Stacey Plaskett is the representative of the U.S. Virgin Islands in the U.S. Congress. Just like Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, Plaskett is able to introduce legislation but has limited voting rights.
Plaskett just became a member of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee, which makes federal laws covering tax, trade and health care. Plaskett is the first member of this committee representing a U.S. territory.
In an interview on Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis, Plaskett revealed that Congress had in the past discussed and decided on a plan to keep territory representatives from serving on Ways & Means and other “prime” committees.
She said that her new assignment allows her “to support forgotten, disenfranchised communities.”
“It’s been a long journey to get to where I am,” Plaskett told Curtis.
Her parents moved to New York from the Virgin Islands in the 1950s, a time when “older siblings were sent to New York to find work and send money back home.” She grew up in projects in New York. Her parents worked hard to send her to a private Quaker school “to have different experiences and different opportunities.”
She saw family members supporting one another. Her parents sent money orders to relatives in the Virgin Islands to help them educate their children, and relatives sent funds to her to help her with her education. “The greatest thing we can give each other is education and opportunities,” she told Curtis.
This conviction has supported her in her work in Congress.
Plaskett did her undergraduate studies at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and earned her Juris Doctorate from American University’s Washington College of Law. She worked as assistant district attorney for the Bronx District Attorney’s Office and then as senior counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice.
She served as General Counsel for the Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority and also was in private practice before becoming the delegate to Congress for the Virgin Islands.
What is it like to represent a territory?
Plaskett said in the interview that her job involves being visible to members of Congress, “having to remind them that there is a group of islands that are basically colonies…They are often forgotten when legislation is being written.”
She said that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told her that she wouldn’t have a lot of opportunity for voting, but she had the chance to make relationships. Members from the territories don’t often come to the House floor, he said, and often they are forgotten.
She made a point of being on the House floor as much as possible. This gave her the chance to observe her colleagues more closely and to forge relationships and influence. That, in turn, has allowed her to work on meeting the needs of her constituents.
“My constituents want to know how they’re going to get their kids back in school because they have to work,” she said. “They want to make a living wage, they want to be able to afford a home.”
She knows that many people who vote for her face daily challenges. “Their children don’t have a laptop or if the school gave them a laptop they don’t have reliable broadband,” she said, describing how schoolchildren have to do their schoolwork in the parking lot of McDonald’s in order to have steady internet access. “They may be left alone,” she said, “whether it’s legal or not,” because parents must go to work and don’t have affordable child care options.
“I worry about ten years from now,” she said, thinking of the consequences of missed schoolwork.
Broadband is like the railroad
“Broadband is the same thing in the 21st century that the railroads were in the 1850s,” Plaskett told Curtis, referring to the growth of railroads after the Civil War and how pivotal that was for Americans at the time. “We have the Erie Canal, the Brooklyn Bridge, railroads that connected our country in ways that allowed business to boom…Broadband does the same thing and up to now we have not allowed broadband to penetrate rural areas and even underserved urban areas. We are missing out on the intellect and the innovation of those individuals that live in rural areas as well as those who live in urban areas.”
As a member of the Agriculture and Biotech communities, Plaskett thinks a lot about the economic effects of inequity in the territories, including broadband access as well as many other aspects of territorial status that limit the territories economically.
“It’s the hidden colonies,” she said. “The American Empire has a lot of hidden territories that are just colonies.”
One of Plaskett’s recent pieces of legislation is a bill that would define the territories as States in forthcoming legislation. She also joined forces with Rep. Gonzalez-Colon to extend the federal rum tax refund program. Representatives of the territories often work together on legislation that will support all the territories.