The continuing rise and rise of Desmond McKenzie

The continuing rise and rise of Desmond McKenzie

Councillor, senator, mayor, MP, next?

By Desmond Allen Executive editor - operations allend@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, January 15, 2012

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The Desmond McKenzie story seems to have no end. Each time the epilogue is written, he adds another compelling chapter, as if he, and not fate, were writing the script.


There is no longer any doubt that his is a genuine Jamaican political success story, forged in the bowels of the desperate poverty that was 1950s West Kingston and in the heat of the political battleground of the Edward Seaga-led Tivoli Gardens — antecedent Back-O-Wall.


McKenzie belongs to an extremely short list of politicians who can claim to be senator in the Jamaican Parliament, mayor of the city of Kingston and now member of parliament — after the December 29, 2011 general election. The research might yet show him to be the only one.


If McKenzie had started out with the image of the consummate rabble-rouser, the intervening years have been kind to him. He will be remembered among the outstanding mayors of the capital city, in the company of no less than the iconic Ralph Brown who was once described by Michael Manley as "the greatest ordinary Jamaican".


Sired by a father who quickly abandoned the family and nurtured by a mother who eked out a hard living as an office attendant/messenger, Desmond McKenzie is living testimony that the odds can be defied.


His life story, much like that of Olivia 'Babsy' Grange, is intricately interwoven with that of Eddie Seaga who appeared "out of nowhere" to start research on culture and revivalism in Western Kingston in the 1960s.


But McKenzie might yet rue his suggestion in an earlier Sunday Observer interview that the transformation of Back-O-Wall into Tivoli Gardens — which he witnessed as a child of 11 and which involved the uprooting of large numbers of People's National Party (PNP) supporters — was justified.


Desmond Anthony McKenzie was born into poverty, desperate poverty, on December 1, 1952, the last of five children — four boys and one girl — at the corner of Spanish Town Road and Salt Lane. His mother, Edna Anderson, worked at the law offices of Dunn Cox and Orrett and afterwards at the offices of the late Sir Donald Sangster who was later to become prime minister of Jamaica. When his late father, Selvin McKenzie, abandoned the family, she married Dudley Harvey who became "one of the most significant persons in my life".




Duke Reid and the sound system era




McKenzie spent all his boyhood and most of his adult life in West Kingston, moving to West Street, Bond Street, Pink Lane and finally to Tivoli Gardens after the Back-O-Wall debacle. At Bond Street he got his first exposure to politics and music. Number 34 Bond Street was the PNP base. Not far from there was the home of the famed Duke Reid Studio, sound system giant of the time.


His first job came through the connection with Duke Reid. He had taken an interest in learning to spin the records and started a modest record collection, calling himself "Exuma Obeaman" then "Soul Exuma", after Exuma, a thriving Bahamian artiste, known for such songs as Bam Bam and Brown Girl In The Ring. He got records from friends and learnt to operate the console. Those were the days of the vinyl 45s and LPs. He still has them today and swears they are in working order.


These days on a Sunday evening, McKenzie can be heard evoking the memories and music of the time on his Mayor's Parlour show on Nationwide Radio.


His first real break came at a dance at Solitaire Road off Woodpecker Avenue, which runs off Waltham Park Road where the late reggae superstar Peter Tosh lived. Soul Exuma prospered and went on to bigger dates, eventually playing at the prestigious West Kingston Charity Balls and at Byron Lee's New Year's Eve parties and what was later to be known as 'Blow Out' fetes.




Demolition of Back-O-Wall




A young McKenzie would have been deeply influenced by the events surrounding the demolition and transformation of Back-O-Wall, the sprawling slum where three communal standpipes and two public bathrooms served a population of well over 5,000 people.


As a lad, this is how McKenzie saw it: "...Back-O-Wall was a den where persons with the wrong intention used to live. It had a very high crime rate and the social infrastructure was not conducive to proper living. People there lived in old cars and cardboard shacks.


"Back-O-Wall was a scar on the face of West Kingston in those days. And Back-O-Wall perhaps was synonymous with how people used to think about West Kingston. At that time, the reality was that anything that people rejected or had no further use for in life, was deposited in West Kingston."


He listed the largest dump at Bumper Hall, on lands where St Andrew Technical High School is now situated; the abattoir; the largest sewage treatment plant; the May Pen Cemetery; the morgue at that time; the two largest maternity and public hospitals in the English-speaking Caribbean — Victoria Jubilee and Kingston Public; the blood bank; the Coronation Market and 99 per cent of all the markets within the Corporate Area at the time.


"It is also the site of 99 1/3 of all the funeral parlours in the Corporate Area; the oil refinery; the Jamaica Railway Corporation; the JOS (JUTC) bus depot; and the site of the largest power plant — Hunts Bay.




Enter Edward Seaga




A decisive turning point in the lives of the residents, particularly the young people in Western Kingston, came with the arrival of Edward Seaga, McKenzie attested. He would make an awesome impression on them and under his tutelage some would rise to national prominence, among them Grange; Daphne Hurge; the late reggae superstar Dennis Brown, and Samuel Dreckette whose recent death and burial largely escaped media attention.


Seaga had entered West Kingston on grounds that he was researching culture and revivalism in the area. McKenzie recalls the fascination that the residents, especially the young people, had with this unlikely man who seemed to have come out of nowhere. The adults dubbed him "The Black Heart Man", a popular if fictional character that parents conjured up to keep children away from strangers. They were also thrilled by the way Seaga could move to the beat of the revival drums.


Seaga, having firmly ensconced himself in the community by 1961, announced that he would be the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) candidate for West Kingston, running against the PNP's Dudley Thompson. He went on to win and hold the seat until the Bruce Golding-led ouster four decades later.




