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Saint Mary’s alumna serves the U.S. Virgin Islands

Kaitlyn Rabach | Friday, October 11, 2013

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth story in a series featuring Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s graduates serving as members of Congress. This series, titled “Trading Golden Dome for Capitol Dome,” will run on Fridays. 

As the federal government shutdown reaches its 11th day, Congresswoman Donna Christensen (D-U.S. Virgin Islands) said she is concerned for the almost 700 federal employees in the territory who are being furloughed or facing reduced pay. 

Christensen, who graduated from Saint Mary’s in 1966 with a Bachelor of Science degree, is one of six non-voting members of Congress. The Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, District of Columbia, Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa all send delegates who are asked to weigh in on issues under legislation to Congress. Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo of Guam also attended Saint Mary’s, but her office declined repeated requests from The Observer for interviews.

Christensen said the current shutdown of the federal government could have a dramatic effect on the economy of the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

“We are a community that has been facing some severe economic lows with the closing of our largest private industry, government insurance falls and the impact of the recession which generally comes a little later than [when the impact hits the] mainland but stays longer and has a great impact,” Christensen said. “This is just making a bad situation far worse for us as we try to recover from our economic issues and challenges.”

Her constituents began flooding her office with phone calls immediately after the shutdown, she said.

“The first complaint I began getting was from the national park in St. John,” Christensen said. “St. John is a small island and two-thirds of it is a national park, so everything in St. John depends on the national park. … The calls came from taxi drivers, small business owners whose businesses are being impacted, the wedding planners who have people coming in to get married in one of the beautiful sites … our national parks cannot utilize that venue anymore, this has been a big issue. 

“I traveled on Tuesday [September 1] and the customs board of protection was there and of course TSA [Transportation Security Administration] [workers] were there, but nobody was sure when they were going to get another paycheck. That is not a good environment in which to work.”

No limitations

Christensen, who was the first female physician to be elected to Congress, said she treasures the time she spent at Saint Mary’s. She credits the College as one of the key factors in the development of the confidence she now uses as a member of Congress, she said. 

“Going to an all-women’s college … gave me confidence and I think that it prepared me well,” Christensen said.

When she first came to Saint Mary’s, Christensen said she was planning on going into medical technology, but after reading an article published by the National Negro College Fund, she said she decided to changer her career plans and become a doctor. 

“When I had doubts about whether I was capable of being a doctor, my biology chair, Dr. Clarence Dinnen, was there for support and encouragement,” Christensen said. “I thought that was very important.”

This positive support helped her when others expressed concern about her ability to enter a “man’s field,” she said.

“I remember one time a family member of a schoolmate said to me, ‘I don’t think you should do that, that’s not a good idea, going to medical school,'” Christensen said. “I remember being really taken aback by that, but then I dismissed it. The kind of confidence I gained, the education I received and the support I had from the faculty made it something that I didn’t think twice about. After Professor Divine sat me down and said ‘I could do whatever I wanted to do,’ I never worried.”

After graduating from Saint Mary’s, Christensen said she received a Doctor of Medicine in 1970 from George Washington University School of Medicine and completed her residency in 1974.

Coming home

The day after she finished her residency, Christensen said she came home to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“I began working in a small emergency room in 1975, and after being home and hearing some of the issues that were of concern to my community I decided to become active in the community,” Christensen said. “It is home and there were things that were happening that I thought individuals needed to be more proactive about, so I decided to involve myself in different issues like the appointment of local judges, sale of land ⎯ that was important to my community and the private industry. But, I was doing it as an organizer myself, organizing different coalitions and different groups to advocate or oppose an issue.”

At the time, Christensen said maintaining a private practice in family medicine and while adapting to life as a new mother drove her to find a formal way to participate in community organizing.

