After the post-State of the Territory Address reception, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. slipped back home, poured himself a scotch, lit a cigar, and sat on his porch in the night air. At the start of his second term, the ever-upbeat governor said he still has too many ideas to implement in his short four years left in office. But Monday night, away from the legislators and commissioners and cameras, he allowed himself a moment of relaxation.
Then he hit the phones.
“I call my truth serum friends. You know, the people who are gonna tell you,” Bryan said Tuesday in a wide-ranging interview with the Source. “I need real and true, honest feedback and, you know, I listened to what they said.”
One of his best friends, with the least sugar-coated feedback, gave the speech a B+.
“She is tough. I gotta mention that. I’ve never gotten an A,” Bryan said with a laugh.
What element kept him from a perfect score? He’d appeared too merry in discussing back payment checks owed. He’d joked in the speech that maybe people didn’t want the checks.
But Bryan can’t help it. He’s a perpetual optimist who always sees the glass as half full and has several ideas for getting it topped up.
“I feel like there’s a lot of Debbie Downers in the V.I.,” he said. “It’s an easy way to let yourself off the hook for stuff, right? Yeah. If you could create a scenario where the world is crippling you, then you have an excuse: It’s not your fault anymore.”
Bryan said his philosophy is to “ride the wave” and look for opportunities as they come along. But he realizes this can be infuriating for some people and maybe not always practical. So he keeps a few Debbie Downers around for balance to give him useful alternate perspectives. How much weight he gives these voices of opposition is unclear, but probably not a lot.
He likes calculated risks.
“Because I mean, ultimately, we are a very small place,” Bryan said. “Like we don’t dictate anything. All we get to do is kind of like look to where winds are blowing and set our sails so that we could take advantage of those winds.”
As commissioner of Labor, Government Development Bank chairman, and chairman of the Economic Development Authority Board, Bryan learned the art and science of trimming administrative sails in this fashion. One thing current department heads do that, he said, “burns my bones” is having purchase orders carry over from one fiscal year to the next. It’s the sort of accounting loose end that keeps the ship from moving at optimum efficiency.
“The way that you shore it up really is that you take cash reserves and you assign them to outstanding debts that you need to pay,” he said. “I went and was a commissioner because you learn all the tricks in the trade, right? So we close out those purchase orders so they don’t come back in and haunt us.”
It’s this sort of administrative line-pulling that has the U.S. Virgin Islands in strong financial shape for the next four years, Bryan said. He waved off concerns that the territory was carrying less than a week of cash reserves, saying federal funds and budget reconciliation would deal with that — but also acknowledged something closer to 90 days of cash on hand was more ideal.
“The other thing is, too, we’ve, over the last three years, actually built a cash reserve now. I think that has about $20 million in it, cash reserve. And that’s like break glass in case of emergency,” he said.
It’s the emergency mentality Bryan hopes to change. He said Virgin Islanders are too accustomed to operating in a state of emergency, where a rush to fix small things misses the bigger picture.
“If you’re responsive to everything, then you lack focus on the major thing. So, right, that one pothole is annoying you and I could send a guy out to fix that today. But if I don’t do that, I concentrate on fixing your entire road. Then the problem is eliminated,” he said.
The role of the Legislature needs to change as well, the governor said. The scandals of previous administrations made the body cautious and pessimistic, and the near constant campaigning can make senators eager to score points during hearings rather than work to streamline government operations, in his estimation.
“We have 267 active projects all the time,” Bryan said. “And the government has less people working for it than it did in 2007. It’s impossible.”
Bryan has a list of legislative priorities, including expanding the newly passed Adult Use Cannabis law. If U.S. Virgin Islander researchers could develop new cannabis-related patents and trademarks, the Virgin Islands could be as famed for its branded marijuana as its rum, he said.
“Trademarked and patented products that can be sold worldwide,” Bryan said, throwing out some less-than-market-ready branding ideas. “So if we got a commission on Bordeaux whatever it is, right. You know, Red Hook Rowdy or whatever, and that became an international brand, right, you know how much money that is for the Virgin Islands? And you know, I always, like I said last night, I’m always looking to see how we can get a pinch off of the bigger pie.”
Whatever happens, Bryan wants it done quickly. He talked with urgency Tuesday morning, switching from topic to topic with enthusiasm and, more often than not, regretting it all was taking so long.
“I like calculated risks. Most people don’t, and my idea of getting things done is always now. I don’t know why we have to talk so much about the stuff,” he said.
Bryan said during the pandemic he held a daily meeting that lasted 20 to 30 minutes. All the key people were there, each presenting their priorities.
“We were able to make decisions and that’s why we thrived, thrived because we could adjust to anything coming in daily, right? If we had an opportunity, we could shift towards it. If we had a threat, we could shift back against it and we didn’t have to sit down for hours,” Bryan said. “I mean, even the Behavioral Health Act has been eight years. The Delaware business model that we wanted to, it was like 10 years. We were trying to get that through the Legislature. It’s just like, takes too long.”
Editor’s Note: Part 2 of the Source’s interview with Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. will cover housing, economic development, zoning, the Water and Power Authority, and more.