Undercurrents: V.I. Democrats Wrestle with New Rules

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

While an internal power struggle with national implications has kept V.I. Republicans in the headlines in recent weeks, territory Democrats have been having their own issues.

At the moment, it doesn’t look like they’ll be dragging one another into court, as the GOP operatives have been doing, but the Democrats do have some serious sorting out to do.

The Democratic National Committee sets the time and the framework for party caucuses in the territories at which local party members are elected to be delegates to the National Convention, where they cast votes for presidential candidates.

The Virgin Islands Territorial Convention is set for June 4. The National Convention will be held July 25-28 in Philadelphia.

The Virgin Islands Party is supposed to send 12 delegates to the Convention, seven of them elected at the June caucus and five who automatically are considered delegates by virtue of their positions in the party. The Democratic Delegate to Congress, Stacey Plaskett, is one of the five super delegates. The other four are all party officers: the state chairman, the state vice chairman, the national committeeman, and the national committeewoman. If the governor were a Democrat, he would also be a super delegate.

The super delegates are uncommitted. The other seven are pledged delegates, representing one or the other of the presidential candidates – in this case, either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.

The hitch is that it’s unclear who the four party officers will be. Currently, Cecil Benjamin is state chair, Riise Richards is vice chair, Emmett Hansen is national committeeman and Carol Burke is national committeewoman.

But that could change if there’s a party election before or on June 4.

Historically, all political parties in the Virgin Islands selected their party officers and Territorial Committee members during bi-annual primaries – managed by the Board of Elections – to select party candidates for public offices. The primaries are held in late summer, making their timing a non-issue as far as a National Convention is concerned.

But the Board of Elections has ruled that political parties should handle the selection of party officers themselves, separate from the public office primaries. And that has opened the question of when those party elections should be held.

Party leaders have been relatively quiet about the change, downplaying the potential for disruption of the process.

In an interview last week, Benjamin said the Territorial Convention process is “straight forward” and there’s “no confusion” for the Democrats.

He focused instead on what he described as a joint effort with territory Republicans to develop a Virgin Islands platform to push at both national conventions, urging progress on such issues as including the territory in the Affordable Care Act and getting V.I. residents the right to vote in future presidential elections.

Donna Christensen, former delegate to Congress and the party’s unsuccessful candidate for V.I. governor in 2014, said when the party will elect its officers “is anyone’s guess” but acknowledged “many people would like to do it in June.”

Normally, she added, an organization doesn’t want to change its leadership mid-stream and the DNC calendar generally calls for such elections after a general election. That would mean sometime after November.

She’s hoping there will be a Territorial Committee meeting within the next month to resolve the question. The last one with a quorom was in October, and Christensen chaired it as the titular head of the party.

Although Plaskett is the Democrat who holds the highest public office in the territory, the Democratic Party By-Laws say the titular head is “the party’s candidates at the previous election for governor and lieutenant governor.”

Christensen waived aside any suggestion of conflict over the title, saying, “Basically, it’s a ceremonial position.”

Plaskett could not be reached for comment Monday concerning the convention. Her press secretary, Richard Motta, said “I can tell you she’s supporting Hillary.”

Christensen said Clinton appears to have the most support, but added “I suspect that Bernie will get some votes.”

A presidential candidate must garner at least 15 percent of the vote in order to get any delegates.

Benjamin said there have been overtures from both candidates to the V.I. Democrat Party leadership.

But he wants to use what little leverage the small delegation will have to push for concessions to the territory. “We’re not going to just give up our votes,” he said. 

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