An Interview with Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands
Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett represents the United States Virgin Islands in the House of Representatives. Elected in 2014, Plaskett has used her expertise in Caribbean economic development to strongly support efforts designed to lift Virgin Islands as well as American families out of poverty.
The Politic: What inspired you to go into public service?
Stacey Plaskett: Well, I don’t know if there was any one seminal event, but pretty much most of my adult career has been in public service. After undergrad I worked on the Hill, and after law school my first job was as a prosecutor in the Bronx, so I seem to keep gravitating towards public service in some way or another. People call those of us who are elected “politicians,” but I really see myself as just a public servant who happens to be in an elected position.
As of August 2017, the Virgin Islands were over two billion dollars in debt, and the recent hurricanes only exacerbated the financial instability. Can you share some insight on the current debt crisis?
Well, it’s something that’s really foremost in my mind, the debt crisis of the Virgin Islands, something that has kept me up awake at night. Even before the hurricane happened, having discussions with elected officials up here, with Treasury, with Wall Street, having conversations about how to fix this.
It’s the result of multiple events over a protracted period of time. In 2004, the Virgin Islands saw changes in the tax code under the American Jobs Act, which really dried up the knowledge-based businesses that were operating there. That caused a decline in the amount of revenues coming in from businesses as well as from jobs. People like myself moved back home before then, because of the types of businesses that were there that were no longer attractive after the tax code changes of 2004.
Then with the Great Recession, a greater number of financial service companies, knowledge-based businesses, closed in the Virgin Islands. Then in 2012, the largest employer, which was an oil refinery, the second-largest oil refinery in the Western Hemisphere, closed on the island of St. Croix, and that increased our unemployment afterwards to almost 18%.
Those events happening one after the other really has caused a dramatic shift in the way the Virgin Islands’ economy has been, and caused us to really have restraints on other revenues that were coming in. That, along with the fact that the Virgin Islands like all other territories are treated differently by the federal government.
When most states, even the poorer states like Mississippi, get about $0.44 from every $1.00 that goes into the general fund, and the operating expenses of Mississippi, $0.44 of that comes from the federal government. The smallest amount is maybe $0.27 per $1.00 in another state. All the territories have about $0.14 to the dollar of federal funding coming in to making the operations of our social services and the operations of roads and building schools, and all of the other things that the federal government supplements in other places, but doesn’t do so adequately in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the other territories. That as well has exacerbated our debt and has exacerbated the problems.
For an example, if you as a parent have a child that is gravely ill, you’re going to take them to the hospital whether you can pay or not pay. And when they ask you to make the payment, if you don’t have the cash, you’re going to take out your credit card. What Puerto Rico did with their debt is they used a credit card called bond market, and that’s what caused the debt that they have. The Virgin Islands, by contrast, just decided that we have sick children and we are not going to take care of them. About 30% of Virgin Islanders do not have health care at this time because we do not have, nor are we supplemented by the federal government in a manner that would support, some of those services.
So, all of that happened before the hurricane, and with tourism being constrained for some time after the hurricane, I know that we are going to have serious financial crises.
With the tax code that was recently passed, we are looking at an additional reduction in taxes in the Virgin Islands, which is something that is going to be a tremendous burden on us. It’s something that I’m thinking about quite often. I’m really glad you mentioned this, because while everyone else is talking about the hurricane and rebuilding, there’s an underlying crisis. The reason that the hurricane was so devastating to us was that we didn’t have the funds that we needed to ensure that our roads and our schools and our hospitals would be secure so that other Category 5 hurricanes couldn’t strike us in the same way.
Some sources claim that corruption within Virgin Island politics and government on the territorial level is to blame for the debt crisis on the islands. Do the Virgin Islands have a corruption or an embezzlement problem?
Well, I cannot say that we have not had instances of [corruption and embezzlement], but I think that there are instances that you can point to in any and every jurisdiction in the United States, whether that’s in small towns like New Haven, Connecticut, or you look at large places like New York or Detroit or New Jersey or other places of course—just look at California. We always have instances where there are those who are going to take advantage, but I think there are systemic, structural, and financial impediments in the Virgin Islands that cause us to have financial issues in a manner unlike other places.
Residents of the Virgin Islands do not have federal representation to the same extent as residents of the 50 states. What is your position on the expansion of federal representation to your constituents?
I’ve been supportive of the We the People Project, which is headed up by a young man named Neil Weare LAW ‘08. He is from Guam and has been working through the court system to try and bring parity to the territories in terms of their representation. One of the things that people are unaware of is that the reason territories do not having voting rights in the same manner as the rest of the states is because of case law.
Insular cases are laws of Supreme Court decisions at the turn of the 20th century that were drafted and written by the same justice who wrote Plessy v. Ferguson. In those case laws, the Supreme Court justice wrote that people from the territories come from alien races and cannot understand Anglo-Saxon principles of law. So, they should not be given the same rights and voting rights as regular citizens of the United States, but over a time period if we can educate them, possibly they could have those same rights. That’s the basis by which people in the territories have been denied the same kind of representation as if we were to move to the states and receive it.
It is thought that we do not have the intellect to understand Anglo-Saxon principles of law, which is absolutely ironic considering that part of the American system, that being The Federalist Papers along with our banking system, was actually created by a Virgin Islander: Alexander Hamilton. That’s what makes our disclusion and our disenfranchisement so at odds with the founding of America.
How do you feel about statehood for the Virgin Islands?
I’m not necessarily a proponent of statehood. I recognize that we are 100,000 and at most we’ve been 112,000 individuals. I am very much about people making determinations about where they should be. I know that Puerto Rico is fighting desperately for statehood, and I am supportive of that, but I don’t believe statehood is the only means by which individuals can receive representation in Congress and have a vote on the floor.
When John Boehner became the Speaker, one of his first five acts was to remove the voting privileges of the members of the territories on the floor. This is something that can be taken away and given back. I think that if we had the right to vote on the floor, if we had the right to vote for president, you’d see very different outcomes given to people of the territories.
What is your favorite book?
Roots by Alex Haley. I remember reading it in the fifth grade and it completely changed my life: it’s the reason I went to Georgetown Foreign Service school and opened myself up to not just another world but all the other cultures that are out there.
What do you wish you had more time to do, for leisure?
Where do you get your news?
I get my news from many different sources. When I wake up in the morning I listen to Fox, I listen to MSNBC, a little bit of CNN, and I actually listen to the BBC. I listen to local radio as I’m driving into the office here in DC. I read online news like POLITICO and some others before the day starts, and as I’m walking to caucus, I have The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times with me.
What place would you most like to visit?
I have a many places on my must-see list: Lalibela in Ethiopia, Istanbul, I think it’s a must-see to go to Timbuktu, and I’d love to take tango classes in Buenos Aires.
If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?
I’d love to be a professor at a university: being around young people and teaching them and being taught by them as well.
Which living person do you most admire?
I don’t have an answer to that one—there are so many people in so many different walks that it would be hard to say just one person.
What keeps you up at night?
When I go home to the Virgin Islands, one of the things I always make my staff do is find an opportunity for me to be with young people. I have five children of my own, and what keeps me up at night is worrying if I have done everything I can to create a future for the young people of the Virgin Islands in the same way that my ancestors did, so that I could have a place to call my home that is prospering.
What is your advice for college students?
Take a class that has nothing to do with your major but is something that is exciting to you. Recognize that your primary purpose in college is to study, not to hang out, but make sure you nurture the friendships and the relationships that you have there, because they’ll last you a lifetime.