Sept. 17, 2004 Civics 101 teaches that election results indicate the will of the people.
While this is not always the case witness the 2000 presidential election where the candidate with the most popular votes lost it clearly seemed to be the case in last Saturday's primary election. Change was in the air.
Various surveys indicate that 70 percent of Americans cannot name their state senators or congressional representatives. None of that 70 percent lives in the Virgin Islands.
The territory has a unique electorate. Political figures are not an abstract face popping up in the morning paper. More often than not they are somebody's next door neighbor, a relative, a colleague, a former schoolmate, a sports teammate. We know who we are voting for. And we do vote, often in far greater percentages than many other jurisdictions.
And the territory's largest political party got a comeuppance in a near record turnout primary. The Democratic Party, though still dominant, took a blow to its unity.
Although almost to a person, politicians in the territory have vehemently decried Democrat Delegate Donna M. Christensen's legislation to create a Chief Financial Officer for the territory claiming it's a throwback to "colonialism," a "denigration of our government" voters were not influenced by the party line.
Turnbull Democrats had in fact abandoned Christensen and supported political newcomer Basil Ottley Jr. to oppose her. But Christensen won by a 3-1 margin.
And St. Croix residents came out for Christensen in even higher numbers than the other islands' voters. While preliminary results showed Christensen winning territorywide at 77 percent to 23 percent, St. Croix voters returned an 83-to-16 percent landslide over Ottley.
And it didn't end there. The Democratic senatorial incumbents thought by many to be powerful and popular were given short shrift. St. Croix voters showed no sympathy for their 25th Legislature representatives, whom they apparently don't trust or at least don't appreciate anymore.
The three top vote-getters in the primary were new candidates. The incumbents were relegated to the back of the bus, falling dismally behind the opposition, with Senate President David Jones bringing up the caboose in eighth place, followed by Sen. Luther Renee and former Sen. G. Luz James.
Newcomer Neville James came in first, with an unofficial 13.09 percent of the vote, followed by Juan Figueroa Serville with 11.33 percent, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion with 11.01 percent and Michael Thurland with 9.45 percent. Incumbent Sen. Ronald Russell squeezed in between Encarnacion and Thurland with a respectable 9.78 percent.
James and Encarnacion have publicly voiced support for Christensen's bill for fiscal reform. Though critics insist the measure supports a return to colonialism, it does not involve the federal government in its amended form. When the Department of the Interior did not support the bill in its June hearing, Christensen made major changes in the legislation to remove any role for the federal department. (See "Reworked CFO Bill Has Cleared Just One Hurdle").
And then comes the embarrassment the administration brought on itself the week before the primary in legislation proposed and then rescinded by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull that may well have provided the tipping point for undecided voters. The administrative fumbling over the governor's flawed legislation gave rise to a public outcry. Citizens demanded to know what the governor was up to. The governor claimed he had not read the offending legislation, which sought to give the Property and Procurement Department commissioner the power to endorse contracts that had been entered into in violation of V.I. Code, if the commissioner felt it was in the "best interest" of the territory. The bill resulted in the demise of Iver Stridiron as attorney general. (See "Governor Reverses Position on Procurement Bill").
Though many senators lost no time in voicing objection to the bill, Sen. Emmett Hansen II said voters seem to blame the Senate along with the administration. He said at the time, "We all spoke out against that bill. It would never see the light of day in the Legislature."
"I cannot believe the Legislature is asked to ratify a proposal in which contracts were given not only in violation of statutory procurement requirements, but in which bad faith was a factor," Sen. Lorraine L Berry said after reading the legislation last week.
Berry is a sponsor of Property and Procurement legislation which will be heard Friday before the Government Operations Committee. Committee chair Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone has invited administration officials, including former Attorney General Stridiron, to that meeting to air out the controversy. (See "Committee Focusing on Procurement Controversy").
Hansen, who finished in the seventh seat in the senatorial primary, said he didn't think the CFO bill was the primary reason for the vote count. "I think it had an influence, but I don't think that people who voted purely on that will gain from that," he said. "Accountability has been the overriding issue of the past two Legislatures. We have always supported more latitude for the Office of the Inspector General's investigations of government fraud."
