78.7 F
Cruz Bay
Monday, April 15, 2024


April 7, 2001 — Sen. Lorraine Berry gets up at 5 a.m. most weekdays and starts her day reading, catches up on her e-mail, surfs the Internet, maybe throws a load of clothes in the washer, starts breakfast for herself and her husband, Richard, and then maybe tosses in a bit of housework.
She arrives at her office before 9 a.m., perfectly groomed, hair, nails, everything in place, not a wrinkle to be seen. She must do this in the morning leg after housework.
The senator is nothing if not well-ordered. "I am a very organized and disciplined person. I prioritize my needs — I have to," she says. "That's my key to getting things done."
And Berry has done a lot in her 19 years in the Legislature. This is her 10th go-round, making her the only sitting senator serving that many terms. And she shows no visible signs of letting up.
"I love public office," Berry states with a innocent smile, ending, or at least putting to bay, speculation along those lines. Her perky, brown-eyed, blonde appearance belies her 50 years.
Organization and careful planning were key elements in her first bid for the Senate in 1982, she says, reflecting for a minute on that time in her life. "I have a very good memory," she says, "I have an institutional memory. I can remember those days just like it was yesterday."
From PTA to politics
Her long and frequently tempestuous legislative career had its beginning at the Joseph Sibilly Elementary School, known then as Robert Herrick school. "I was president of the PTA, the teachers were on strike, and my kids were in the school. I became so concerned that the teachers told me I should do something about it," she said.
Berry wrote letters to the editors of the local papers, and managed to get then-Gov. Cyril E. King to visit the school. "He told me, 'You should think about running for public office; you seem to be assertive,'" Berry says.
"He mentioned that not many people of French descent get involved in public office, and he encouraged me to bring in some diversity," Berry relates, adding that Earle B. Ottley and Roy Gottlieb of the Home Journal agreed with King.
Berry, a former Leedee, and her husband, Richard, are North Side French community residents who trace their French heritage back through several generations, about 200 years.
Properly inspired, Berry mapped a political beginning for herself. "When I decided I would run I joined the Democratic party and got to be secretary," she says. She quit her Finance Department job, and got a job with Delegate to Congress Ron DeLugo.
"I got really interested while I was working for Ron," Berry says. "I'll never forget July 16, 1982. I resigned and told him I was going to run for the Senate. He laughed, and he said 'Lorraine, nobody knows you — you won't get elected, but I wish you the very best.'"
She started a Friday morning radio program, and says, "I would say the most unpopular things, controversial things, but people listened and I started a credible campaign."
Another thing Berry will never forget is the morning after the 1982 election, reminiscent on a smaller scale of the famous Truman-Dewey presidential election of 1948 when the Chicago Tribune mistakenly declared Dewey the winner.
Berry had been up all night at the election office while they counted the paper ballots. She finally left with Richard about 7 a.m. after radio announcer Lee Carle announced that Berry did an excellent job but came in eighth.
"I started to cry," Berry says, "and I told Richard to turn the radio off while we were driving home. Then, just as we pulled into the driveway, I flipped the radio on and Lee was saying 'Bulletin, bulletin! Big upset, Berry wins.' They had forgotten to count the St. John votes!"
Berry moved from eighth to sixth and became the only new candidate elected that year. She later initiated legislation to get voting machines for the territory, another unpopular move at the time, when she was criticized for tampering with "local culture." The machines won.
"That was quite a year, 1982," Berry says. "At first I was very quiet. I wasn't familiar with the process. I observed how the other senators would talk about issues, and their philosophies, and then after about three months, I got more aggressive."
Berry was in the minority at the time, which after six months took over the majority when Sens. Adelbert Bryan and Cleone Creque Maynard defected to the minority side, thus creating a new majority. It was a good introduction to Virgin Islands politics.
Unpopular stands and community activism
Berry still tends to champion unpopular issues, as when last fall she opposed giving the teachers $11 million which she said the government didn't have. That opposition earned her the wrath of some of the teachers, and, some say, almost cost her the election.
If she is organized at home, her office is a continuing challenge. It is a study in stymied order, or what could be called controlled clutter. Berry, a minority senator this term, was summarily moved to smaller quarters this year, after the majority bloc took over. She now has about half her previous office space.
Berry walks around in a smart, navy blue pants suit, waving at the almost seven-foot-tall stacks of boxes situated wherever there's an inch of space. Two volunteers are running around getting things ready for this weekend's Youth Symposium. Like most minority senators, Berry is partially dependent on volunteers, though she retains a dedicated, if small, staff.
The senator has always been active in community and youth affairs. Her seventh annual all-day Youth Symposium is being held Saturday at Palms Court Harborview Hotel where about 500 students, teachers and community activists will gather to share ideas and hear the winning essays of Berry's annual Black History Month contest, "Hands Off, Back Off, I'm Special."
