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Senators Pledge Unity, But Don't Demonstrate It

Jan. 10, 2005 – They filed down the red carpet one by one, with their heads held high and beaming as they passed family and friends on the grounds of the Capitol Building in St. Thomas.
The members of the 26th Legislature, with much pomp and circumstance, proceeded proudly toward the main platform for their swearing-in ceremony Monday – although about 45 minutes later than the 10 a.m. scheduled start.
"This morning's swearing-in ceremony is really a celebration," Simon Caines, executive director of the 26th Legislature told the crowd as he welcomed them.
Supervisor of Elections John Abramson Jr. certified each senator and presented the group as the "new members" of the Senate.
The multitude of onlookers who gathered in the sweltering heat watched intently as Sens. Craig Barshinger, Lorraine Berry, Roosevelt David, Liston Davis, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis Hill, Neville James, Norman Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Usie Richards, Ronald Russell and Celestino White, raised their hands in unison as they repeated after V.I. Superior Court Judge Maria Cabret their oath of office.
At the close of the brief ceremony, Bishop Joseph Lewis told the senators to hold hands as he led them in a prayer admonishing them to work together and to not let any division come among them.
However, Lewis' words seemed to fall on deaf ears, for as the group let go of each other hands and moved to the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall for their first regular session an atmosphere of bitter acrimony and clear division was felt despite pledges from each senator to work together.
Uproar started as newly-elected James fussed with Berry for the "passing of the gavel." Berry had started the session without what James called the ceremonious passing of the gavel from the old Senate president to the new.
In response, Berry gave James Lesson No. 1. She informed the senator, according to the rules of the Legislature, the passing of the gavel was not necessary because for one thing, former Senate President David Jones "is not a returning senator."
White, Senate majority leader, moved to adopt a resolution establishing the officers, chairpersons, vice-chairpersons and memberships of the committees of the 26th Legislature as pre-determined by the consensus majority.
The measure was approved with an 8-7 vote, consistent along majority and minority lines.
Hill asked the Senate's Legal Counsel Yvonne Tharpes whether the recommended rules of the Senate Ethical Conduct Committee were incorporated into the rules of the 26th Legislature. Tharpes said no.
The ethics committee of which Hill was a part, and which was headed by Berry, had been formed to investigate recent allegations of sexual harassment against Richards and was also charged with formulating rules to deal with the matter on a whole.
"We want all senators to have the opportunity to vote on it," Berry said of the recommended rules.
Each senator took turns in thanking their families, friends and staff and also addressed each other and the public.
Figueroa-Serville restated his pledge to the young people of the territory.
"Our most precious resource is our youth, and we can't play politics with them," Figueroa-Serville said, urging members of the majority to support his Youth Outreach Bill he plans to offer.
Figueroa-Serville said he already had the support of the members of the minority, of which he is a part.
"We're practically like family," Serville said of the minority and their ability to work together.
David, Senate minority leader, said the minority did not have plenty of money, but they had integrity.
"I know we are not going to be very popular," David said, although they had a lot of "good" legislation planned for the people. He mentioned stimulating the Crucian economy and paying off the unfunded liability of the Government Employees Retirement System as examples of what the group had planned.
David told Berry that in a previous legislature he remembered her referring to some members of her consensus majority as "Taliban."
He asked, "Are you now the Chief Taliban?"
David also reminded Berry that he had made the deciding vote allowing for her to be president in the 22nd Legislature.
Hill said he was intending to offer a resolution to help the plight of the territory's fishermen. Hill also encouraged the majority members to vote for the GERS legislation he planned to offer soon.
"This is a bill that should pass with unanimous consent," Hill said, adding, while there were differences among them, he really believed all the senators wanted the best for the people.
Saying it was a day of "rebirth," Hill apologized to Malone for any offense that he might have caused him. Hill also asked Malone to apologize to him for statement's he had made concerning his nationality. Hill is a Dominican.
