During a much-anticipated debate between three contenders for the Ninth District seat last week, candidates discussed their respective plans for the territory — while also making pointed jabs at one another.
Dr. Hubert O’Neal, the current representative for the Ninth who is running under the National Democratic Party, answered questions on the night of Jan. 9 alongside Vincent Wheatley, government’s former sister islands coordinator representing the Virgin Islands Party, and Jose de Castro, government’s former chief architect representing the Progressive Virgin Islands Movement.
Early in the debate, moderator Barbara Stephens-DeFreitas warned the candidates to remain civil.
“Gentlemen, I am supposed to be your moderator, not madam referee, so please don’t make me pull out the gloves,” she told them.
The debate, which was touted by organisers as the first national debate “of this level” in the VI in the 21st century, was hosted by a group of young adults representing the district: Shea Alexander, Sasha Flax, Rea Vanterpool, Adrianna Soverall, Trevor Bridgewater and Akeem Lennard.
“The group of young persons came together on the belief that the plans to build up the Ninth District should be based on reason, regardless of political affiliations,” according to a press release from the organisers.
The Wednesday debate included opening statements from the candidates and three question-and-answer segments.
In response to a moderator question about how residents of the Ninth District will be involved in their decision-making process, the candidates jockeyed to portray themselves as most involved in the local community.
Mr. de Castro promised residents he would hold town hall meetings every quarter and host “regular” office hours on Virgin Gorda. As for Anegada, office hours would be held there at least once a month, he said.
“The key thing is that we will have a plan in place from you, the people. I won’t be out there pushing and getting things done without you. You’re going to be involved,” he said.
Mr. de Castro also made reference to a comment Mr. Wheatley reportedly made on Facebook two weeks ago.
According to online news outlets, Mr. Wheatley wrote: “If I didn’t promise my mother to run a clean campaign, I would really touch that boy up.” The post has since been deleted.
“I will be there communicating with [the public] on social media,” Mr. de Castro said. “And you don’t have to worry about what my mother tells me to do or not to do on social media.”
Ms. Stephens-DeFreitas scolded Mr. de Castro for the comment.
“Remember I said we are going to keep it civil: We are going to keep it clean, sir,” she warned. “So no barbs.”
Mr. O’Neal said he currently holds town hall meetings every quarter and has office hours on Virgin Gorda twice a week. The representative also called for a city manager in Spanish Town.
“This person is going to be on the ground; they’re going to be well-informed as to what the developmental needs of the district [are],” he said.
Mr. Wheatley responded to the moderator’s question by saying he, too, would hold regular meetings with his committee and the community — and will maintain doing “what I currently do.”
“I work in my office on Monday: I’m there not two days a week, but actually every day of the week,” he said.
Later in the debate, the trio was given the chance to outline what their priorities for the district would be during their first six months in office.
Mr. Wheatley took a candid approach to the moderator’s question.
“Now let’s be real. This is an incredibly difficult question to answer as the current government seems to be totally broke,” he said, adding, “The reality of the situation is we do not know what we will find once or if we get into office.”
The former sister islands coordinator mentioned Bregado Flax Educational Centre as one priority, and promised he would try to shorten the process of getting the school up and running.
In his rebuttal to Mr. Wheatley, Mr. de Castro said, “It appears that my opponent could not really answer the question. Some of those projects that were mentioned via my opponent have already been started. So why mention them as something you would do when they’re already started?”
Mr. de Castro added that, among other goals, he would like the district representatives to have more control over funding from the Recovery to Development Agency.
“We are developing this tourism product,” he said of the district. “We’re making a lot of money for the territory but we’re not getting back what we deserve.”
Mr. O’Neal told the crowd that he would work to restore Virgin Gorda’s banking services and allocate more money towards government’s Housing Recovery Assistance Programme.
“My heart goes out to the persons who have been displaced from the storms, and if I were a multi-millionaire I would immediately give each displaced person the necessary funds they need to restore their homes, get back into their homes — especially the elderly people,” he said.