Last weekend was packed with green, red and blue campaign launches.
Decrying crumbling infrastructure, insufficient social programmes, lagging schools and other issues plaguing the Virgin Islands, candidates for the April 24 election took turns pledging to bring change if given their four years in office. The Virgin Islands Party introduced its candidates on March 17 on Virgin Gorda, kicking off its series of three campaign events over the weekend. The National Democratic Party followed with a launch on March 18, the Progressive Virgin Islands Movement on March 19.
As of last week, the VIP was the only party with a full slate of 13 candidates. The NDP and PVIM were each offering nine following failed talks to mend longstanding acrimony and campaign under one banner for the first time since a splinter group of NDP members formed the PVIM amid a leadership struggle before the 2019 election.
Though the parties have yet to release their manifestos, they each painted a picture of a brighter future set against the stormy background of political strife following the Florida arrest of then-Premier Andrew Fahie last April and the release of the Commission of Inquiry report the next day.
At least five new independent candidates also launched their bids over the past week, bringing the total up to at least eight.
The fourth party, Progressives United, is planning the campaign launch of opposition leader and District Three incumbent Julian Fraser on April 1. He founded the party after splitting from the VIP prior to the 2019 election.
Several new candidates were introduced during the recent party launches.
The VIP, led by Dr. Wheatley, completed its slate of 13 with Marieta Flax-Headley as its District Two candidate, Kevin “OJ” Smith for District Three, and Zoe Walcott as its final at-large candidate.
The NDP — led by Health and Social Development Minister Marlon Penn — added six new candidates.
Aaron Parillon will return to the NDP ballot in hopes of securing District Three from long-time representative Mr. Fraser. Coy Levons is making his bid for District Nine, joining the square-off between incumbents Shereen Flax-Charles — a former member of the VIP — and Vincent Wheatley, a current member of the VIP.
The NDP added Sandy Harrigan-Underhill in District Four in place of incumbent Mark Vanterpool, who doesn’t plan to run again. Lorna Smith joined the NDP team as an at-large candidate, as did Renard Estridge and Allen O’Neal.
The PVIM, led by Ronnie Skelton, added two candidates to its line-up on March 19.
Marvin Blyden, who labelled himself the party’s businessman, is representing the PVIM in District Five against the VIP incumbent, Deputy Premier Kye Rymer.
The PVIM also introduced Ian Smith as its District Four candidate, going up against Ms. Harrigan-Underhill and VIP candidate Luce Hodge-Smith.
Mr. Smith replaces Paul Hewlett, who announced on Facebook that he was withdrawing from the race but still supports the PVIM.
Among the new independent candidates, Troy Christopher declared for District Two against incumbent Mitch Turnbull, the current minister of natural resources and labour.
Mr. Christopher touted his experience as an entrepreneur and his knowledge of constitutional matters and law.
Lesmore Smith, who was previously considering a bid with PVIM, announced last week that he is now running at large as an independent. He officially launched his campaign on March 17.
Attorney Daniel Fligelstone-Davies also announced his atlarge candidacy via social media on March 14.
“My platform will focus largely on fighting for justice (such as the implementation of a legal aid clinic), lowering the costs of doing business, strengthening and diversifying the economy, and, of course, increasing wages,” he wrote.
Mitsy Ellis-Simpson, founder and managing director of MJS Associates Inc., is running independently at large as well. She told JTV that although she did not secure the VIP’s remaining at-large spot as she originally hoped, she wasn’t deterred from running this year.
Anegada resident Vernon Vanterpool also informed the Beacon he is running independently for the hotly contested District Nine. He ran unsuccessfully in 2015 against NDP representative Dr. Hubert O’Neal.
The PVIM hosted an attentive crowd of around 50 people the evening of March 19 for its spirited candidate launch at the Noel Lloyd Positive Action Movement Park. Shereen FlaxCharles — an at-large incumbent now contesting the District Nine seat — started off the evening firing a few shots at the VIP, which she left last month.
“For too long, we have seen the sight of green and been battered, misused, deceived by those who would have us believe they are anything but the same behaviours dressed in that colour,” she said. “But we have a divine opportunity to charter a new course cleansed and guided by a clear, blue stream.”
She then pivoted to explaining her priorities as an aspiring district representative, including greater inclusion for the sister islands on policy-making; more transparency in the House and Cabinet; the rooting out of “unstable, incompetent political appointees” in the public service, proper compensation for skilled employees, and better financing for youth support services.
Other speakers included the PVIM’s at-large team: Mr. Skelton, Shaina Smith-Archer, Ingrid Moses-Scatliffe and Stacy “Buddha” Mather.
Mr. Mather — a political newcomer who leads the Youth Empowerment Project in Fat Hogs Bay — decried longstanding issues in schools, sports and other programmes.
Citing the 2007 Constitution, he also refuted claims that he is ineligible to run for office because he moved from England to the VI when he was 8 months old.
“You do not choose where you were born, but you choose where you call home, and the only home I have is the Virgin Islands,” he said, drawing applause.
