IF Portia Simpson had reflected more on it, she might have not gone ahead with the idea of challenging P J Patterson for the presidency of the People’s National Party (PNP), after Michael Manley stepped down due to ill health in 1992.
But like driven people, backing down is hardly ever an option. Her life’s trajectory had been in this direction and she probably could not have stopped, even if she wanted to. Even before she knew that the vacancy would arise or that Patterson would seek the presidency, Simpson had hoped for new opportunities to serve her people and for personal development. She believed she could make a difference in a position of greater authority in the party and the country. This could have been it, she thought.
Contesting the position against Patterson was somewhat out of the ordinary. She recalls campaigning for him when he ran for vice-president of the party. But she was spurred on by admirers inside and outside of the PNP, among them Hugh Small, a former finance minister, and Dr D K Duncan, the former minister of mobilisation who had thrown their invaluable support behind her.
Not long after deciding to give it a shot, she could see that the writing was on the wall. Patterson had the clear majority of the MPs and delegates. He went on to win and become prime minister, never losing another local or general election until he retired in 2006.
“I know it was never going to be easy to defeat Mr Patterson. He had contributed so much to this great party and was there long before me, as a young lawyer,” she acknowledges. In fact, Patterson had campaigned for Norman Manley, the PNP co-founder and National Hero.
“But he (Patterson) never held any malice towards me for challenging him and we have remained good friends. It’s the hallmark of a great leader,” Simpson Miller explains.
Of course, it didn’t dawn on her that she, too, would get her chance to emulate this quality she had admired in Patterson.
Demonstrating that he really had no ill will towards Simpson, Patterson invited her to his Cabinet as minister of labour and welfare after securing his own mandate in the general elections of 1993. When Patterson reshuffled his Cabinet in 1995, he promoted her to a bigger Ministry of Labour, Social Security and Sports. In February 2000, he appointed her minister of tourism and sports and after the 2002 elections minister of local government and sport where she remained until 2006.
“I enjoyed all the ministries in which I served, although I have to admit that I resisted leaving labour and social security for tourism,” she says. “I was very comfortable there and I had learnt so much about our country and people. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I got critical changes to cause more people to benefit from the Programme of Advancement through Health and Education (PATH).
“But I came to enjoy tourism as well, working with people like Fay Pickersgill and Carole Guntley,” she says.
The high points for her stint at tourism included development of the Tourism Master Plan for Sustainable Development and working with the Jamaica Tourist Board, the hotel industry and people in the United States to restore Jamaica’s image after the big fallout from the upsurge of violence in West Kingston when Reneto Adams-led police went after alleged criminals in Tivoli Gardens in 2001.
A municipality for Portmore
Her stint in the Ministry of Local Government and Sports brought opportunities for much all-island travel and working among the people, which is the essential Portia Simpson. She especially cherishes the work with the late George Lee to gain municipality status for Portmore, which is steadily rising from a dormitory community to the English-speaking Caribbean’s largest city.
She put much effort behind local government reform and in improving farm roads to give farmers better access to markets, noting that she encouraged the parish councillors that the more money they earned, the more roads she could get fixed or constructed.
Local government also reminded her of her rural upbringing and the invaluable lessons she had learnt. She recalls one occasion when she had shown a tendency to be scornful around other children. There was a boy with a runny nose who came to sit beside her and she chased him away saying “get away from beside me with your cold”.
“My mother remonstrated with me immediately. She sent me for a rag and instructed me to wipe the little boy’s nose. Afterwards, she told me that the only time I should look down on anyone is to lift them up and that when I am going up I should always take someone up with me. Those lessons I have never forgotten.”
Portia’s time come
And so now at last, Portia Simpson Miller’s time had come. When Patterson announced he was stepping away from representational politics and set internal elections in motion for PNP president and subsequently prime minister, Simpson Miller was ready. All the events before — the painful losses, the soaring triumphs, the missed opportunities, the glorious accomplishments, the tears and the joys — had been a prelude to this one moment in time.
Simpson Miller faced three outstanding Comrades — Dr Peter Phillips, Dr Omar Davies, and Dr Karl Blythe. The campaign was at times bitter and divisive. Harsh things were said about her and her lack of intellect. It was hard to bear but “I collected all the venom that was spewed and created a potion of peace and love”.
She lost the MP count, but was solidly backed by the delegates on February 26, 2006. Portia Simpson Miller was now PNP president. And history would welcome Jamaica’s first woman prime minister and the country’s seventh on March 30, 2006.
But the internal divisions in the party were not settled and healing was taking a long time. It was in that state that Simpson Miller called general elections — delayed briefly by a hurricane— for September 3, 2007. The PNP narrowly lost, but importantly she had not yet gained her own mandate.
