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Jamaica's first woman prime minister the overwhelming choice of the hungry masses

BY DESMOND ALLEN Executive Editor — Special Assignment allend@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, February 05, 2014    

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THIS interview must, of earnest duty, begin with a solemn warning. Those who don't wish, or can't afford to be completely mesmerised, would do well to avoid being in the prolonged presence of Portia Simpson Miller.

Like all those tapped by fate for greatness in this life, she is possessed of endless charisma, an enchanting personality and a bewitching aura that have been enriched by 40 years of tramping back and forth across Jamaica's gruelling political campaign trail.

The unmistakable lesson taught by the wisdom of the ages is that history never errs in appointing human beings to their special place in life. Why, for example, let us ask, was Portia Lucretia Simpson chosen to become Jamaica's first woman prime minister? She was not to the manor born. Nor was she the most educated Jamaican woman. Her special gift was not the power of articulation attributed to her predecessors Norman Manley, Michael Manley or P J Patterson.

But Portia Simpson Miller became prime minister of Jamaica for the right reason. She was the overwhelming choice of the hungry masses, the poor and indigent, the voiceless and forgotten, the far descendants of beaten slaves, whose only power was to elect themselves a political saviour and rest in her their impatient hope for even temporary relief. History, indeed, does not err.

In the bowels of Trench Town

The Portia Simpson Miller story is compelling and awe-inspiring. It is not for the fast-food reader. It is for the hungry soul grasping at every last detail of the heroism gifted to the Jamaican woman, and with which this daughter of destiny is so richly endowed. But they know it can't all be told in the finite pages of a 21-year-old newspaper, happy though it is to be just the chosen vessel. Once again, the interviewer is sorely challenged to rise to magnum opus status, but feels... infuriatingly... deficient.

February 5, 1974, forty years ago today, could have passed quietly and without incident but for the fact that it was Portia Simpson's

certain appointment with destiny — the call to representational politics and to service of her people dwelling in the putrid bowels of the sprawling Trench Town, Kingston 12 slums.

At age 29, she had already spent the intervening years in the crucible of rural upbringing, being honed for something she then had no knowledge of and for a time when a country girl from lowly Wood Hall, St Catherine would rise, in defiance of convention, to the dizzying heights as prime minister of a tiny but great nation.

But it would not come on a platter. Hers would be a journey of glorious uncertainties on which she had to overcome pain and loss, bitter disappointments, but at last soaring triumph. Like the time she was railroaded into running as the People's National Party (PNP) candidate in the Trench Town West division where her party could barely scrape 20 votes in any election.

Or the time she challenged P J Patterson for leadership of the PNP after Michael Manley stepped down because of illness in 1992. Upon reflection now she knows it was an exercise in futility.

"I knew it was never going to be easy to beat Mr Patterson. He had contributed so much to this great party, and was there long before me and he was the obvious choice of the party and the people," she recounts of the man she now calls "one of my best friends".

In any event, Portia Simpson Miller's time had not yet come. She had not yet proved herself in the art of prime ministerial politics and would benefit from time in the trenches of the ministerial ranks and negotiating the party's corridors of power.

And there would be moments when — how does a woman bear it? — she would be privy to information that fiends were plotting her murder. And being forced to hunker down with staff in a constituency office as bullets flew; times of deep distress and pain when she buried "more constituents than any other politician", upshot of the volatile 1970s and 80s when politics was nasty and ugly... and brutish.

The 40-year journey would be littered with controversy: like the big fight with Cabinet colleagues on behalf of pensioners; the night she had to send home for a pair of pants as she toughed it out with bauxite owners and union leaders; her politically risky rejection, unprecedented by a party leader, of discrimination against the gay lifestyle.

Later, her love-hate relations with the local media would test her true mettle, as would the venomous attacks on her intellect, even by party insiders delivering the unkindest cut, and the challenge to her leadership by the highly regarded Dr Peter Phillips, today her virtual number two.

But, like all stories, there is a beginning, and it is to Wood Hall, an unlikely enclave in remotest St Catherine, that we must look for the antecedents of this remarkable journey and woman.

Scheming party elders

Simpson Miller's memories are vivid, of a doting father who was stern and assertive, and of a village that raised the children, like herself. Older Jamaicans still yearn for those days when children felt safe because every adult looked out for their welfare, eons now, it seems, from today's chilling police statistics showing that 40 children were murdered last year and astounding Children's Registry figures saying it received 8,741 reports of abuse in 2012, compared with 7,826 in 2011.