Like several of his colleagues, Mr. Mather also called for a comprehensive education review, and he said that ensuring all schools have adequate facilities would be among his top priorities. He focused also on the need to rebuild a school for students with special needs.
Ian Smith, one of the new additions to the party roster, said many youths are “misdirected and uninformed” regarding paths to become upstanding members of society.
“When they try, financing isn’t accessible, and trade licences and work permit processes are enshrined in bureaucracy,” he said. “What an embarrassment for this little country, that there are so many persons who want to invest in our progress, but just don’t want to trust us and our government.”
Mr. Smith said his experience as a senior banker and board member of the Financial Services Commission would prove useful in addressing such issues and developing the territory’s financial services sector.
Ms. Smith-Archer and Ms. Moses-Scatliffe highlighted the importance of voting in this election and lauded the PVIM as the party to push forward the transparent development of the territory.
District One candidate Sylvia Romney-Moses highlighted her contributions to managing the government’s largest revenue department and fostering international relations. She also noted her drive to promote the social development of the territory in areas like preventative health care.
Mr. Skelton also turned his attention to the National Health Insurance system, which was launched during his 2011-2019 tenure as minister of health and social development. Now, he said, the system needs to be reformed to make it both affordable and financially sustainable for the long term.
He also promised infrastructure development funded through responsible borrowing.
Mr. Turnbull, meanwhile, primarily highlighted the infrastructure projects pushed forward in District Two during his tenure and promised to continue his work.
At the NDP launch the evening of March 18 at the Sir Olva Georges Plaza, an energetic crowd of fewer than 100 waved and cheered.
Fourth District incumbent Mark Vanterpool, though not running for re-election, emceed the candidate launch.
He and others promised the NDP would offer “new vision, new mission, and new solutions.”
Dr. Orlando Smith, the former party leader, listed projects completed during the NDP’s previous administrations when he was premier, including the construction of Dr. D. Orlando Smith Hospital and the Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park.
The party then introduced its candidates, starting with atlarge contender Allen O’Neal, who was the territory’s first director of tourism starting in 1975.
Mr. O’Neal addressed a sore point for the previous NDP administration — the defunct BVI Airways undertaking.
In 2020, a blistering report by the Office of the Auditor General was publicised, criticising decisions made by Dr. Smith’s administration to invest in a $7 million no-bid deal to create flights between Miami and Beef Island. But the government was left holding the bag with no airline to show for it.
“The NDP mind was in the right place: Make no mistake about it,” Mr. O’Neal said. “We have to go further than that. We need a national airport, an international airport, in the BVI.”
He also addressed the “elephant in the room” of Mr. Fahie’s arrest.
“Don’t ask me to pray for corruption and for the plans of the devil,” he said.
If elected, Mr. O’Neal promised, the party would do more to support the territory’s tourism industry, including completing works on ports of entry throughout the territory.
Fellow newcomer Renard Estridge, an at-large candidate who works as a lawyer and corporate administrator, also took to the podium.
He highlighted the need to facilitate business in the VI by cutting red tape, particularly when it comes to permits. The NDP would also strongly support small businesses, agriculture development, and more diverse tourism offerings, he said.
District Nine candidate Coy Levons fired up the crowd with his speech focused on the importance of integrity in leadership. He pledged to create an advisory council of sister island residents to ensure their concerns are better reflected in the House of Assembly.
Dr. Smith’s wife Lorna Smith, an at-large contender who previously served as the BVI Finance interim executive director, touched on the urgency of addressing the cost-of-living crisis for residents. She also made a special appeal for the community to come together to stifle organised crime.
District Four hopeful Sandy Harrigan-Underhill promised educational reform, which she said she would accomplish by drawing on her experience serving as principal of Elmore Stoutt High School.
The March 18 launch also featured the party’s three previously elected members: Mr. Penn, the party leader and District Eight candidate; Myron Walwyn, a District Six hopeful who served as minister of education and culture from 2011 to 2019 while an at-large representative; and at-large contender Dr. Kedrick Pickering, a veteran legislator who served as deputy premier from 2011 to 2019 while the District Seven incumbent.
The trio highlighted the NDP’s record and pledged to finish projects it started that weren’t completed under the VIP administration, like the outfitting of the Nurse Iris O’Neal Medical Centre and key Recovery and Development Agency-led projects.
Mr. Penn also claimed his and Mr. Turnbull’s credibility played a significant role in avoiding the UK’s suspension of the VI legislature last year.
“As I come to the end of my third term in office, and I reflect, I am proud of what I have done in service to the people of the Eighth District and the entire Virgin Islands,” he said.
The party also featured comments from two representatives of the youth, Sonniel Pickering and Rhohani Hypolyte. Both described their peers’ frustration with candidates’ failures in delivering on campaign promises.
“I admonish each and every person sitting to my left, to my right and to my back that you make young people not just a focus, but a priority,” Mr. Pickering said.
Three VIP events
The VIP travelled to Virgin Gorda on March 17 evening to kick off its series of weekend launches. Illuminated by green spotlights under a few tents, audience members cheered for District Nine candidate Vincent Wheatley, who was first to take the stage.