"This senator is not going to apologize for anything he didn't do," Malone said in response to Hill's comments.
Malone said whatever statements he made were "behind closed doors" and he did not feel the need to apologize. The person who really should apologize was the person who aired the comments he made, Malone said, because that person was the one who caused division.
Although he refused to apologize, Malone extended a "hand of friendship" to Hill, saying he hoped their relationship would get back to the way it was.
Malone also urged his colleagues to put aside petty differences and do the will of the people.
James said he came to work, not fight.
James went on to name a number of current senators that he had ties to.
"My sister is Shawn-Michael Malone's aunt," James said, justifying his reason for not picking fights with anyone.
Berry, giving James his Lesson No. 2, warned him to refrain from calling senators by their names on the floor, although the warning went unheeded by numerous senators.
"I'm not a politician, but I believe in good government," Nelson said. "I represent a new day in Virgin Island's politics. I'm here to do the people's business."
Nelson said he was an "unlikely" candidate for the 26th Legislature because of his locks, but he is here and no one could turn him away now because he was on the "inside."
The newly elected senator said his first priority is to get a "true picture" of the government's finances.
"You can't spend what you don't have," Nelson said.
Barshinger, who had made several attempts for the senator-at-large seat before finally succeeded last November, said he was excited to be a part of the Senate.
"It's been a long road to arrive at this point, and I've learned a lot along the way," Barshinger said.
Barshinger thanked the members of his staff who had rushed to submit 12 pieces of legislation. Barshinger listed his three most important bills:
– A bill to establish rules against sexual harassment.
– A bill telling the cruise lines that for every seven ships they have visiting St. Thomas and St. John one must visit St. Croix.
– Javan's Law, a bill in honor of a young boy who was killed in St. John by a truck driver recently. The bill would prohibit trucks from passing in certain areas at certain times of the day.
"One of the things that disgusts me is when people who know better, don't do better," Richards said, adding when he was minority leader in the 25th Legislature they never complained about not having enough money or how anyone was treating them but worked to get their legislation passed.
Richards attacked the minority senators, making fun of the madras pins they all wore on their lapels. Just like the madras cloth, Richards said, the minority senators were going "horizontal
ly and vertically at the same time."
Jn Baptiste added that madras was "cultural" but pointed to the lighted V.I. flag pins on the majority members' lapels saying they were bright.
"We're keeping the lights burning," Jn Baptiste said, urging his colleagues to embrace humility.
Donastorg urged his colleagues to "dismiss all the name-calling" and to refrain from "clandestine" behavior.
Encarnacion said being a senator was not about majority or minority but about the will of the people. He added he would continue to do what he did when he worked for the V.I. Fire Services – protect the lives and property of the people.
"You gave me this chance to be a leader, I'll not only going to lead, but serve by example," Encarnacion said. The first-time senator also spoke in Spanish, telling the Hispanic population in the territory that they now had representation.
"Colleagues, take your suit of armor off," White told his colleagues, saying it was not a battlefield. "Colleagues, we don't have the time for that."
White added further, "The Legislature must be run from the inside out, not by party bosses."
Berry told her colleagues she was willing to assist all of them.
"Our beloved residents did not vote us to nurse past wounds," Berry said.
Berry said some of the senators were positive in their remarks while others were personal and some were "living in the past." She added she thinks the latter two groups' behavior was a result of not going to church on Sunday.
"This majority is ready to turn a new leaf in Virgin Islands politics," Berry said. "We have the best set of policies to move us forward."
Of the members of the Senate minority, she said, "They are prisoners to their politics."
Berry extended an "olive branch" to the various governmental agencies and to Gov. Charles Turnbull, who was absent from the proceedings, but represented by James O'Bryan, St. Thomas-St. John Administrator.
Other dignitaries in the audience were government officials from the British Virgin Islands and former Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis Kennedy Simmonds and his wife. The Simmonds are the aunt and uncle of Nelson.
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