Bryan Makes Final Pitch for Changing Course as Early Voting Opens

Albert Bryan
Albert Bryan

Democratic nominee for governor Albert Bryan remembers knocking on doors about a year ago, not to convince people to vote for him, but simply to start making Bryan a household name. Some residents were fearful, he said, of being seen in public gatherings that appeared to support him because they were “afraid of the governor.”

Undeterred, Bryan said he and his team told each homeowner to invite “just 10 friends” and listen to his pitch of changing the course of a hurricane-stricken and financially embattled territory.

“When we talk about changing course of the Virgin Islands, it’s about finally resolving some of those problems that have been languishing for four years,” he said. “Paying attention to people and moving them along a continuum that allows them a better quality of life, things like healthcare and education.”

The grassroots nature of his early campaigning days bore fruit in the form of a 1,000-vote lead during the Nov. 6 general election over Gov. Kenneth Mapp, in spite of the incumbent’s efforts to push back. As Bryan campaigned on forward-looking changes in practice and a departure from dirty politics, Mapp touted his first four years’ track record and highly visible construction projects around the territory. As Bryan rolled out a comprehensive, well-executed traditional and social media campaign, Mapp hammered residents with press conferences reporting a steady recovery from the 2017 hurricanes, better bond ratings for the Virgin Islands, and a flourishing tourism industry.

Throughout the election season, Mapp’s team also reminded voters of the governor’s accomplishments, and what was truly at stake on the runoff ballot: a slowdown on hurricane recovery due to the disruption of a painstaking, red-tape-ridden process for procuring federal funding; a halt to progress in the spate of recently issued tax refunds (for tax years 2010 through 2015, according to Mapp), and the end of an administration that negotiated up to five-figure salary increases for entry-level and seasoned teachers, police officers and firefighters, with the tacit promise that other agencies would receive the same boon.

On general election day, however, it seemed Bryan’s team overcame the advantages of an incumbent who is also plagued by personal, publicized tiffs with other local leaders, and by accusations that highway projects and salary raises proliferated conveniently close to election day.

Now the two candidates are facing a second round, the Nov. 20 runoff election, that will determine who will claim the governorship. After the Nov. 6 results showed him trailing Bryan, Mapp doubled down on his efforts to show voters why it’s best to “stay the course,” assailing Bryan’s lack of experience in elected office and what Mapp called his refusal to do a one-on-one debate.

Bryan, in his easy-going manner, shrugged off the accusation, saying he was ready to debate, but the parties could not agree on a schedule. The V.I. Consortium contacted the Bryan camp, he said, asking if Bryan could attend the debate on Nov. 13. Bryan said his camp said no, instead proposing a Nov. 19 date. According to Bryan, he attended at least 15 gubernatorial forums so far, pointing out that Mapp did not show up in some of them.

“What happened during the general election is we got really off-message doing these debates,” Bryan added. “And I think it really hurt us in terms of our time speaking with people, contacting them, shaking hands, because that’s what actually got us to this point.”

As for the lack of experience in elected office, Bryan laughed, “Yeah, I haven’t. That’s a good thing.”

“I think going into government as an administrator and the commissioner of Labor, I was able to look at things purely from a mechanical, operational point of view, and not intersperse too much politics into it,” said Bryan.

Bryan also dismissed Mapp’s assertion that a new administration would slow down hurricane recovery as “nonsense.” Mapp has made his government’s recovery progress a mainstay talking point in increasingly frequent public appearances, but Bryan pointed out that among other things, Mapp’s claim diminishes the role of other key players, including some members of the 32nd Legislature and Delegate to Congress Stacy Plaskett.

“Administrations transition all the time,” Bryan added. “When I left Labor, there was a lot of money that was left there in indirect cost, there was money in grants that had to be administered because programs were in process. None of that money disappeared.”

As for the possibility of harming ties with the federal government under President Donald Trump, who has openly expressed his dislike of Democrats across the country, Bryan pointed to the results of the Nov. 6 election that saw the Democratic Party flipping enough congressional seats to reclaim the House of Representatives. This, according to Bryan, “reestablishes the balance” in the nation’s capital.

According to Bryan, federal monies pouring into the territory are only as good as the way they are managed on the local level.

“Let’s look at every single department. Every single one is broken,” Bryan said. “It’s like putting gas into a car with no wheels.”

Bryan has also been accused of making grand political overtures – “Empty barrels making a lot of noise,” according to the latest Mapp-Potter Facebook post – but when asked for solutions to chronic problems, his proposals reflected a certain level of specificity. For example, when his running mate Sen. Tregenza Roach (D-STT) received criticism for saying no to various pieces of legislation, including the Limetree Terminals agreement, Bryan offered their own plan for jumpstarting the St. Croix economy.

“One of the things we’re working on now is a Marine Development Act that will help all of this,” said Bryan, laying out plan that would potentially develop the expansive stretch of industrially zoned land – and power the existing facilities on it – between the Limetree Bay refinery and the Henry Rohlsen airport.

