Sen. Alicia Barnes, the freshman St. Croix senator who received the most votes in 2018, is bowing out ahead of the 2020 election after one term.
“Rest assured, however, I will continue to lend my voice, knowledge and expertise for the betterment of our islands,” Barnes said in a statement. Barnes, who served as commissioner of Planning and Natural Resources during the administration of Gov. John deJongh Jr., said the territory needs legislative districts.
“It is now my utmost respect for you that compels me to face the hard truth that until we change our present system of representation, it is you, the voters of St. Croix, who will continue to be misrepresented and underrepresented,” Barnes said.
The territory elects seven senators from St. Croix, seven from St. Thomas and one from St. John. The Senate president is St. Croix’s Sen. Novelle Francis Jr., who exercises some control over what legislation is brought up for consideration, although he can be bypassed by a majority vote. The governing majority has five members from St. Thomas, five from St. Croix and one from St. John. The majority has both Democrats and Independents, while the nongoverning minority caucus is comprised of Democrats.
Some on St. Croix have long argued that because the territory has two districts, with one being St. Thomas/St. John and the other being St. Croix, the St. John senator effectively gives that district an advantage. Barnes did not provide an example of an important vote that came down to St. Thomas versus St. Croix.
Senators are elected by island, with the top seven vote winners for both St. Thomas and St. Croix being seated. This can result in widely unpopular senators who have a moderate sized base of loyal supporters being seated. It also puts all seven senators in a district in direct competition with one another for their seats, unlike in most U.S. jurisdictions, where both state and federal legislative seats represent specific districts, or are statewide but distinct offices, so they do not compete with their fellow legislators.
“The system of representation that currently exists is counterproductive, as it promotes competition rather than cooperation and collaboration. It truly is more about each senator’s political agenda and ambition than you, the people of St. Croix. I remain grateful for the opportunity to represent you and will continue to do so to the best of my ability for the duration of the 33rd Legislature. However, I cannot in good conscience seek reelection to continue to be a participant in this flawed system of representation. Collectively we must ensure that the overarching issues of self-determination, to include the adoption of a U.S. Virgin Islands Constitution, status, electoral reform and governance, are addressed. These are the necessary paths to true representation, transparency and accountability; and it is then, and only then, will we truly progress as a people and as a territory,” Barnes said.
The territory has made five attempts at passing a local constitution. The most recent one failed after elected members of the constitutional convention could not agree to remove provisions that violated the U.S. Constitution and federal law.
The most controversial sections said only native-born Virgin Islanders can run for governor or lieutenant governor and that “ancestral Virgin Islanders” (those who had family in the territory in or prior to 1932) would be exempt from property tax. Under federal law, however, the Legislature has broad power to determine how a V.I. Constitution is formed and could potentially modify the one from the convention to meet federal muster or write one from scratch.