There were a few fireworks in the debate between four Democratic gubernatorial candidates Thursday, and all of them were on the dais where they belonged. Not bad considering the evening started with a bomb threat.
The debate in the television studio of WTJX got a late start becase an anonymous caller phoned the station at about 5:45 p.m. to report that a fire bomb was due to go off in 20 minutes, according to Tanya-Marie Singh of the pubic television station.
Police evacuated the building and searched it from top to bottom but did not find any kind of explosive. But by the time the building was cleared and people were allowed to return, the 7 p.m. start time had just passed.
Station personnel quickly went through their technical preparations and the debate began half an hour late.
The three Democrats challenging Gov. John deJongh Jr. – Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Gerard “Luz” James and James A. O’Bryan – took their shots at the incumbent. While none seemed to land a telling blow, the results won't be clear until Saturday when the only judges who matter– the voters in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary – have their say.
The candidates painted very different pictures of the territory's condition after three and a half years of the deJongh administration. The challengers pointed to the homicide rate, the economy and high energy costs, among other things, as evidence that the government is heading in the wrong direction.
DeJongh, on the other hand, said that conditions in the territory are actually better than they had been four years ago, despite difficult economic conditions. For the first time in the territory's history, he said, all the public schools are accredited. While the homicide rate is up, almost every other category of crime is down. Despite the worldwide recession, the government has not had to lay off any workers or cut services, he pointed out.
All three challengers claim the government gave the international spirits company Diageo too much to build its Captan Morgan's Rum Distillery on St. Croix. James called it a "lose-lose situation," and Donastorg said it was evidence that the administration is "inept or corrupt."
DeJongh replied that the territory has already benefited from the Diageo deal. The fact that rum cover-over revenues that will start coming in when the plant begins exporting rum in a year, he said, enabled government borrowing that helped the territory avoid layoffs or cuts to services.
All four candidates found the rising homicide rate disturbing. But while the challengers worried about crime generally, deJongh said other crimes in the territory are actually declining and said the police have a good record for making arrests in the homicides that have occurred.
He said he has worked to expand the police force and praised the work they have been doing. He also touted the Early Childhood program, anti-gang effort and parent education, saying they were all part of the solution.
O'Bryan said as governor he would "take it right to the young people of these islands," who he said are losing a sense of purpose and succumbing to hopelessness. He said young people need to be given options besides gang membership and crime.
James called for reorganizing the police department so that the police would "work hand in hand" with the citizens. Donastorg called for reconsideration of a plan he had several years ago, Operation District Trade, in which police from the St. Croix District would trade places with officers from the St. Thomas–St. John–Water Island District. This would cut down on nepotism, he said.
Asked how they would help make health care in the USVI modern and affordable, James said he would "work with" the hospitals to make sure they had the necessary funds and the most modern equipment to provide health care to everyone who needs it, although he did not suggest where those funds would come from.
Donastorg suggested exploring creating an insurance pool so that private citizens can take advantage of lower rates. He also suggested the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute at the Roy Schneider Regional Medical Center could be marketed through the Department of Tourism.
O'Bryan lamented that the territory's hospitals lose money and said he would work with the hospitals to lower costs and increase revenue. DeJongh pointed to advances made in the last three years to increase the amount of Medicare and Medicaid funds available to the territory, creating greater access to health services, and the lobbying effort that got the U.S. Virgin Islands and other territories included in the Health Care Reform Act enacted earlier this year.
The candidates also discussed funding for the Government Employees Retirement System, property taxes, the proposed constitution and other issues.
During the debate, conducted by radio personality Doug Harris, the candidates were also posed questions from WTJX's online audience. A student from Elena Christian Junior High School asked if the candidates thought frequent flyer miles accumulated by government officials should be used to provide transportation for students engaged in school events such as athletics. All agreed it was a good idea, but O'Bryan pointed out that unless the airlines were willing to accept such a program – which in the past they have not – it couldn't succeed.
Couching their comments in various terms, each of the challengers also said they would be best able to restore honesty and integrity to government, implying the current administration has neither of those, while deJongh called for a return to civility and decorum in public debate.
The evening opened with an hour-long debate between the four candidates for lieutenant governor – incumbent Gregory Francis, Glen Smith (the running mate of James,) Samuel Baptiste (Donastorg) and Pamela Samuels (O'Bryan.)