American election campaigns are typically dreary affairs marked by mudslinging, coded messages and avoidance of substantive discussion. The Virgin Islands governor's election could be a significant departure from this pattern. While it is almost certain to be dreary and to have more than its share of mudslinging and whispering campaigns, it promises to be highly educational, too.
The incumbent, Charles W. Turnbull, has identified the core issue facing the electorate by accusing his opponent John de Jongh, a businessman, of having advocated cutting 2,500 jobs from the Virgin Islands government payroll. To any informed and objective observer, the first response would be, "Three cheers for John de Jongh," since the number 2,500 seems about right if one is serious about getting the territory's fiscal house in order and eliminating deadwood, sloth and redundancy.
But Virgin Islands politics is not like politics in other places. Even though Mr. Turnbull has no aptitude for governing, he has certain political skills and has made a superficially clever move in raising this issue.
If Mr. de Jongh acknowledges having made the statement in support of cutting the 2,500 jobs, he will likely lose the election. This is because the 2,500 individuals are unidentified, and, therefore, all V.I. public sector workers [numbering some 11,500] will feel threatened. Since government workers make up by far the largest voting bloc in the territory, nobody can afford to alienate them and their families. And, as turnouts decline, the relative power of the government payroll vote increases.
Thus, by making his charge, Gov. Turnbull inadvertently put his finger on the reason that the Virgin Islands is in the mess that it is, and why its decline appears increasingly irreversible. If anyone doubts this reality, look at the territory's depressing socio-economic indicators and the budget that the governor has just proposed. Like the former People's Republics of Eastern Europe, this giant Ponzi scheme will continue until the public sector has sucked every last available nickel out of the private sector and the federal government has had enough. Then the whole thing will stop declining and collapse, most likely into some sort of federal receivership.
Mr. de Jongh represents the first ray of hope in many years to address the territory's deepening crisis openly. Unlike the governor or the members of the Senate, he is grounded in reality. The attacks on him for having achieved business success are unconscionable and destructive. Do the elected officials of the Virgin Islands really believe that they can survive without a private sector? They certainly act as if they believe it.
Mr. de Jongh dodged Gov. Turnbull's "charge" with a "put up or shut up" ploy.
Here is another approach, one which assumes the good sense of Virgin Islanders and that a large turnout can be generated to counter the overwhelming government worker vote: Have Mr. Turnbull answer the following questions:
1. You have accused your opponent of wanting to cut 2,500 jobs from the government payroll. What is the right number of government jobs to cut? What is that number based on?
2. The Virgin Islands has more government workers proportionate to its population than any state or municipality in the United States. Yet the quality of its services, virtually across the board, is rated as abysmal. How do you explain this?
3. What are the substantive accomplishments of your administration that have made life better for average citizens of the Virgin Islands?
Given the fact that the governor has revealed his strategy at this early date — i.e., get the government worker vote, and to hell with everyone else — the current campaign cannot help but be educational. People may not like the lessons that are learned, but, one way or another, given Mr. Turnbull's strategy, a lot more will be known about the future of the territory the day after the election. If the incumbent wins, the decline will continue and accelerate. If Mr. de Jongh wins, Virgin Islanders will have said that there is hope for a better future, and we are willing to take a chance on that hope becoming reality.
Editor's note: Management consultant Frank Schneiger has worked with V.I. agencies since 1975, most recently as consultant to United Way of St. Thomas/St. John. He is one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
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