First in a series of profiles of freshman senators in the 25th Legislature
Jan. 19, 2003 The youngest and shortest senator in the 25th Legislature doesn't see a Virgin Islands with burgeoning problems; he sees a territory ripe with opportunities.
And Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, St. Thomas-St. John district lawmaker, is not shy about identifying what needs to be done, and how to go about doing it. "If you keep dealing in negative terms," said the 34-year-old legislator who stands a carefully calculated 5 feet 5 and one-quarter inches, "it has a subliminal effect," something he has no room for in his ambitious agenda.
Malone's willingness to speak out and take action may have caught his Democratic majority colleagues unawares. He vowed to sponsor a measure to repeal, or at least suspend, the infamous raises the 24th Legislature voted for senators, the governor and the lieutenant governor. He was gathering support for that proposed legislation from two freshman colleagues, St. Croix senators-elect Raymond Richards and Ronald Russell, when Gov. Charles W. Turnbull vetoed the raises on Jan. 10.
Malone says his relative youth can be misleading. "Some people think I'm just coming along," he said, but "I've been involved in politics since I was 14 years old."
His supporters clearly have great expectations. He received the biggest hand at the legislative swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 13 and another hearty round of applause when the body met in its first session. The new golden boy on the block seems unaffected by his popularity, although certainly not dismissive of it. He literally beams in the public eye, greeting one and all with sincerity.
Delegate Donna M. Christensen is among his mentors. Malone ran her St. Thomas office for five years before quitting to seek a seat in the Senate. Following the governor's State of the Territory address on Jan. 13, Christensen said of Malone: "I know that he feels that he is in 'this place' for just such a time as this -- and so do I."
Calling Malone a "bright and committed young man," Christensen said she looks forward to seeing him in the Senate. "He will be a fresh and principled voice, and while we miss him, we are happy to have him where he is."
Plenty of family political influence
Malone said his first political heroine, his great-grandmother Rosa Barthlett, died before he was born. "She was the pillar of the local Democrats in the '50s and '60s," he said. "She controlled all the votes in the Downstreet, or Savan, area, where we've all lived. And she was a midwife, too."
He was reared by his grandmother Eunice Barthlett, a nurse, who carried on the political tradition, but more behind the scenes. "She would cook for a lot of the politicians," he said. After Malone graduated in 1991 from Hampton University with a degree in political science, she was the one who decreed he "come back home," Malone recalled, telling him that "things are getting out of hand, slipping away from the V.I. people. If you're not here, you can't be counted."
But that is getting ahead of this senator's political saga.
Malone is a seventh generation Virgin Islander on both sides of his family, a family rich in political tradition. Roy Innis, the Crucian-born national civil rights leader, is his great-uncle.
He cut his political teeth early at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, serving three terms on the student council. He transferred to Sts. Peter and Paul High School and became active in the Young Democrats. At Hampton University, he ran the Student Justice Court at a time when Doug Wilder was elected the first black governor of Virginia.
After graduation, he was offered a cushy Wall Street job, right about the time Grandma said he should return home.
Malone's parents Pauline L. Monell and Roy M. Malone had six children, and he is the only one still living in the Virgin Islands. "They can't afford to live here and raise their children," Malone said of his siblings and his 19 nieces and nephews. That's something that distresses him: "This isn't right. They should be able to make a decent living and raise their children here," he said.
Politics and music an effective mix
Malone's parents were both professionals in financial services. His late father worked as a tax consultant to support his family, but his first love was music. He was a renowned jazz guitarist, Malone said of his dad, and some of that musicality rubbed off on him -- and even got mixed with politics.
He played alto sax in the Eudora Kean saxophone quartet. "We got to play for Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica when she arrived at the old Harry S. Truman Airport," he recalled, "and that was exciting."
