Delegate Donna M. Christensen won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996, the first woman to represent the U.S. Virgin Islands, a multi-island territory in the eastern Caribbean. During her tenure, Christensen, the first female medical doctor to serve in Congress, focused on improving the living conditions and economic opportunities on the Islands, especially where they intersected with federal issues. The transition from the doctor’s office to Congress seemed seamless for her. “In my practice you always find that there are a lot of social and other issues that impact the health of your patients,” Christensen noted. “Many times people would come in just to talk about whatever problems they were having, so I kind of looked at it as bringing my office work from a local level to a larger, national level.”1
Donna Christian was born on September 19, 1945, in Teaneck, New Jersey, to Almeric L. Christian and Virginia Sterling Christian. Her mother was a New York native and her father, who served in the U.S. Army in World War II, returned to his native Virgin Islands with his young family after earning a law degree at Columbia University. Almeric became a U.S. attorney and then a chief judge of the Virgin Islands District Court. Donna Christian, who later described herself as a girl who “lived in the library,” attended boarding schools in Puerto Rico and New York.2 She earned a B.S. from St. Mary’s College at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, in 1966 and an M.D. from the George Washington University School of Medicine in 1970.
Christian completed her residency at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1974 and returned home to the 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 the community I decided to become active in the community,” she recalled decades later. “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.”3 In addition to running an active family practice, she also worked as a health administrator, rising to the position of assistant commissioner of health for the Virgin Islands. In 1974, Christian married Carl Green and the couple had two daughters, Rabiah and Karida, before they divorced in 1980.4 In 1998, she married Christian O. Christensen who had four children from a previous marriage.5
Christensen began her political career in 1980 as part of the Coalition to Appoint a Native Judge, which emphasized judicial appointments from within the community and later on as part of the Save Fountain Valley Coalition, which called for the protection of St. Croix’s north side from overdevelopment. She served as Democratic National Committeewoman from 1984 to 1994 and vice chair of the Territorial Committee of the Democratic Party of the Virgin Islands and on the Platform Committee of the Democratic National Committee. From 1984 to 1986, she served as a member of the Virgin Islands board of education and was appointed to the Virgin Islands Status Commission from 1988 to 1992.
Christensen lost her first bid for Delegate to Congress in 1994, failing to secure the Democratic nomination. Two years later, she won the party’s nomination. On November 5, 1996, in a three-way general election she finished second behind the one-term incumbent, Independent Victor Frazer with 27 percent of the vote, one percentage point ahead of the Republican candidate, Kenneth Mapp. Since Frazer won only a plurality with 47 percent, and not a majority, Christensen advanced to a special November 19 runoff against Frazer. In that contest she prevailed with a slim majority, 52 to 48 percent. In her subsequent eight general election campaigns, Christensen won with comfortable majorities that ranged as high as 80 percent; she ran unopposed in 2008. Her narrowest margin of victory (a 56.6 percent majority) came in a five-way general election in 2012, when three independent candidates captured a combined third of the overall vote.6
In 1997, as a freshman Member of the 105th Congress (1997–1999), Christensen won a seat on the Resources Committee (renamed the Natural Resources Committee in the 110th and 111th Congresses, 2007–2011), a key assignment because it had oversight of the affairs of the offshore territories. She remained on that committee through the 111th Congress, serving as chairwoman of the Insular Affairs Subcommittee in the 110th Congress when Democrats regained the House majority. In the 111th Congress, Christensen earned a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which had jurisdiction over much of the healthcare system in the U.S. She served on that panel until she left the House in 2015.
Additionally, Christensen served on the Small Business Committee from the 106th through the 109th Congresses (1999–2007). In the 108th Congress (2003–2005), she gained a seat on the newly created Select Committee on Homeland Security, primarily because of her expertise in public health; when that committee became a permanent standing committee in the following Congress, she kept her seat and served on it through 2009.