Tivoli Gardens... from the ashes of Back-O-Wall




McKenzie notes that during his campaign for the 1962 election, Seaga had pledged to demolish Back-O-Wall and replace it with a community "befitting of decent human beings" and with opportunities for the young people to grow and develop. The community was named after an Italian tourist city.


But McKenzie insisted that after the 1972 election, won by the PNP, many of the Government-supported social services were abandoned and that had severely hurt the community.


The evolution of Tivoli Gardens, which McKenzie represented in the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation and now as MP, continues, with the driving out of former strongman Christopher 'Dudus' Coke by security forces in May 2010, at the height of the extradition debacle: the event which many credit as setting the stage for the terrible 42-21 election beating taken by the JLP last month.




Political beginnings




McKenzie's political beginnings were first ignited by his mother's activities as secretary of the then Dominion Branch in the JLP group structure. He attended the group meetings with her in the 1950s. He became a member of the branch's juvenile group, preparation for his later years in Young Jamaica, the youth arm of the JLP which now seems to have been eclipsed by Generation 2000 (G2K), the young professionals arm of the party.


But ironically, he got greater exposure to politics through his visits to the wholesale store of Clinton 'Boss' Wright, the PNP councillor who used to take him to PNP meetings. He was also, at the time, an active altar boy and had a love for listening to people like Alexander Bustamante, Edwin Allen, Norman Manley, Wills O' Isaacs and other political stalwarts who passed through.


Yet real involvement only came with Seaga and the campaign of 1962 against Thompson. He used to follow Seaga around, drawn to the "love and appreciation which he had shown to us".


After Seaga won the election, the branch system became an integral part of his organisation. McKenzie started out as "an outer guard" to help secure the meetings from disruptive elements. He then became the chaplain leading the prayers and later president of the Juvenile group in the Dominion branch in 1963-64. He was made a member of the constituency executive that Seaga formed out of all the Juvenile group presidents. As he grew politically, he was asked to co-chair political meetings and to lead the singing of party songs.


McKenzie's first major speaking engagement came when Seaga got married in 1965 — to Miss Jamaica 1964, Mitzie Constantine — at a reception held at Vale Royal. He was asked to bring a toast on behalf of West Kingston. It was also his first time wearing a jacket.


In the 1966 local government election, Seaga introduced him at meetings as his "spare", explaining that "when you are driving a motor car, you need a spare". People used to 'stone' him with money on the platform, something he liked very much... for obvious reasons. Around that time, he took over the main job of chairing the political meetings and setting up the public address system.




Seaga wasn't afraid to drop lick




He revealed earlier that Seaga was very strict. School and things like discipline were serious business and "he wasn't afraid to drop lick when you got out of hand". A 1972 caning — he would have been about 20 years old then — stood out in his mind. "I remember the last beating I got from him was in 1972, during that election, I had a terrible period at that time. Everything I put my hand on I used to mash it up... and I got a good caning from him for being in a demolishing mood, very destructive and being very irresponsible."


He recalled Dreckette and several others also being caned by Seaga.


In 1967, Seaga won his second victory at the polls, by a bigger margin, noted McKenzie. "We were seeing a different level of political representation. The people saw that he was good for them, despite the fact that he was not of our complexion... We saw that someone had recognised that West Kingston was no longer a place to deposit the things for which they had no use," said McKenzie.




Councillor McKenzie




All the time, McKenzie's political involvement was intensifying. He soon became sports and youth co-ordinator for the party. After the eventful 1976 election, memorable for the State of Emergency, two vacancies for parish council divisions appeared in Tivoli and Denham Town. Seaga offered the jobs to Dreckette and McKenzie respectively.


They won in the virtual no-contest in the 1977 local government polls — the only two JLP candidates to win their seats to the 41-seat KSAC.


He became a vice-president of Young Jamaica with responsibility for Surrey from 1977 to 1980; president of Young Jamaica from 1980 to 1982; member of the JLP Standing Committee from 1977 to 1979; member of the Central Executive from 1977 to present; and, of course, member of the campaign committee.


Then bigger things came.


In 1999, he was made chairman of the JLP Corporate Area organisation — better known as Area Council One — where he would take on the might of the PNP machine, winning a majority of the nine constituencies in the 2002 national elections.




Senator McKenzie, Mayor McKenzie




Impressed with McKenzie's performance as head of Area Council One, Seaga promptly named him a senator after the big election gains.


He was getting "addicted" to the Senate when the local government elections of June 2003 came. The same organisational approach was taken to the local polls as for the national elections the year before. This time, the JLP took 22 of the 40 divisions, giving them control of the KSAC, only the third time that the party had won the majority of the divisions in the Corporate Area.


McKenzie had the choice that perhaps no other Jamaican politician had had to face: to be Mayor of Kingston or Senator in the Parliament of the land or both. He didn't believe that he could manage both, arguing at the time that both were full-time positions.


But he was proud to have been afforded the opportunity to occupy both, noting: "I can say I sat in the Upper House of the Parliament where many outstanding Jamaicans have sat and have made contributions. And I can say that I sat in the chair of the Mayor of Kingston that has produced many outstanding individuals.


"The KSAC has produced at least four of our national heroes; two prime ministers; numerous ministers of government and individuals who have gone on to make a name for themselves on a national scale."


McKenzie is married to wife of 35 years, the former Marcia Hutchinson and they have two sons, Marcus, 30 and Matthew, 22. From a previous relationship, he fathered three children, Mark, 39, Petagaye, 34 and Tiffany, 31.







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