Second in a series of profiles of freshman senators in the 25th Legislature
Jan. 25, 2003 It is not the typical locale for an interview, but an altogether auspicious one as it turns out.
Sitting on one of the upholstered benches in the gallery of the otherwise deserted Earle B. Ottley Senate Chambers on Thursday morning, Sen. Ronald Russell talks about what he foresees as his place in these chambers in the next two years.
Except for the freshman senator's soft-spoken voice, the area is silent, with only a workman scurrying through now and then. The workers are busy reconstructing Russell's office and those of other senators, which is why he suggests doing the interview in the chambers.
Dressed in an orange polo shirt and khakis, arms folded, the tall, lanky St. Croix senator leans back, somehow getting comfortable on the stiff bench. At first it seems he might be inhibited by his surroundings, but that is not the case. He is filled with respect. "So much Virgin Islands history has taken place here," he says. "I hope to see these chambers filled with respect and decorum."
Those are qualities often lacking in the last two years, the room at times resembling a sports field more than a law-making arena. That's an image Russell hopes to change in the new Legislature.
Russell may or may not be a man for all seasons, but he surely is a man of varied capabilities. A musician, an educator, a lawyer, an Olympic track star, a father of seven, and now an elected public servant.
He gives a first impression of being unassuming, accessible, very easy to talk to. However, one soon detects a quiet determination beneath the gentle demeanor. He has clear ideas about the problems of governance in the territory, especially in education.
As the new chair of the Senate Education and Youth Committee, he brings a unique perspective to the role — as a past legal counsel to the Board of Education and a former public school music teacher on St. Croix. His first focus, he says, will be on bringing different factions the Education Department, the Board of Education, the Parent-Teacher Associations, the American Federation of Teachers unions to public meetings and hearings on issues which involve the whole spectrum of education.
But that's now. Let's look at then.
Music as comfort, inspiration and creativity
Russell at the age of 11 was happily taking piano lessons when his teacher became ill. "I was so disappointed," he says, "but then my grandmother Eulalie Rivera — she was 60 then — encouraged me to join her in taking guitar lessons." Music, he says, "has brought me comfort inspiration, and an expression for creativity," which he attributes to Rivera's influence.
Rivera, a legend in the territory's educational past –a St. Croix school is named for her — has been a constant in Russell's life. She raised him and his brother Edwin after their mother died when they were young. He brought her to the 25th Legislature's opening session, where the almost 96-year-old educator received a hearty ovation from the gallery and from other senators, which she answered with a modest bow.
After graduating from St. Croix's Central High School, Russell earned a bachelor of arts degree from the then-College of the Virgin Islands and went on to earn another B.A. in music from Rutgers University. He returned home to teach music at Claude O. Markoe Elementary school and to pursue his own musical career. But then came a fork in the road.
Leaning forward with an intense gaze as though it were yesterday, Russell said, "I had to make a tough decision; it was a big decision. I realized that to support myself. I couldn't do it on music. I wanted to make a contribution to the community, but I saw I would have to find a different way."
And so, in 1986, he returned to Rutgers to prepare for a career in which he could support himself, his family and his music. He was graduated with honors in 1989 with a juris doctor degree. At law school, he got involved in the Urban Legal Clinic and the Constitutional Law Clinic. He would go on to be named top trial lawyer in New Jersey by a board of professors and lawyers.
"I really had to defend some difficult cases," he says. "For instance, mandatory HIV testing for prostitutes."
Russell left his private law practice in Christiansted to run for office.
His love of music and athletics — he has been president of the V.I. Track and Field Federation for the last 21 years — at first appears disparate from his affinity for the field of law, but the 48-year-old lawmaker ties everything together. "The sports and the law are disciplines," he says. "Music is my love, my creative expression."
Russell is over 6 feet tall, a likely advantage on the track field and as well as in a court of law. He seems dismissive of personal attributes, except for his startling gray-green eyes. "They change with my mood," he says with a smile. They remain gray during the interview. Perhaps the green will come out when there is more of a crowd on the Senate floor.
Russell's last professional musical appearance before taking his Senate seat was on Jan. 5, for the Jazz Vespers concert at the St. Croix Reformed Church. His is a family band that includes brother Eddie and niece Diane, also a lawyer. The ensemble, which also performed at the November "Sunset Jazz in Frederiksted" event as The Diane Russell Quintet, consists of Ron on guitar, Eddie on trumpet and flugelhorn, Diane on flute, and family friends Lenny Larsen on bass and Bobby Richards on drums. And now, Russell says proudly, his 12 year-old daughter, Ronaqua, sometimes sings with the group.
