Elections may be about the future, but this year’s vote also comes with a reminder about the past.
Fifty years ago, Virgin Islanders elected their first congressional delegate, a milestone in the territory’s steady march toward more self-government.
The move came in a year crowded with events that still resonate.
In 1972, the terrorist murders of Israeli athletes at the Olympic games stunned the world; political “burglars” broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate, launching the scandal that would lead to President Richard Nixon’s resignation; the Vietnam War ground toward U.S. defeat. Atari introduced the computer game PONG, and consumers got the first look at a scientific hand-held calculator. “The Godfather” debuted at the movies.
Closer to home, the Mighty Sparrow won his fifth Calypso King title, singing “Drunk and Disorderly.”
In the Virgin Islands, residents were weighing the pros and cons of opening a close-knit community to hordes of short-term visitors while also coming to grips with a population explosion driven primarily by the immigration of other Caribbean islanders lured by jobs in the V.I.’s burgeoning tourism industry. According to the World Bank, the territory had a population of 32,500 in 1960. By 1970 the population was 63,476 — and counting.
It was also the year that gunmen shot 16 people at St. Croix’s Fountain Valley golf resort, most of them tourists, killing eight of them and dragging the Virgin Islands into a glaring national spotlight.
But on the political front, 1972 was a banner year for the islands.
After more than 50 years as a U.S. territory, overseen by governors appointed first by the U.S. Navy and then by the U.S. president, the Virgin Islands citizenry had its first elected governor, Melvin Evans, who had first been appointed in 1969 and then, in 1970, under the new law, was chosen by the electorate.
Two years later, V.I. voters elected their first member of Congress, a position bearing the title Congressional Delegate.
Until then, the territory had little in the way of formal political recognition in Washington. It did have a territorial representative to the U.S. government, generally described as being a lobbyist for the V.I. government.
In interviews with the Source, the current delegate, Stacey Plaskett, and her immediate predecessor, Donna Christian-Christensen, both described the creation of the delegate position as a political sea change for the territory.
“Washington is the seat of power,” Plaskett said. “The primary purpose (of the office) is to have a voice” in the national conversation.
With the term of office at two years, theoretically, the Virgin Islands could have elected 25 people to the position by now. But it has sent only five people to Congress. Two of them, Melvin Evans and Vincent O. Frazer, served just one term.
The first delegate, the late Ron de Lugo, holds the record, serving a total of 10 terms from 1973 to 1995, missing only the 1979-81 term, having stepped away for an unsuccessful bid for governor in the 1978 election.
Christian-Christiansen served for nine consecutive terms, from 1997 until 2015.
Plaskett took the position in 2015 and has been re-elected three times; she is running unopposed this year.
“Seniority matters” in Congress, Christian-Christiansen said. The electorate may recognize that.
De Lugo started making friends in Congress even before 1972. In 1960, V.I. Democrats made him the territory’s representative to the Democratic National Committee. In 1968, V.I. voters elected him their representative to the U.S. government.
He “set his sights on winning a congressional seat for the territory,” according to a congressional profile. He testified before several committees in favor of a bill to create the position of delegate for both Guam and the Virgin Islands. It was signed into law in April 1972.
Sworn into office in January 1973, on Feb. 5, he and Guam delegate Won Pat co-authored a bill to amend the U.S. Constitution to grant citizens in Guam and the Virgin Islands the right to vote for president. Unsurprisingly, it was unsuccessful.
Whether it was a serious proposal or a symbolic gesture, it signaled a resolve to secure greater self-determination for the territories. Over the years, de Lugo convinced his congressional colleagues to increase V.I. home rule on several fronts, including:
- Giving the territorial Legislature the right to determine the procedure for filling vacancies
- Authorizing V.I. residents to write their own territorial Constitution (although several attempts have failed so far)
- Allowing the local government to levy a surtax of up to 10 percent of a taxpayer’s annual federal obligation as a hedge against possible revenue losses if the territory’s mirror income tax system was impacted by federal tax cuts
He also fought to transfer the title of Water Island from the U.S. Interior Department to the Virgin Islands government and to give the local government control over submerged lands three miles from the high-water mark, as applies in coastal states.
Much of his long tenure was spent securing federal funding for the islands through various strategies, agencies and programs and grants. Early on, he pressed for benefits from Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. His testimony, according to the congressional profile, “convinced both houses to incorporate provisions to increase public assistance for the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Guam.” He also was key in getting significant federal funding for a major expansion of the airport on St. Thomas.
He got a seat on the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, which has oversight for the territories, and later on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. He was a founding member of the House Territorial Caucus.
Among his other achievements, “Ron got us into the surface transportation funding that comes every year,” Christian-Christensen said. “I don’t think we would have gotten it without the delegate position.”
Likewise, she said, when she was in Congress, she would go to the Office of Management and Budget and sit down with officials there to talk about money for the territories, such as raising Medicaid shares. It was not something a Washington representative would have likely been able to do, she said.
But as a member of Congress, “You have so much access to everybody,” she said.
Participation is limited for delegates from the territories — they cannot vote in final floor consideration of a bill, but they can offer proposals and they do vote in committee.
“It’s frustrating not to have that,” Plaskett said of the floor vote, but she said it hasn’t held her back because there are other tools to work with.
Christian-Christensen agreed. “It never limited my ability to get things done,” she said.
Anytime she learned of an event at the White House, she said, “I’d get myself invited” so she would have access to Cabinet members who would be there.
“The Clinton White House was one of the most open I’ve ever seen,” she said, recounting how she was able to approach the Bill Clinton administration to bend on an issue that was holding up a proposal giving tax credits to the watch industry on St. Croix.
When a Democrat was president, being a Democrat helped, of course, although Christian-Christensen said she frequently worked with Republicans on many issues — until late in her long tenure when Tea Party Republicans became a force in Congress and they refused to work across the aisle.
Like de Lugo, she aligned herself with representatives from the other territories. She initiated the legislation that established a delegate for the Northern Marianas.
“It was a change for them that made a big difference to them,” she said.
And she was an active member of the Black Caucus.
“I had the benefit of being a physician,” she said. She became the chair of the Caucus’ Health Brain Trust. “That gave me a national voice.”
It illustrates a shift for the territory.
“The role (of the V.I. delegate) has evolved over time,” Plaskett said.
Traditionally, delegates sat on certain committees with direct relationship to the territory. “They were not engaged in the national discussions,” she said.
Citing Christian-Christensen’s work with the Health Committee, Plaskett said, “I attempted to use that as a model and be even more outside the box.”
She now sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, a key junction for just about everything considered by Congress.
Her face is becoming familiar to TV viewers across the country, as she has appeared on numerous national TV shows, speaking for Democratic positions.
“I did not want to be considered a show horse,” Plaskett said, adding that she spent her first years in office with her head bent over her work, establishing credibility before she was tapped to move forward into a more public role.
Meanwhile, Plaskett said she has continued to work for V.I. causes, citing her roles in getting additional federal funding after the 2017 hurricanes and for V.I. schools under the COVID-relief CARES Act, and increasing Medicaid coverage as a few examples.
Do all voters understand and appreciate the work of their delegate?
Well, maybe not all the time.
The delineation between what’s local and what’s federal isn’t always understood, Plaskett said. Besides, with the bulk of the action happening in Washington, “it’s a distant position.”
But history records the significance. As the delegate’s role continues to evolve, it’s impossible to say what the next 50 years may bring. Looking back, the last 50 clearly helped to bring recognition, financial assistance and an increasing focus on self-determination.