At 51 per cent, neglect continues to be the most commonly reported form of abuse, followed by children in need of care and protection at 35 per cent and sexual abuse at 32 per cent.

Like the adults of her childhood days, Simpson was brought up in the church, recalling that her godfather was a senior deacon in the Church of God of Prophecy. Her parents — Zedekiah and Ethlyn Simpson — had a shop and were central to the community. They taught her how to love and care for others, and to respect everyone, no matter their station in life.

"That is something I have always taken with me and that has remained with me to this day," Simpson Miller says with emphasis, her face a rigid mask of sincerity.

Heyday of the trade union

In due course, she moved to Kingston and, fresh out of high school, began work with the Trades Union Congress (TUC), assisting the venerable Hopeton Caven. It was the era of the trade union and Caven saw in her the makings of a firebrand unionist.

"He really tried to get me interested in the union business," Simpson Miller remembers.

It was not by mere chance that her path had led her to the trade union. And although she could not have known it at the time, Simpson Miller was undergoing preparation for a future task that was crafted for her and her alone among her gender. But at the same time that Caven was looking to recruit her into full-time unionism, other people had other plans for her.

One morning in 1974, a group of young men approached her and broached the idea of her running in the coming local government elections for the Trench Town West Division, on a PNP ticket. She found the whole thing amusing because the PNP had hardly ever managed 20 votes in that  Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) stronghold.

Simpson resisted at first, but when they and others persisted, she finally told them "I will try". When the ballots were counted on election night, February 5, 1974, she had won by 300 votes and took her place in the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation where scores of Jamaica's best known political names had their beginning.

After some later electoral boundary changes, Trench Town West was cut off from the Southwest St Andrew constituency. But that victory had already fulfilled its purpose.

The party elders began to scheme. They had found the person they had been looking for to run in the constituency of Southwest St Andrew. The argument was that if she could win the most difficult division in the constituency she could win the constituency. They put their plan to work. But Simpson had her heart set on a university education and told them a polite 'no'. That, however, did not stop them.

Trench Town burned

By 1976, Jamaica had become a flashpoint for East-West ideological conflicts, sparked by the PNP's Cuban-backed Democratic Socialism of Michael Manley and the vigorous opposition to it by the JLP's United States-backed conservatism of Edward Seaga. Political violence raged and Trench Town burned.

Oblivious of the conflagration, Simpson's star was rising. When she was invited by party elders, who included the formidable Anthony 'Tony' Spaulding, the so-called 'Trench Town Rock', to attend the constituency meeting to select the candidate for general elections that would be held on December 15 that year, she knew something was up, but not what exactly.

"I did not know that they had quietly organised to have people show up to support me. When the chairman of the meeting said 'we need to vote for a candidate for the constituency', people suddenly started chanting 'Portia! Portia! Portia!' And pictures of me from the local government polls just appeared all over the place," she recalls.

Simpson left Trench Town Comprehensive High School as the PNP candidate for Southwest St Andrew that she would go on to win and retain — except for the 1983 snap election which was boycotted by the PNP — in every general election since.

"It is a constituency with some of the poorest people but also some of the most decent and ambitious people, and I get to serve where it is needed most. I feel a sense of satisfaction that I am making a difference in the lives of my compatriots, instead of sitting on the sidelines and criticising," she says.

People described the constituency as a garrison. But Simpson loved the people and they loved her back. She was motivated by the determination of the majority of them to succeed. The major drawback, she recalls, was the political violence that hit the constituency.

"I remember a period when I had to stay at my constituency office every night with the staff who could not go home after work. I was inexperienced but I was unafraid. I received information that I was to be murdered on several occasions."

But Simpson was unflinching, drawing, she said, upon the strong Christian faith planted in her by her parents and her centenarian grandmother, Letisha Burrell from Wood Hall. Her achievements and her passion for the people had set Simpson apart. From here on things would develop quickly.

In the midst of the Yuletide festivities after the December 1976 elections, her phone rang. It was Michael Manley, prime minister and party president. Simpson was not expecting the call and it took her by surprise. Her pulse was racing. What could Michael Manley want of her?

FRIDAY: What Michael Manley wanted Portia Simpson to do

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