Mr. Wheatley painted the party as steadfast in handling challenges including the recovery from the 2017 hurricanes, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the COI fallout.
“We worked tirelessly to rebuild our communities, to rebuild lives, to create opportunities for our people, and to chart a new course for our future,” he said. “Tonight, I say to you, let the transformation continue.”
He and his peers portrayed themselves as the leaders with the know-how to continue making progress.
Though the VIP is the incumbent majority in the HOA, the party’s roster of 13 candidates includes only seven returning members: Dr. Wheatley, Mr. Rymer, Vincent Wheatley, District Six incumbent Alvera Maduro-Caines, and at-large incumbents Neville Smith, Sharie de Castro, and Carvin Malone.
New to the team are Dr. Karl Dawson for District One, Marieta Flax-Headley for District Two, Kevin “OJ” Smith for District Three, Luce Hodge-Smith for District Four, Allen Wheatley for District Eight, and Zoe Walcott at large.
Ms. Flax-Headley, a former Althea Scatliffe Primary School principal, vowed first and foremost to address the “nightmare” water issues in District Two. Mr. Smith touted his wide-ranging industry expertise in banking, investment analysis, the post office, trade, telecommunications, and small business.
Ms. Walcott highlighted her philanthropic and community development efforts.
Also during the launch, the premier celebrated the VIP’s assemblage of a full slate of candidates that includes five women and many young hopefuls. The party, he said, brought them together without “raising anybody from the dead.” He also heralded the party’s long history in VI politics and drew attention to advancements in tourism and the economy made during its administration, like the direct flights to the mainland US set to commence this summer.
Additionally, he criticised the NDP for in-party fighting postIrma and credited the VIP with completing key recovery projects after taking over in 2019.
“By God’s grace, we have recovered most of our public infrastructure,” he claimed. “We have a bit more to go, but we are nearly there, and we did it while staying within our borrowing ratios. We did it without debilitating debt. We did it without selling our birthrights.”
He also noted VIP leaders’ “resilience” in navigating the pandemic and COI reform.
The following night, the VIP also received an unusual endorsement from USVI Governor Albert Bryan Jr., who spoke during Mr. Rymer’s District Five campaign launch in Huntums Ghut.
Mr. Bryan commended the administration for making it through “hard times” since 2017, especially during last year’s political turmoil.
“But never did they flinch,” he said of the VIP-led administration. “When I called over from the US Virgin Islands to the British Virgin Islands, they were in good spirits because we have forged tough men and women.”
He continued, “I’m here to tell you tonight that the battle is not over. We still got them knocking on the door. With every simple scintilla of my body, I am going to help these brothers and sisters fight.”
Mr. Rymer — who is running against Mr. Blyden of the PVIM but doesn’t yet face a challenger from the NDP or independents — kicked off his campaign launch in a musical fashion with drummers and dancers who performed during songs of praise.
Later, his wife Suzanne Rymer introduced him, describing his daily commitment to hearing the voices of district residents.
When he took the stage, Mr. Rymer touted efforts to rehabilitate roads, the creation of a business directory, work to remove derelict vehicles, and time spent consulting members of the public on how best to enhance the district.
“We were able to bring this district from a sense of hopelessness and a lifeless state to this present point — full of life, full of hope, and full of purpose,” he said.
Mr. Rymer also thanked the community for support for cleanup days, a shared food pantry, walk-a-thons, and programmes geared toward the young and elderly.
The VIP’s campaigning continued on March 19 with the launch of Dr. Dawson in District One.
That race is wide open in the absence of Mr. Fahie, who held the seat from 1999 until his resignation last November, and Dr. Dawson faces independent candidate Chad George and PVIM candidate Sylvia Romney-Moses.
Dr. Dawson — a former president of H. Lavity Stoutt Community College who has never held elected office before — told a crowd of up to 100 people at Cappoons Bay that the VIP is planning several projects to strengthen the district’s economy.
Describing Carrot Bay as the “cultural capital” of the VI, he said the VIP intends to build on the area’s reputation by organising weekly activities centred on agricultural and fishing offerings.
This plan, he promised, would become a reality within four months if he is elected to the seat.
He also said the district stands ready to help expand the territory’s “blue economy.”
Fishers, he noted, have the energy and the interest to enhance their sector, but “they need a supportive government and a champion to fight for the right laws, resources and training to make this bright future a reality.”
As an example, he said fishers need a landing site equipped with running water and freezing facilities to facilitate sales. They also need safe and functional docks, he said.
Also during the March 19 ceremony, Dr. Wheatley mentioned the embattled Mr. Fahie, who is facing charges of conspiring to import cocaine and to launder money in the United States.
“Let me say to you what happened on April 28, [Mr. Fahie’s arrest date], was unfortunate, and we are keeping Andrew Fahie and his family in our prayers,” the premier said. “But I have a philosophy that I live by. I don’t wish bad on a soul. I don’t wish bad on anyone, because you do not know what tomorrow holds.”
Alva Solomon contributed to this report.