Christensen spent much of her time on the Resources Committee trying to stabilize and strengthen the Virgin Islands’ ailing economy. High energy costs acted as a major drag on economic growth and an aging electric grid added to the rising expenses. The Great Recession of 2008 also hit the economy hard—culminating in the closure of a major oil refinery and resulting in government layoffs.7
As part of the effort to rebuild the Virgin Islands’ economy, Christensen worked to expand key tax incentives (protecting and expanding the rebate on excises taxes of rum sales), boost tourism, and introduced legislation to encourage fiscal discipline. On several occasions the House passed Christensen’s bill to create a chief financial officer to oversee the islands’ budget. “This bill is neither colonial or [sic] paternal, as has been claimed, but an attempt to bring greater transparency and accountability to the financial management and fiscal practices of the government of the Virgin Islands,” Christensen said. Her proposal, however, had strong opposition from Virgin Islands governors and it repeatedly died in the Senate.8
Christensen also played a key role in expanding representation for the Northern Mariana Islands, another U.S. territory, during her tenure as chair of Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Insular Affairs. She sponsored H.R. 3079 in the 110th Congress, a bill that established the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and granted the territory, the only one without a voice in Congress, a non-voting Delegate in the U.S. House. Among the benefits Christensen listed in managing the bill on the House Floor, she noted that it “would provide a stable immigration policy to rebuild the CNMI economy, augment current efforts to diversify and strengthen the future economy, increase the opportunities and skills of local residents to fill private sector employment needs, safeguard the existing foreign guest worker population from employer abuse, and secure the region in the interest of national security and give the CNMI representation in Congress.”9 On December 11, 2007, S. 3079 passed the House with broad bipartisan support on a voice vote and it moved on to the Senate.10 There, it was eventually wrapped into a Senate bill, S. 2739. When that measure cleared both chambers, President George W. Bush signed it into law (P.L. 110-229) on May 8, 2008.11
Under Christensen’s leadership as chairwoman in the 110th Congress, the subcommittee also held hearings on a proposal for a constitutional convention in Puerto Rico to consider greater autonomy for the island, and conducted numerous oversight hearings including the examination of budget requests for the Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs.12
Healthcare remained a central focus of Delegate Christensen, too. As a longtime Member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), she chaired the CBC’s Health Braintrust for 15 years. Her credentials made her a natural fit for the position, but her role in the CBC gave her vital experience and a powerful megaphone for someone from a small territory with limited prior political experience. “I don’t know where I would be without the Congressional Black Caucus,” Christensen remarked late in her career.13 The Health Braintrust platform put her at the forefront of congressional efforts to end health care disparities for minority communities and women, to fight against the HIV/AIDS threat both nationally and internationally, and to extend health insurance coverage to as many Americans as possible.14
From her seat on the Health Subcommittee of Energy and Commerce, Christensen weighed in on significant pieces of the Affordable Care Act which passed Congress and was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010. For years, she had advocated universal access to healthcare, telling a reporter in 2001, “It is way past time for this country to make sure that healthcare is a right and not a privilege.”15 Early in the discussion about a comprehensive reform bill in the 110th Congress, Christensen emphasized the need to shrink inequities in the healthcare system, particularly for the African-American community, in areas ranging from maternal and infant healthcare to preventative medicine. “Closing these and other gaps will improve healthcare for everyone in the country, improve our world standing and reduce the cost of healthcare,” she said in testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee. “We therefore owe it to our fellow Americans, all of them, to eliminate the racial, ethnic, rural and gender health disparities that have plagued our country for too long.”16 In addition to pushing provisions that expanded healthcare access and increased Medicaid coverage for the Virgin Islands, Christensen advocated using improved information technology and comparative research studies to reduce costs. In the years after passage of the Affordable Care Act, Christensen—who often spoke on health issues on behalf of the Tri-Caucus of African American, Hispanic American, and Asian Pacific American Members of Congress—remained a stalwart defender of the bill in the face of Republican-led efforts to repeal it.17 She described the bill as “historic” and credited it for creating a “dramatic change in the lives of people who live in this country. Not only will we be healthier, we will be more productive. That means our country will be stronger [and] more competitive.”18
In 2014, Christensen announced that she would not seek re-election to a 10th term in the House, and would instead run for governor of the Virgin Islands.19 Her nine terms of service in the House made her the Virgin Islands’ second-longest serving Delegate, behind only Ron de Lugo, the territory’s first statutory representative in Congress. She admitted that she had been planning to return to quiet private life before recommitting herself to applying her congressional experience and federal contacts to address more directly the economic and social problems that had buffeted the islands in the wake of the Great Recession. “I was looking for something much easier to get my life back, my personal life back,” she admitted to a reporter.20 Though initially favored to win, Christensen finished second in the November 4, 2014, general election behind Kenneth Mapp who led the field of five candidates with 47 percent of the vote to Christensen’s 39 percent.21 In a run-off on November 18, Mapp prevailed against Christensen, 63 to 37 percent.22
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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