But where that may be true on its face, when it comes to appropriating money to fund the IG, the Legislature has often fallen short of its promises.
Jones, on the other hand, said this week that he did not think the CFO issue swayed voters. Jones has been an outspoken opponent of the CFO bill. He told the House Committee on Resources
in the bill's June hearing, "HR 3589 infringes on the powers that Congress has delegated to the Government of the Virgin Islands and denigrates all our progress in self-determination, while at the same time imposing an unnecessary, inefficacious and cumbersome additional layer of bureaucracy." (See "Strong Opinions Span the Spectrum at CFO Hearing").
Russell, the only other senator to attend the meeting, disagreed. He told the committee that the bill would not usurp the powers and functions of the V. I. Legislature or the governor. "The bill attempts to address community concerns regarding government expenditures," he said.
Russell, who chairs the Education and Youth Committee, pointed out that the territory has 12,600 children living in poverty, according to the 2003 Kids Count research findings; that the Education Department is in dire fiscal straits; and that problems managing federal grant funding exist in both the Health and Education Departments.
He told the committee it is "highly unlikely" that the same Legislature that censured the delegate for introducing the CFO bill would approve the financial review board, as had been proposed by Berry. Russell was the lone holdout against the censure resolution in the Senate majority.
Russell said this week that he believes the CFO bill did influence voters. In challenging the bill, he ran up against his Democratic colleagues. "I think I've demonstrated that, although I belong to the Democatic party, I'm not simply following the dictates of the governor, when I think it is not in the best interest of the people."
He had words of caution for other Democratic candidates. "I think the electorate might show further dissatisfaction. There's room for that. I believe that any incumbent who is up for reelection should campaign hard and try to get their message out."
Hansen must have overheard Russell&#
39;s admonition. "I need a swift kick in the behind to get me going," he said. "I've been mentally exhausted after spending so much time working on the housing bill." Hansen's Homeownership Act of 2004, embraced by his colleagues, was vetoed by the governor. Hansen will motion for an override at the Senate's next full session which was canceled last week because of weather, but, acccording to Hansen, is scheduled for later this month.
Although he said he is putting renewed efforts into his campaign, Hansen expressed doubts about the importance of the primary results. "I see them as the regular season compared to the World Series," he said.
That may be whistling in the dark; the 184 absentee votes could be very decisive in the close Senate race. Corrine Plaskett, St. Croix Elections deputy supervisor, said this week "around 50 percent" of the ballots are usually returned.
The unofficial results show (name, party, number of votes, unofficial percentage of vote):
Neville James, Democratic Party, 1,867, 13.09%
Juan Figueroa Serville, Democratic Party, 1,616, 11.33%
Pedro Pete Encarnacion, Democratic Party, 1,571, 11.01%
Ronald E. Russell, Democratic Party, 1,395, 9.78%
Michael Thurland, Democratic Party, 1,349, 9.45%
Douglas E. Canton Jr., Democratic Party, 1,184, 8.30%
Emmett Hansen II, Democratic Party, 1,167, 8.18%
Gregory A. Bennerson, Democratic Party, 1,119, 7.84%
David S. Jones, Democratic Party, 1,087, 7.62%
Luther F. Renee, Democratic Party, 1,093, 7.66%
G. Luz A. James, Democratic Party, 811, 5.68%.
That leaves a lot of leeway for Bennerson, Jones and Renee to pick up a few deciding votes.
And, after the dust settles on the seven senatorial Democrats there is an astonishingly wide array of other aspirants, more than enough to field a major league baseball team. In the field of 31, there are three Independent Citizens Movement candidates, 10 independents, and five Republicans.
One of the Republicans is former Sen. Lilliana Belardo de O'Neal, who may garner her share of the Hispanic vote. Two of the three leading vote-getters in the primary Serville and Encarnacion are Hispanic. It has been suggested that a lawsuit brought by St. Croix residents calling for election reform in the form of districting may have mobilized the Hispanic community to get out and support its candidates.
Plaskett said the unofficial absentee vote count will be announced on Sept.22, with five more days after that to certify the election.
Molly Morris has been the Source political reporter the past five years.
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