Interview with Governor Kenneth Mapp of the United States Virgin Islands
On January 6, 2015, the Honorable Kenneth Ezra Mapp was sworn in as the eighth elected Governor of the United States Virgin Islands. He has a distinguished career in public service ranging from police officer, legislator, and head of several territorial agencies including the Consumer Services Administration and the Public Finance Authority. Governor Mapp also served as Lieutenant Governor from 1995-1999. On November 18, 2014, he won 64 percent of the vote held in a runoff election. Governor Mapp is the first member of the AME Church to lead the executive branch of a US state or territory since Governor P.B.S. Pinchback of Louisiana (1872-1873). Governor Mapp was interviewed in October 2016 at the Government House on St. Croix, Virgin Islands. The Christian Recorder expresses its appreciation to the Rev. Carlos Perkins of St. Luke AME Church, St. Croix for arranging the interview.
Governor Mapp, the first question we’d like to ask you is how you became a member of the AME Church?
It was through my grandmother, Almina N. Hewitt, and her husband, Cecil Hewitt that my family joined the AME Church. They were originally Moravians. In the Virgin Islands, each month when they did baptisms, there was a particular Sunday in the month that was set aside for the baptism of people of color—Blacks…and a Sunday reserved for the white Danes. My grandmother had let my Aunt Priscilla’s baptism slip away, so time was of the essence. My grandmother and grandfather were very involved in caring for the church and helping with its maintenance.
She approached the minister to have my aunt baptized on the Sunday set aside for the Danes and the minister was quite offended that my grandmother would think that she would bring this black baby and be able to stand up there next to the Danes and get the baby baptized. After he scolded her, she gave the minister a good tongue lashing and then started to remove everything in the church her husband and her children had donated and walked out the door, never to return. Hamilton Jackson, at the time, helped with the establishment of the St. Luke AME Church in Grove Place. I believe he even donated the land for the church. They ended up becoming AMEs and actually helped to establish Bethel AME Church in Christiansted. The church honored my grandfather’s efforts by putting his name in the wall.
That’s how the whole family became “AMErs [sic].” When we moved to New York in the 1940s they ended up at the Bridge Street AME Church in Brooklyn; and of course, I was born in 1955 and my youngest aunt and my mother raised me up to the minister and I was baptized into the church. That’s how I became an AME.
So how has being in the AME Church influenced your life and career?
It influenced my career in the sense that the values of my grandmother and my grandmother’s family and our upbringing in the church had a tremendous impact on our own value systems. Our ability to understand respect, our ability to appreciate others, to speak well of others, and to recognize my grandmother said all the time, “There’s nobody in the world better than any of you. But none of you is any better than anybody else either. And you have to understand them or respect them.” We had to go to Sunday School and go to church and in the middle of the week she would decide we have to come in and read the Bible. She would read us passages in the Bible. Our family is huge and it’s very matriarchal. So, we were raised understanding the respect of elders and to respect authority.
I carried myself in those principles. I make no bones of the fact that I’m a faithful Christian. I try to really make sure I respect folks; and even in my politics, I’m one with the reputation…and am known for being brutally honest. People don’t always like what I say or how I say it; but at the end of the day, if I walk out, I don’t have to look back.
I’m not here to try to carry any particular individual’s agenda. I’m interested in the community’s agenda and what’s best for the territory. I’m going to live or die on that and [there’s] nothing more I can do. So, I think fundamentally that the church has been a great part of that whole story of the fabric of my life.
At the General Conference, you received an award from the Council of Bishops. Can you tell me what that experience means to you?
Extremely humbling. It was profound for me. When they began the service, they had me to walk in with my aunt and go on that stage and look at the bishops coming on. It was very humbling for me because I could never imagine that I could ever be sitting in such a place with such profound folks from the Church.
I mean I was a kid. I was running all over the church. I had to study a little extra for the confirmation. You know I was in the church as a child because I had to go to church and not because I thought I needed to be here. So to go and to receive such an honor, at such a prestigious time, with all of these bishops around me, it was awe-inspiring for me. It was really very humbling and it makes you reflect on the responsibility that you take on in your role as governor and the people you serve.
The history of the AME Church is one of all. It was formed partly on the basis of the brutality and oppression and the history of what was going on with Blacks in the southern part of the United States. So you know we have a long history as a people in this nation that wasn’t such a nice history and we had that history in these islands. So the AME Church is a part of the symbolism of freedom from those horrific days.
How many people are you responsible for directly? How big is the government of the Virgin Islands?