Malone also played in the Territorial Court Rising Stars Youth Steel Orchestra, and credits its founder, now-retired Judge Verne Hodge with influencing the future course of his life. "He was my mentor. I was a member of the first Rising Stars, and he placed me in summer intern jobs while I was in college," he recalled.
While in college, "in the summer of '89, I worked on the V.I. Commission on Status," he said. "I wrote my senior thesis on the V.I. constitutional status, and I got an A."
He, like the governor, who mentioned it in his State of the Territory speech, wants to see a fifth Constitutional Convention convened soon. "I have spoken to the governor about its importance," he said.
Malone has been named to chair the Senate Government Operations Committee, where he will be in a powerful position to work toward the calling of such a convention and the implementing of government reforms. His experience since returning to the islands has been a series of stepping stones to his present position, some of them unintentional.
He spent four years in public relations at the Planning and Natural Resources Department, where he gained another mentor, then-commissioner Roy Adams. After that, he dabbled in the private sector, including a management position at the Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas Resort, but his heart was still in politics. "I joined the Young Democrats and became president after Lorna Thomas, who also was a great grandchild of Rosa Barthlett," he said.
"When I was at the Ritz-Carlton, I met Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa," Malone said. "He was a young Democrat like me, and he convinced me to stay in politics. I was working on Donna Christensen's first run for delegate then."
Christensen lost that first round in 1994 but was elected two years later and has been re-elected three successive times since. "When she ran the second time, I helped influence her to run," Malone said. He also won the job on her staff.
Revenues, efficiency and a constitution
Malone has a clear agenda: "The three things we need to study are revenue generating areas, efficiency in agencies, and the constitution -- amending the Organic Act for a new constitution. We have to explain to people what it means to write a new Organic Act. It takes education, which is why it has already failed four times. The Tax Study Commission and the Law Revision Commission are tied to this larger picture. We need to have new laws that will benefit what needs to happen in the 21st century."
For one thing, he said, the Organic Act "prevents us from becoming leaders in the Caribbean. It should be amended so we can enter into trade pacts, into Caricom. We should be the English-speaking conduit to the Caribbean, the liaison between the U.S. and the region, exporters of democracy in the Caribbean."
Malone said he wants to study government agencies with an eye to greater training, efficiency and accountability. "The revenue-generating agencies come first," he said. But he adds, "I don't want to micro-manage" -- something the 24th Legislature was continually accused of doing.
One of the valuable things he learned working for Christensen, Malone said, is "how to run an organization, public or otherwise."
He had kind words for Turnbull, a fellow Democrat. "The governor has done some incredible things. The audits were good. They were steps in the right direction to mend things with the federal government," he said. But more needs to be done. "Those raises were not a good idea," he added.
Malone asked for and received appointment to the Senate's brand-new Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee, which Sen. Lorraine Berry asked for and is chairing.
Since he's a young senator, Malone said, "people expect me to be involved with youth problems. I want to work on setting up more youth programs, and bring in the private sector as well." He said he will ask sports-related companies to contribute to local activity centers, including a skating rink -- "something for the young people to do." He also called for enforcing neighborhood watch programs and for better street lighting. All have been chronic concerns of the police and social service agencies for years.
A very approachable politician, Malone invites confidence. He listens. His ambition is almost contagious when he talks about his ideas. And he has a knack for remaining centered, a quality that came in handy in the long day of absentee ballot counting when he edged out incumbent senator Donald "Ducks" Cole by 50 votes.
That day started off with kibitzing by Cole and veteran senator Celestino A. White Sr. "I wish them both luck," White said. "Cole is my good friend, and Shawn is like a nephew to me. I saw a rabbit's foot in Cole's hand when he came in, but then Shawn pulled out two four-leaf clovers from his pocket."
Malone knows better than to count on good-luck charms helping him attain his aspirations and his agenda as a freshman senator. But those who know him wouldn't be surprised if they were to find out someday down the road that he has kept the clovers -- and maybe acquired a rabbit's foot as well.
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