Home News Local news Undercurrents: Gov. John deJongh Looks Back on Eight Years in Office

Undercurrents: Gov. John deJongh Looks Back on Eight Years in Office

Undercurrents: Gov. John deJongh Looks Back on Eight Years in Office

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

Early in December as he prepared to leave Government House to Kenneth Mapp, the territory’s governor-elect, Gov. John deJongh Jr. met with the Source for an hour-long interview in which he reflected on his two terms in office, his accomplishments and disappointments, the role of a governor, the changing landscape of politics, the need for election reform, his hopes for the future and the advisability of sending emails at 3 a.m.

“The best thing that ever happened to me in terms of this job was losing in 2002,” deJongh said, referring to his first failed attempt at election. “Having lost focused me and, at the same time, it allowed me to see what I wanted to do … You then realize why you want the job” and what sacrifices you need to make in order to do it, he said.

The year after his initial defeat, he said, “I started keeping a book of all the initiatives and things I would like to do if I were elected governor. And I still maintain it to this day.”

Can he check off any of the items from the list? Yes, quite a few, including growing the cruise industry and freeing up lending for small business as well as establishing education benchmarks, he said.

But “the recession that hit us took away a lot of what I wanted to do,” he said, adding that he thinks “the biggest thing that we did was we held it together during one of the worst economic times the Virgin Islands has gone through.”

DeJongh said his administration took a three-pronged approach to the problem of the recession: there was a decision against any sort of massive lay-off of government employees, there was a commitment to maintaining resources to continue delivering services, and there was a goal of building a foundation for growth.

“Except for essential areas” – police, education and health – the administration stopped hiring, thus letting attrition trim the cost of payroll. “We actually had a reduction in the government workforce by almost 23 percent,” deJongh said.

Initially, he said, he wanted to put some of the millions of dollars brought in by the Diageo rum distillery toward pension reform, but he was forced to use it instead to sustain government operations. Not surprisingly, despite bitter opposition from some quarters, he counts the deal as a major accomplishment.

“The Diageo agreement allowed us to get an infusion of new revenues into the territory” instead of raising taxes on existing residents, he said. It gave the territory some stability and allowed the government to borrow on the international market.

Another success, he says, was fostering an amicable working relationship between the V.I. Port Authority and the West Indian Co. and presenting a united front in the tourism industry.

Early on, he proposed merging the two, but the Legislature balked at that. So, he said, he settled on a strategy of bringing them together rather than allowing them to compete with one another.

“I started meeting with them a lot more frequently,” he said – and always together. He also appointed people to the WICO board “who understood what my policy was and where I wanted to go.”

By virtue of her office, Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty already served on the VIPA Board. DeJongh appointed her to the WICO board too, “so she would be able to be the link between the two entities.”

Whenever cruise industry leaders wanted to meet with Virgin Islands representatives, deJongh made sure they talked to Tourism, the Port Authority and WICO, together. “They got used to always seeing the three of us.”

The strategy has been successful, but he cautioned, “Only by maintaining that kind of cross-pollination is it going to work.”

Another point of pride for deJongh is his administration’s efforts to improve education, with special emphasis on the young child, he said. The governor established the Children and Families Council, headed by First Lady Cecile deJongh, to focus the effort.

The territory was the first offshore U.S. entity to adopt the rating system for early childhood learning, he said. It was also one of the first to implement Common Core standards for public schools.

The administration put in place guidelines and standards for infants and toddlers, for elementary school age students, and for high practice kindergarten, and the government has assisted private day care workers in getting additional training – either directly or by reimbursing them for educational costs.

The early childhood learning initiative is “one area that I’m very happy with,” deJongh said. “It’s going in the right path. At least the system’s in place.”

The governor listed a number of capital projects, some completed, some in progress and some still in proposal stages, as items he supports. Among them, the Mandahl marina, the widening of Veterans Drive, the Coral Bay marina, the new school for St. John, the Salt River research center, the Paul E. Joseph Stadium, the Christiansted bypass and a boutique hotel for Water Island.

Many of them were proposed or even started long before deJongh’s time in office. And he said they illustrate a truism: “No one governor completes everything on their own. We continue the projects of those that went before us.”

The next governor may make changes to some of the projects, but deJongh believes most will continue in one form or another. For instance, “I think everyone recognizes we need a new school” on St. John, but Mapp may choose a location different from deJongh’s choice.

One project deJongh said he is especially anxious to see continued is the broadband Internet access of the Virgin Islands Next Generation Network.

He said just putting in the hardware has created more interest in the industry with Internet service providers now advertising low costs and high speeds. The next step is getting the ISPs to connect with viNGN, he said.

“It gives us the infrastructure to stay connected in the 21st century,” he said.

(Next: personal politics, legislative tangles, issues of style, the unexpected.)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here