By July 2008 the tensions within the PNP had reached a crescendo, worsened by the electoral defeat. This time it was Peter Phillips who would face Simpson Miller alone in a bid for the presidency. She again won the delegates’ vote by a wider margin and set about the healing process.
Cauterising party wounds
She would remain in opposition until December 29, 2011 when young Andrew Holness summoned Jamaica to the polls and lost badly to the rejuvenated PNP. Simpson Miller had, at long last, received her own mandate, with a two to one margin of victory.
When she appointed Phillips as her finance minister and virtual number two, she had effectively cauterised the wounds and emulated Patterson’s treatment of her after she had challenged him in 1992.
She ascribes her rise to the country’s top job to great support from many inside and outside the party, a solid upbringing and an appointment with destiny. She speaks with pride and love of her husband, Errald Miller of Cable and Wireless fame, and talks shyly about how they met.
“I had met him at several functions before, but we did not speak to each other. Then one day he asked if we could meet. When we did, he asked me out to dinner and it began there,” she says, confessing: “He loves me and I love him very much.”
She describes her husband as “firm, fair, bright and professional”. He is a Jack of all trades around the house and he acts as a news taster for her, sifting out constructive items that he thinks he should bring to her attention, because she doesn’t like to start her day with negative thoughts and criticisms.
The question now is: What will be Portia Simpson Miller’s legacy? Her critics have found much to fault her on, but mainly complaints from some journalists that she avoids the local media and is not forthcoming, and that she travels too frequently without reporting on the value of those trips.
Simpson Miller counters that some journalists push microphones in her face, set up traps and don’t show her the respect a leader of government deserves. Moreover, she prefers to work and leave the talking to others. She travels when it is necessary because Jamaica has to remain in the thick of things to not be left behind. Plus, the benefits have been substantial, such as a J$1.6-billion grant coming from the Chinese after her visit there.
She attests that Jamaica’s name is good abroad and everywhere she goes she is treated with great respect. She notes that she is always answering questions about Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the world’s fastest man and woman, and latterly Tessanne Chin.
There is personal pride in being selected among Time magazine’s 100 most influential leaders in 2012.
In her own account, Simpson Miller says she will be remembered for her unstinting service to the poorest and most vulnerable Jamaicans, but also for embracing everyone. She has remained true to Norman Manley’s charge to the party to bring about economic revolution and to look out especially for the welfare of the masses, believing that after the current International Monetary Fund programme, Jamaica will see great progress and development.
“We have to stick with the programme, while seeing to it that the poor are protected as best we can. We have to keep the bigger picture in front of us that is captured in Vision 2030. We will keep going after growth, going after investments to create jobs for our people, a better standard of living for our people,” she says.
She points to the removal of sugar workers from barracks to decent housing, with help from the European Union. “The sons and daughters of slaves whose blood has watered the soil of this land can now say ‘I own a piece of this Rock’. The spirit of their ancestors must be smiling.”
But Simpson Miller is not smiling about crime, saying that no one in her Cabinet was happy with the level of crime and violence in the country. She urges all Jamaicans to band together to defeat the criminals, insisting that if the communities do not work together and unite around the issue, crime would not be solved.
If nothing else, Portia Simpson Miller is certain that if she had to do it all over again, she would. “I am obviously more mature and have learnt so much more over time. So I would do some things differently. I would certainly fight more for my people,” she says.
Ultimately, it is time that will determine what the Simpson Miller legacy is. It is too soon to be conclusive, for the script is not yet finished. There are a few more chapters yet to be written. It might not be for us, mere mortals that we are, to be the writers of that epitaph.
Surely, there must be a working-class Jamaican woman somewhere in the remotest nook and cranny who can look at her growing daughter and think she could be the next woman prime minister of Jamaica.
But if nothing else, and we could be afforded a peek into the vastness of time, we can be assured that history will testify that Portia Simpson Miller, an ordinary girl from rural Wood Hall, became an extraordinary woman and remained steadfast in a noble mission: to serve those who could not serve themselves.
And history, we know, does not err.
In the second instalment of Portia Simpson Miller – the 40th anniversary interview published on Friday, February 7, 2014, Simpson Miller was erroneously located in certain events of the 1970s. She was appointed minister of labour, social security and sports in 1989 and not 1976. The events related to that appointment therefore unfolded after 1989. After the 1976 elections, she was appointed parliamentary secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister in 1977. In the first instalment published on Wednesday, February 5, 2014, the devil’s imp rendered the word ‘fiends’ as ‘friends’, doing grave damage to the meaning of the sentence. Also, Simpson Miller’s parents did not operate a shop as the piece said. The errors are sorely regretted.