sessions, but to move forward, to see where the pressure points are where we can make something happen."
He thinks the legislature has failed to put itself in a position where it can change things. "For instance, we can pass legislation that sewage pipes are replaced by PVC piping so we won't have these leaks," he says. "Then, we appropriate the funds to see that it gets done. We have to stop just blaming the executive branch, and move in ourselves."
"Look at the midnight dives we used to have on the Frederiksted pier," he adds. "We can't do it now, with the raw sewage there."
Because he doesn't chair a Senate committee, Hansen says, he has time to visit neighborhoods. "I ran a grassroots campaign," he says, "and now I can continue going door to door to find out what people's problems are. Or maybe I'll use school auditoriums, if necessary."
The phone rings again. It's his chief of staff, Michael Thurland. "Oh, you think so?" Hansen says into the phone. "How about that!"
Thurland "thinks the press conference went well," he relates.
It is sometimes difficult to be heard in the small street-side chamber which he shares with fellow St. Croix freshman Sen. Douglas Canton in what used to be Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen's office. The room is now divided in two, with the only entrance on Canton's side. Hansen's office has a desk, two chairs, a file cabinet and the phone. No computer.
"Useless," he says. "I told them to take it back. I don't need a paperweight."
Hansen's concern about physical comfort is minimal compared to his concern about getting things done. "St. Croix is crumbling around us people are moving away in droves," he notes. He compares the island's marketing approach to a teenager spreading fliers all over for a party, then having no party and no place to put anyone who shows up.
"We don't have a land and water use plan," he points out. "One has been sitting around for about eight years. We encourage developers to come to the island, and then we raise a big hubbub when we get something we might not want. There are no designated areas of land and water use."
He says the quality of life has to be improved to invite investment. "If we just start small and keep working on it, in a year's time maybe we could say, 'Come, look at our roads, our potable water, our schools,'" he says. Companies do a quality-of-life study of any area before moving operations there, he points out.
A coach on committees
Hansen decries the majority's lumping together of what he sees as two vitally important committees: Planning and Environmental Protection, and Government Operations. He says it was all about power: "Put everyone on one side of the aisle, and the people be damned."
He serves on four committees, including Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Protection. "I asked Sen. [Adelbert] Bryan, committee chairman, to consider me for that," he says. "I was surprised and pleased to be on it."
Hansen regrets that the four St. Croix senators have not yet met together. "We've got to work together to make things happen," he stresses.
He also is pleased to have been assigned to the Youth and Human Services Committee. He coaches a pair of Little League teams, Mongoose and Mongoose Too, and has experienced firsthand what kinds of support youngsters need. "In almost four years, I've seen about eight fathers come to the games," he says. "That's pitiful."
Hansen has an 8-year-old son, Emmett III, who plays shortstop for Mongoose Too, and is married to the former Monica Marshall, a teacher.
He says he has a staff of about 3-1/2 people in his St. Croix office. "I'm really fortunate," he says. "These are people who helped in my campaign. They're more volunteering than working for me on what I can pay.
"They told me their lives would be better in the long run, and that's pretty humbling," he adds. "It's a hell of a thing they're dedicated."
For the next two years, Hansen says, "I'm not apprehensive. With all these people on my side, how can we lose?"