Top vote-getter Graham's No. 1 priority is fixing WAPA


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ST. THOMAS - The highest vote-getter in the territory's 2012 Senate race told himself he was only going to work in public service for 10 years.

That was 22 years ago.

Now, Clifford Graham, whose 7,727 votes in the November General Election eclipsed the next-highest district senatorial vote total by more than 2,000 votes, is one of seven freshmen elected to the 30th Legislature and is poised to take over the body's all-important Finance Committee.

"When I reflect on where we are as a territory and where we're going as a territory, and look at some of the candidates that were offering themselves as senatorial aspirants, I had no choice but to get into this race and offer my education, experience and expertise to help see if we can really improve the Virgin Islands and get it back to the quality of life I like to say that we once had," the soft-spoken 47-year-old told The Daily News last week.

After steering the V.I. Housing Finance Authority away "from the brink of collapse," Graham said he believes he can do the same for the territory as a whole.

"So as I close that one book on the affordable housing program, I'm now creating another book to help people in a different fashion here in the Virgin Islands through a bigger picture, helping them in all aspects," he said.

The road to get there, Graham said, begins with fixing the V.I. Water and Power Authority.

"We have to really, really, really do everything in our power to fix WAPA," he said. "If we do not fix WAPA, we will not fix anything else in the territory. That's directly attributed to the cost of everything here in the Virgin Islands because of the high energy cost."

Graham suggested a broad-based attack on WAPA's fuel surcharge known as the Levelized Energy Adjustment Clause, which constitutes about 41 cents of the 51 cents per kilowatt hour WAPA's residential customers pay for electricity. He said the senators need to sit down with WAPA's management and figure out how the 30th Legislature can help WAPA get new equipment and convert to new fuel sources like liquefied natural gas, propane or renewable energy.

He also offered one concrete solution that could go into effect right away: keeping the LEAC steady even when the price of oil falls, at least temporarily, to eliminate WAPA's perennial problem with under-recovering its fuel costs.

"I think we need to get that unrecoverable resolved as soon as possible, but at the same time get them off of the fossil fuel dependency," Graham said.

Graham also addressed the territory's slumping economy and consequent drop in government revenues. He said he intends to make sure the government begins to spend within its means by increasing revenue and keeping a watchful eye on expenses.

On the revenue side, Graham floated the idea of offering reduced or deferred tax benefits to small businesses to increase economic activity in the territory, while also making sure the government is collecting on its outstanding bills.

"We have a lot of taxpayers out there or businesses that owe the government," he said. "We need to rein in and enforce a lot of the laws we have on our books."

Graham said he hopes to use his position in charge of the Finance Committee to make sure all government agencies learn to spend wisely, an effort from which he said the Legislature itself would not be exempt.

"Our motto is 'Lead by example,' so, of course if we want to tell other branches of government that, we have to start living within our means," Graham said. "We are prepared to do that. If it means some of the practices that the Legislature did in the past will not be allowed, then so be it."

One step toward that goal would be to institute statutory procurement rules for the legislative branch that outlive the 30th Legislature, Graham said.

Graham also said he would be in favor of taking a comprehensive look at the territory's open records law, stressing that he would be interested specifically in implementing a standardized fee structure across all government agencies so that one agency does not charge $1 for a copy of a public record while another charges $5.

Graham added that he would like to see the territory adopt government-wide ethics laws, a cause championed in the past by Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, the incoming Senate president.

"People don't take conflicts of interest here very seriously, so we are looking at enacting ethics laws to help govern public employees," Graham said.

Regarding the territory's crime epidemic, Graham traced it back to a shortcoming in the education system.

"I personally think there's a lot of young males here in the territory that may not be as strong academically, and we don't offer enough of the trade component, like the carpentry, the mechanical, the plumbing, the masonry as an alternative education for these young men," Graham said. "So as a result, if they drop out of school because of the academic shortcomings, they have nothing they can fall back to, a trade, so they end up on the corners or not doing anything for a living."

When asked how he would like to see the cash-strapped government pay for new vocational education programs, Graham did not offer specifics but said the territory must find a way.

"I think that's something that we have no choice but to fund because let's be realistic: Right now if you have a certain population that's dropping out of school, what do we do with that population?" he said. "We have no choice but to try and reach that population and find some type of educational alternative for them."

In the end, Graham said he felt compelled to run for the 30th Legislature to try to help return the territory to the family-oriented community he remembers from years past - the days when Virgin Islanders left their cars unlocked and could call a neighbor for help.

"It's long gone now," he said.

- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email lmattei@dailynews.vi.Clifford Graham

Age: 47

Education: bachelor's degree in building construction technology from Hampton University, 1989.

Most recent occupation: owner of CG Consulting, 2012 to present; executive director of the V.I. Housing Finance Authority, 2001 to 2011.

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