“What you have there is the ability now to get a power producer that can produce $0.17 per kilowatt hour that is unregulated by the PSC that could start revitalizing our small manufacturing in St. Croix, bringing new jobs,” Bryan said.

Another potential for St. Croix’s deep-water ports on that side of the island, according to Bryan, is a marine development industry – ship inspections and marine repair – that can compete with that of Trinidad, and relieve the stocked boatyards of Puerto Rico and St. Thomas.

When it came to stabilizing the Government Employees System, Bryan reiterated his team’s plan with the almost resigned familiarity of a flight steward repeating his safety spiel for the thousandth time: lower the unfunded liability, secure payments to retirees, and lower the cost of the retirement system to government. Bryan also proposed five different funding sources to infuse much needed cash to the system: seeking a new distillery for the territory, instituting research on marijuana as a revenue source, recalculating the rum cover-over charges owed to the territory, exploring how to benefit from online sports gambling and looking at gas excise taxes denied to the V.I. for a number of years.

As for revitalizing the territory’s towns, Bryan proposed giving benefits like those given to Economic Development Commission beneficiaries to businesses that people want to see built in towns. He also advocated enabling universal Wi-Fi in downtown areas to draw young people and serve tourists. Investing in downtown schools could also cause a ripple effect that would see the redevelopment of areas like Backstreet, Upstreet and Garden Street, Bryan said.

Bryan also deferred to Roach on some issues, stepping aside and letting his running mate respond to certain questions on his own, a treatment reflected by a recent Bryan-Roach ad that featured only Roach responding to an attack on his many “no” votes in the Senate.

In their views on education, Bryan and Roach seemed in lockstep.

“I want to be remembered for revolutionizing the V.I. education system,” said Bryan in a forum at the University of the Virgin Islands. “Education fixes everything – your healthcare, economy.”

Bryan said that today’s world values ideas – not products – but the V.I. community’s “extinct” education system is still teaching students to live in the 20th century, not the 21st. He also proposed infusing crime-prone communities with after-school programs and other youth activities that would engage young people.

Roach, meanwhile, continues to assert his ownership of a free-tuition policy, a version of which was submitted to the Senate by Gov. Mapp and labeled the “Workforce Development Scholarship Program. Roach introduced a similar bill in 2013, and reintroduced it in 2015 and 2017 throughout his tenure.

“I wanted to keep reintroducing it to the Legislature because I felt it was an important idea, an historic idea that could change the future of all the children in the territory,” Roach said.

According to the Senate’s preemption rules, the bills before the Legislature need to be reviewed in the order they were submitted. Mapp has asserted that the governor’s bill – his free-tuition bill, in this case – could not be preempted by Senate rules, but Roach said the Legislature’s legal counsel disagreed. Roach also noted that even if the bill did not pass muster in the Senate, he had already decided to bring it to the Bryan-Roach campaign as one of the team’s platforms.

Roach’s bill has been appointed to a joint Senate committee – the Finance Committee and Education Committee – for review.

“There was no need, no urgency for it to be enacted in September to make an election issue out of it,” said Roach. “And it was really unfortunate that the bill became an election issue. It’s not a campaign cup, or pen, or T-shirt.”

Bryan and Roach said they do not expect a continuation of the current hostility between the Senate and Government House, should they get elected. Bryan touted the show of unity among V.I. Democratic senators as a facilitator for the “amiable relationship” with the Senate that’s needed to change course. Bryan, accusing Mapp of executive overreach for trying to remove Michael Dunston as the V.I. Superior Court’s presiding judge in 2016 and for extending the state of emergency 12 times, also said he advocates removing certain powers from the chief executive.

“It creates the sort of tyrannical situations that we have today,” said Bryan.

According to Bryan, current politics shows discussions with the community “guided by political favor and being re-elected.” Bryan mentioned refusing donors who previously gave to his opponents’ campaigns, or rebuking supporters who offered to back him with expectations of positions in his future government. In this way, Bryan painted himself in contrast to Mapp, his team’s call for “resume, not DNA” – an undisguised jab at the governor accused of placing relatives in key government positions and causing controversy when top executives of the V.I. Port Authority were fired and Mapp’s brother given the helm.

“We do not plan to do what he did, totally dismantle the government and fire people and send home people,” said Bryan. “We plan to look for the people who are doing their jobs well and using technology and other process improvement, help to get the process better.”

Days before Tuesday’s runoff, Bryan continues to galvanize support, even in the St. Croix district, where he lost to Mapp by more than 1,800 votes. St. Croix senator Positive T.A. Nelson announced his support for the Bryan-Roach team three days after the general election. On Thursday night, St. Croix’s Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen announced her endorsement for the Bryan-Roach team, telling her supporters, “We need a better government,” before Bryan walked in amid applause.

After embracing Hansen, Bryan told her supporters the same message he’s been preaching all year: shifting away from traditional politics benefiting politicians and toward a government that “cares about people.”

“In our administration, we’re going to do as much as possible to be up close, to always remember who powers us, the littlest voice in the community,” he said.