An agenda for economic survival, then recovery
Russell, who has written much of the music for the group as well as songs for Calypso tents, has had several bands of his own, probably the best known being Onyx. His dedication to music translates into his enthusiasm for "event" tourism on St. Croix, an issue in his Senate campaign platform. He is upset at the moment at the prospect of the island having to cancel plans for a February blues festival because money appropriated by the Legislature last year is nowhere to be found. (A day later, the new Legislature would resolve the matter — lending Our Town Frederiksted the needed $25,000 until the appropriation arrives.)
He also has strong feelings about improving the big island's economy. "St. Croix shouldn't try to parallel or copy St. Thomas," he says. "We can promote event tourism like the blues fest, sports and cultural events, use of the UVI Research and Technology Park, and the agriculture, marine and fishing industries." And doing so would provide social outlets for the people who live on St. Croix, he notes.
Another idea Russell has advanced — one which may have helped him finish a strong fifth in the November elections — is an amnesty on past-due gross receipts taxes. A longtime member of Our Town Frederiksted, he says this would help the town's ailing businesses to stay in business — and eventually put more money back in the government's coffers when the economy picks up.
Although he was elected as a Democrat and is a member of the party's new Senate majority, his voice was independent at the Legislature's first session. When freshman minority Sen. Raymond "Usie" Richards moved to call a Committee of the Whole meeting the following week to bring the government's chief financial officers to testify, Russell voted no.
The vote was split, with several majority senators voting yes. Russell's take at the time: "I don't think we should start off on an adversarial note with the governor. I will wait until I hear his State of the Territory address this evening."
He says he has known Richards, former Sen. Adelbert Bryan's nephew, for years. "We have worked together on many t
hings; sometimes we disagree, sometimes we don't," he says.
Educational reform advocacy nothing new
Russell has set an ambitious agenda for his Education and Youth Committee. He says he will visit every public school in the territory and meet their administrators. "Well," he says with a slow smile, "I won't obviously be able to visit them all, but my staff surely will."
He is eager for educational reform and "would like to see governance from the Board of Education." He says he drafted much of a bill introduced in the last Senate to restructure the educational system — a bill sure to reappear now. The board "should set policy which would allow the commissioner to delegate more responsibility to the principals," he says, "and it cannot be too rigid a policy."
Russell says he has a good working relationship with Education Commissioner Noreen Michael and hopes to work with her on site-based management and other requirements for re-accreditation of the territory's three public high schools which lost accreditation in 2001. Again, he stresses that he wants all the stakeholders to meet in public hearings which will not be adversarial.
Like freshman Senate colleagues Louis Hill and Shawn-Michael Malone, he wants to see a land and water use plan in place to regulate sustainable development. And he sides with his colleagues and Gov. Charles W. Turnbull on convening a new constitutional convention to revise the territory's laws, and possibly its status. As a member of the territory's Tax Review Board, he brings insight to what he sees as necessary tax reform.
Asked about the video lottery terminals issue, shaping up as a test of wills between the governor, who has sent legislation to repeal a new law legalizing the machines, and Senate President David Jones, who is a strong advocate of VLT's, Russell responds like the attorney he is: "I have to weight both sides of the issue before I make a decision."
He says he's heartened that recent demonstrations in protest of huge raises for elected officials brought together disparate groups of Virgin Islanders from unions to the League of Women Voters to grass-roots citizens. "It's a renaissance of people in the V.I.," he says. "They see that they can voice their opinion." And that in doing so they can get results — as the governor's veto of the pay raises showed.
Glancing around the chambers where he will spend much of the next two years, Russell reflects: "I really like the Virgin Islands a lot. I think it's wonderful. The Caribbean is wonderful; I wouldn't live anywhere else." Then he adds: "I don't mind saying that I am driven by the teachings of Jesus Christ and of Eastern religions. I've learned a way of life based on harmony."
Russell, a past president of the V.I. Bar Association, will bring his legal expertise to the new Legislature, but he also hopes to be a mediating influence on his colleagues. In a deliberative body, "you can't get anything done by being emotional," he notes. And should cacophony erupt on occasion, who knows? In addition to drawing on his spiritual reserves, he might provide guitar accompaniment.
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