Well, I believe there is a total of 13,000 workers in all areas of government municipalities and the central government’s direct budget is about $1.2 billion. When you add all the others for the maximum dollars, I’m sure it’s close to $1.6 or 1.7. billion. There are 55 governors in the nation (50 states and 5 territories). The governor of Guam and the governor of the Virgin Islands are viewed as the two most powerful governors in the nation because our powers are derived from federal law. For all of the other governors, their powers are derived from their state/territorial constitutions; but, our powers are enacted by Congress who supervise the territories. We have some very unique authorities that some of the other governors—I’m sure many governors—don’t have. For example, line item veto authority and partial veto authority. Many governors can’t directly enter into major contracts with parties with the government and direct authority. The Virgin Islands does not have a system—local or municipal government. We are limited to two terms and each of the terms is for four years.
In my particular case, I’m neither Republican nor Democrat. I’m Independent. I was a Republican. I was attending the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government in 1999 and I met George Bush. He was in his second term as governor and running for the Republican nomination for president. I sat in that audience and I listened to him. I listened to the different students from around the world ask him basic policy questions. They had not too long ago hired Dr. Condoleezza Rice as his tutor on national policy and foreign policy issues. She had a table and a chair next to the podium and they would ask him questions and he would answer. She would write a note on an index card and put it on the podium. He’d pick that up and go, “You know just to be clear” and he’d say what was on the note. We went back to our leadership class and discussed his performance.
I used to be teased a bit because I was an African American and a registered Republican. The Kennedy School was one of the most liberal schools of government in the nation, so you know you have all these contradictions sort of going on. I announced to the class then that if he wins the nomination for president, I’ll be out of the party the next day. When he won the nomination, I went to the Board of Elections and changed my registration the next day and emailed my leadership professor that night. I’ve been an Independent ever since.
Given this current election we’ve just gone through, what are your thoughts as a governor looking at the administration that will be in Washington, DC?
I have to work with the administration because, again, I’m a territorial governor and we’re directly supervised by the federal government. The policies of the National Government can have either positive or very negative impacts on the territory. I was dumbfounded—as many people in the nation—with the results of the election but it speaks to the division of America and it speaks to the mere fact that people are easily swayed, especially throughout this previous presidential campaign. Accepting responsibility is important and so it’s part of the changing times. I really have to say though that I am hoping that it works out and that the president is successful.
Next year marks the centennial of the Virgin Islands being a part of the United States. What does that mean for the territory and what are some of the proposed activities?
That’s exactly what should be the first order on the agenda. What does that mean for the people of the Virgin Islands? A hundred years. It’s not a time for merriment, getting a band, frying chicken, and currying roast goat. It’s about what has happened in the last 100 years, how have we advanced the cause of freedom and opportunity in the Virgin Islands, what’s going to happen in the next 100 years, and how are Virgin Islanders and American citizens that live in the Virgin Islands going to have access to all of their rights and privileges as American citizens.
In the territories, you pay the same rate as every American worker for Social Security and Medicare but when you get to Medicare age, there are benefits you cannot access in the Virgin Islands. As people pursue their health needs, many Virgin Islanders just move to the mainland because they can have access to those benefits and treatments. All veterans in the Virgin Islands fight in wars of the nation and come back injured and have to struggle to get access to their veteran’s benefits. The taxpayers of the Virgin Islands have a whole list of benefits that we provide on local statutes to ensure that they get some semblance of help.
So it’s not about celebrating 100 years and running down the street with an American flag singing “Kumbaya.” It’s about where have we been, where are we now, how are we going to get to a better place, and what does it mean to us. As far as our reflections with the Danish government, they are more excited about the Centennial than we are. They had some folks interview me two days ago; and you have to start with the reality that when they were here, it was really an atrocious period. It was a horrific [and] painful period while the Danes were here. We just can’t pretend everything was fine. So it is going to be a time for really some truth telling and it should be taking the model from South Africa. It really needs to be a time of reconciliation between the people of Denmark and the people of the Virgin Islands.
Finally, the AME Church here has been here about a 100 years. What you see as some of the challenges facing the church and where do you see the church moving in the Virgin Islands?
In the Virgin Islands, people look at the optics of where they worship and make decisions—particularly younger millennials—about where they’re going to be and the houses they’re going to worship in. The church is a continuously challenging environment. I think it really is reflected across all churches. The real challenge is how worshipping in the church really tie into people’s lives. You know, there was a time when you think of the church and you read the Bible, you get a sense that you had to live good and if you behave yourself and do what’s right, you get into heaven and live rich. What you realize as an adult is that the power of God is really in your life today; and if you can reflect that and take that news, education, and training in your everyday life, you will see the rewards. You don’t have to wait to die to be rewarded.
The challenge in the church, the AME Church and any other church, is how to get that message to younger people coming in. How does it become meaningful? There are some churches that I’ve gone to as a politician or as a guest of others and they never open the Bible or if you go to the church every Sunday you hear the same thing. Younger people are coming and buying into it.
It seems to me that the AME Church is growing here. I’m noticing other people coming to the church. I’m seeing the children. You see the bands but we have to tie it in to become a meaningful part of life and not make it so disconnected. People like to see church as coming to get your spirit fed and becoming more empowered.