The event is held in partnership with the Health Department's Adolescent Health Program.
The Beacon School concept was spawned at one of Berry's symposiums in 1996. "I'd seen the ad in the paper, and I invited the New York representative down for the symposium," Berry says. The after-school tutoring program took off, and is now in its fifth year in the territory.
Another pet project of Berry's is the Women's Symposium, now called simply The Symposium, held every October since 1995 and Hurricane Marilyn.
"We have a phenomenon here; we have so many homes headed by women," Berry says, "and after the storm we had no electricity, kids weren't in school, a combination of upsetting things for women. We formed a sort of sisterhood, and it grew. So many fathers started coming we changed it to just an annual conference to include everybody with panel discussions on relationships, divorce, even a doctors' panel."
Looking back on her many years in office, including a very rough term as president of the 22nd Legislature, she says, "There have been bad times and good. The 22nd was bad."
On a personal level, the 22nd saw many attacks on her which she always seems to weather, seemingly impervious to the often nasty arrows slung in her direction.
"At first everything bothered me, but I learned. I've had my initiation." Berry is solemn as she says, "I went through the environment ruled mostly by men who feel they can intimidate you, and if you don't go along with them they will distract you in debate. I'm not intimidated by any of them. I've made tough decisions, and people expect me to do it."
Senate successes
Berry had many legislative economic successes in both the 22nd and 23rd Legislatures. As Finance Committee chair in the 23rd Legislature she presided over many stormy hearings with the Internal Revenue Bureau, the extensive budget process and t
he massive, controversial Omnibus Bill.
Berry has many accomplishments in her tenure, but it is the economic issues of which she is most proud.
"The Economic Summit I spearheaded contributed to the governor's five-year plan. We sat with the Chamber (of Commerce) and told them we needed help on different issues, taxation, economy, the Internet, whatever. We developed cluster groups and came up with major proposals. We had so many proposals from so many diverse areas; we have enough issues to implement legislation for several years," she says.
Berry says she will bring back all the bills the governor vetoed at the end of last year. "All the proposals the governor vetoed we will study. We will perfect the proposals to bring them back as amendments, including the Tourism Authority," she states with determination.
As president, Berry asked then-Gov. Roy L. Schneider for funds to renovate Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall. Though Berry and Schneider were almost constantly at loggerheads over one issue or another, the governor allotted her $2 million in capital funds to renovate the deteriorating Capitol Building, create Legislative Conference Rooms on St. John and St. Croix, including putting an elevator in the St. Croix building, and renovating the St.Thomas Post Audit Complex.
"It was falling apart," says Berry, "There were termites in the drawers, the railings, and the carpeting. We needed a better electrical system with the increase in computer use. Look at the mahogany railings we have now. They're very expensive, but they'll last forever." "
Speaking of history, what has she seen change the most in her almost two-decade tenure? "I'd have to say the lack of decorum and respect. I don't see the same commitment to public service we used to have. The lack of respect for testifiers is unacceptable, and many young people watch the senators," she says.
Berry motions to the many awards decorating her walls, and many more that are stacked along with pictures on the floor. "One of the awards I'm most proud of is the 1997 Rotary Person of the Year, because that is given for service above self," she says, "and I'm not even in Rotary. I treasure that."
The other award dear to her heart, Berry says, is the AFT Education award she received last year for her annual Youth Symposium and Black History Month essay contest, and for being instrumental in the inception of Beacon Schools in the territory.
Her inner sanctum is tiny, decorated with pictures of her son, Kurt, and daughter, Roxanne, who got married last year, and, of course, Richard.
"After all these 19 years, I can say I'm most pleased with having good health, the support of my family and staff and the courage of my convictions," Berry states, "and I've never missed a session or a roll call." Not even one? "No."
Berry's staff is indeed dedicated, witnessed by the tiny rabbit warren they are currently busy at work in, with offices slightly more than cubicles. Berry has to move her office door so James Francis, her chief of staff, can get to his desk. Her two other veterans, Francesca Greve and Joyceann Harrigan, sit out front among pictures, plants, and boxes, boxes, boxes.
"Oh, I forgot to show you this," the senator says, producing a most unique prize — a crystal gavel, a gift from her staff. She wields it gently around, "But I needed more than this," she says with a laugh.
What will the future bring? She smiles very slowly. Mum's the word? "Never say never; you can say that," Berry says.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Keeping our community informed is our top priority.
If you have a news tip to share, please call or text us at 340-228-8784.

Support local + independent journalism in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Unlike many news organizations, we haven't put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as accessible as we can. Our independent journalism costs time, money and hard work to keep you informed, but we do it because we believe that it matters. We know that informed communities are empowered ones. If you appreciate our reporting and want to help make our future more secure, please consider donating.