Gubernatorial candidates Gov. John deJongh Jr. and Kenneth Mapp traded barbs over Diageo, crime, education and the economy Thursday before an energized crowd at Gertrude’s Restaurant. The supporters—nearly half in white deJongh T-shirts, with slightly fewer in blue Mapp shirts—whooped and cheered when their man hit home and grumbled and shouted insults and epithets when the shoe was on the other foot.
Throughout the evening, deJongh largely stayed positive, touting the jobs and $100 million-plus increase in annual government revenues to come from the nearly complete Diageo distillery, and speaking wonkishly of a slew of programs his administration has revamped.
Asked what he would do to "provide job opportunities for convicted felons to reduce recidivism," deJongh said his administration had secured $1 million in federal stimulus money to improve the buildings and training programs for young people incarcerated in the V.I. Youth Rehabilitation Center on St. Croix., adding, "At the same time, we need to look at how we can strengthen our career and technical education for all our young people," he said.
As the challenger, Mapp went on the attack, tying deJongh directly to the recent rising tide of homicide in the territory, saying murders have skyrocketed since deJongh took office and asking the audience "do you feel safer after the last four years?"
When asked for his vision for the territory, Mapp replied, "a safer, better quality of life;" adding, Governor you simply don’t get it," causing an eruption of cheers from his supporters.
While touting his past accomplishments and while criticizing deJongh, Mapp made several inaccurate claims.
Mapp pointed to the renovations of the Frederiksted Waterfront and Frederiksted’s Vincent Mason Sr. pool as concrete improvements benefitting St. Croix, which occurred under his watch at the V.I. Public Finance Authority. Mapp went on to say "the Frederiksted Waterfront and the Vincent Mason Pool … were restored and not with one dime of public money; it was done entirely with private capital."
As numerous contemporaneous news reports document, the PFA paid for both projects not with private capital but entirely with government debt, using revenues from bonds it issued in 2003, obligating the V.I. Government and the PFA to pay those bonds with future federal rum excise tax remittances. (See related links below)
As he has throughout the campaign, Mapp erroneously claimed the Diageo and Home Depot construction projects were taking money from services for those less fortunate. Telling an anecdote about an anonymous young single mother struggling to find a place to live, Mapp said "You can’t find $300 in rent for her but you can get $40 million for Home Depot," Mapp said.
However, Mapp’s implication that the two projects have negatively impacted the less fortunate is not accurate as both those projects were financed with bonds secured solely by future tax revenues from those very projects. If there were no Home Depot or Diageo project, the money to subsidize them would not exist.
Mapp also alleged the V.I. Government Employee Retirement System is going broke because it lent $15 million to St. Croix’s Carambola beach resort, claiming, without evidence, that deJongh ordered GERS to loan the money because he has some unspecified unsavory connection to the resort and that GERS is suing Carambola to recoup its loan.
"They gave the money to the governor’s friend at Carambola, notwithstanding that he cannot pay the bill and GERS is suing for its money," Mapp said. "You don’t get it. You cannot bankrupt GERS and put retirees on the street to save 250 jobs. That is why … we are going to have to send you home," Mapp said to loud cheers from his fans.
"GERS is not suing to get its money back so Mapp is not correct," Pedro Williams, counsel to the GERS Board of Trustees, said Friday, when asked about the lawsuit.
Williams said GERS does have a legal action for foreclosure on Carambola’s past debts, but the purpose is to clear out secondary liens and put GERS in clear possession of the old debts as part of the loan process.
"While GERS has an action against Carambola, that was anticipated throughout the entire process when it made the $15 million loan," Williams said. "The lawsuit is to clear some secondary liens so proper title to the Florida judgment on Carambola which GERS purchased can be vested in GERS free and clear."
If Carambola were actually default with GERS, the loan would account for a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the GERS’ unfunded obligation of over $1 billion.
Did deJongh play a role in the GERS loan as Mapp said? "That is factually dishonest," said Tom Bolt, the attorney for Carambola who helped negotiate the deal. "I was there for every part of the negotiations from start to finish and deJongh played no role whatsoever; only the board of trustees and GERS staff."
DeJongh took some umbrage at Mapp’s attacks on the wisdom of the Diageo agreement and his record on economic development.
"I never thought I would stand here and be chastised for promoting economic development on St. Croix," dejongh said, pointing to the jobs and government revenue created by both the Diageo and Home Depot construction projects on St. Croix. "Building a pier in Frederiksted and having no ships come is not economic development," he continued. "To be criticized for keeping a hotel that employs over 200 of our citizens is unfortunate."
Throughout the evening, Mapp’s supporters were substantially more raucous, loudly cheering Mapp and interrupting deJongh with shouts of "liar," and "no more years." To a lesser extent, some deJongh fans also shouted epithets and in one instance a personal insult to Mapp.
When the debate ended, deJongh supporters began chanting "four more years," while Mapp supporters simultaneously started chanting "no more years." The dining room of Gertrude’s thundered with the deafening combined chant of "four more years," until the crowd slowly worked its way outside,
Despite the vitriol animating the audience during the debate, many on both sides knew each other personally and when the chanting died down, people in blue Mapp and white deJongh shirts started saying hello and chatting with each other as they worked their way to their cars.
The territory’s two chambers of Commerce are sponsoring a gubernatorial debate next Tuesday at the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital in the V.I. Cardiac Center conference room. Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis and Mapp’s running mate Malik Sekou will debate from 6 to 7 p.m., with deJongh and Mapp facing off again from 7 to 9 p.m.