“At this point I had a young baby and was working, so I decided to join the Democratic Party,” Christensen said. ” I joined by running for a seat on my local territorial committee. I won and became an officer. I did that because I thought the Democratic Party would be a good vehicle for me to do some of the things I wanted to do and I wouldn’t have to be doing it by myself.”

After serving for 12 years as a Democratic National Committeewoman, Christensen said she was urged to run for national office in 1994.

After losing her first primary race in 1994, Christensen said she ran again in 1996 and won the Virgin Islands seat. 

“I had been practicing [medicine] and [working] in politics at the same time, so it wasn’t an abrupt transition, it was more of shifting the balance,” Christensen said. “In my practice you always find that there are a lot of social and other issues that impact the health of your patients. Many times people would come in just to talk about whatever problems they were having, and so I kind of looked at it as bringing my office work from a local level to a larger, national level. I did promise my patients that I would remain active in healthcare, even if I was not their private physician anymore.”

Territorial interests

Christensen said being a delegate of a territory is more challenging than being a woman or being a minority in Congress. 

“Territories are not states, so in many instances the Constitution does not explicitly provide territories with the same rights and privileges as it does states,” Christensen said. “Therefore, I don’t get to vote in final passage [of bills] or to even voting in committee of the whole is a matter of contention because while the Democrats feel we should vote, the Republicans don’t. So when Democrats are in the majority we vote in the committee of the whole and when they are not, we don’t.”

Christensen, who currently serves on the Committee on Energy and Commerce, is the first delegate from a territory to sit on an exclusive committee. Due to the expansive list of policy concerns that fall in the Committee’s jurisdiction, members who serve on one of the four exclusive committees – the other three being Appropriations, Ways and Means and House Financial Services – are not allowed to serve on other House committees. 

She said she the support of the Congressional Black Caucus pushed her not only to sit on the at-large committee, but also on the Subcommittee on Health. 

“Just getting on those committees were a big milestone for me,” Christensen said. “I was there when we wrote the Affordable Care Act, and that is an experience I will remember for the rest of my life and feel proud to be a part of it. I consider that a major event in my life.”

Now, Christensen sits on the Subcommittee on Energy and Power. She said she not only works for members of her district, but also strives to push legislation through Congress for all of the territories.

“I was also on the Committee [on Energy and Commerce] when we did the American Reinvestment Act ⎯ that was very important to help us recover from recession,” Christensen said. “My presence on that helped my territory to get a significant amount of funding, as well as the other territories. As a delegate from a territory, one of my responsibilities is to look out not only for my own, but for all of the territories.”

A desire to serve 

Christensen said her time as a part of the larger Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame and South Bend communities during this the Civil Rights Movement instilled in her a desire to serve.

“After the summer where all of the riots, the bombings and all of that happened there was a change to me in Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame,” Christensen said. “We did become more socially conscious, and I think it was at that point that we started going into the South Bend community, Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students together. We would go into South Bend and help kids with homework and we developed Big Brothers, Big Sisters for some of the poorer kids in town. 

” … Even though we were farther away and we were not involved in the protests or the marches, I think the Civil Rights Movement had a profound impact on us and I think it elevated our social justice awareness and efforts.”

Christensen said she was also at Saint Mary’s when she found out about the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and President John F. Kennedy’s death in 1963.

“I was [at Saint Mary’s] during some very important times in our nation’s history,” she said. “I am sure the dialogue and how we dealt with those issues had a lot to do with why I am here [in Congress serving others] as well.” 

Christensen said she feels proud to be an alumna of Saint Mary’s. 

“When I first came here [to Congress] there were four Saint Mary’s women,” Christensen said. “Imagine that a small college like ours could have four members of Congress serving at the same time. I thought that was amazing and it is to Saint Mary’s credit [as an educational institution]. Now three of us are still here. 

“I do treasure the time I spent at Saint Mary’s and I do count it as being responsible in part for the successes I have achieved through my lifetime.”

Contact Kaitlyn Rabach at krabac01@saintmarys.edu