Simpson Miller, Portia
Portia Simpson Miller
In 2006, Portia Simpson Miller became the first woman to lead a government in the West Indian island nation of Jamaica. She had campaigned on pledges to reduce crime, poverty, and unemployment, and during her first few months in office she scored record-high approval ratings in public-opinion polls. A writer for the Economist magazine described the career politician as "something of a breath of fresh air for a country whose politics has long been dominated by elderly men," adding that Simpson Miller, often referred to by Jamaicans as Sista P, had celebrated her 60th birthday by the time she took office yet "looks younger and has an easy, magnetic charm."
Simpson Miller was born on December 12, 1945, in Wood Hall in the parish of St. Catherine on Jamaica, and attended Marlie Hill Primary School. She studied at St. Martin's High School for Girls, and was first elected to office in her late 20s when she ran for a local councilor's seat in the Trench Town West constituency of the Kingston & St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC), as the combined parish governments are known. Trench Town West was a notoriously poor district and had been a Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) stronghold for many years. Simpson Miller's victory in the 1974 local election marked the first time a member of the country's other leading political organization, the People's National Party of Jamaica, or PNP, had won there.
Two years later, Simpson Miller went on to achieve another PNP first when she stood in parliamentary elections as the party's candidate for the Constituency of South West St. Andrew and won. Party officials made the new legislator its parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Local Government, but in 1980 her party was trounced in elections by the Jamaican Labour Party. She was one of the few PNP candidates to hold her seat after that race, however, and became the opposition spokesperson on women's affairs, pension, social security and consumer affairs from 1983 to 1989.
The PNP returned to power in 1989, and longtime party leader Michael Manley became prime minister once again. He named Simpson Miller to serve as his Minister of Labour, Social Security and Sport, a trio of portfolios she kept for most of the 1990s. In 1992, however, she challenged another PNP cabinet minister, P.J. Patterson, for the party leadership when Manley's health declined, but was soundly defeated at the PNP congress. Patterson was a decade older than her, educated at the London School of Economics, and won his first election back in 1969 with the campaign slogan, "Young, gifted, and black." During her political career Simpson Miller was sometimes criticized for her own lack of educational credentials, and decided to remedy that by enrolling in distance courses at the Union Institute & University in Florida. She flew into Miami for Saturday classes in between her job duties and earned her undergraduate degree in public administration. She also completed a course in advanced management at the University of California at Berkeley and also attended the Executive Program for Leaders in Development at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Patterson succeeded Manley as prime minister and in 2000 named Simpson Miller to head what is consid- ered the country's most important cabinet department, the Ministry of Tourism. After 2002 elections, Patterson made a cabinet shuffle and named Simpson Miller to head the Ministry of Local Government, Community Development and Sport. In early 2006, she made another bid for the PNP leadership, this time facing Peter Phillips, Jamaica's Minister for National Security. In the build-up to the February 25 party balloting, she campaigned with the unofficial slogan, "It's woman time now," and loudspeakers at her political rallies pumped out pro-feminist classic reggae songs like "The Strength of a Woman" and "Thank You Momma."
Simpson Miller won the election at the party conference and became prime minister-elect. She took office in late March at the start of a new legislative session, a jubilant day in the country for her supporters who had affectionately dubbed her "Auntie Portia" and "Sista P." Her first months in office were marked by an outpouring of national goodwill, and in public-opinion polls she reached approval ratings as high as 70 percent. Many Jamaicans saw her rise to power as signaling the start of a new era for the country. "Even skeptics felt that it was hard to do worse than what the men had achieved for the mass of Jamaicans in abysmal poverty," noted Orlando Patterson in the New York Times, "after four decades of modernization that had benefited only the middle and upper classes."
Jamaican electoral law required Simpson Miller to schedule new elections before October of 2007, and though some thought she and the PNP would capitalize on the groundswell of support that followed her installation as prime minister, they did not, and the opportunity passed. In September of 2006, her government was rocked by a revelation that a Dutch commodities firm had donated nearly $470,000 to her campaign. The contribution was off the books, as is common in Jamaican politics, but raised questions over a potential conflict of interest because the firm, Trafigura Beheer BV, had a lucrative government contract for shipping and selling Jamaica's crude oil on the export market. Jamaican law does not prohibit such donations, but for a two-week period Simpson Miller refused to comment on the scandal, and her political opponents attacked her for it. Her silence was said to have damaged her government's credibility, and some believed that if parliamentary elections were called, the PNP might lose and Simpson Miller would become one of the briefest-serving prime ministers in Jamaican history.
Despite her professional and educational achievements, Simpson Miller remained the target of criticism for her humble background, lack of prestigious college credentials, Creole speech, and habit of kissing supporters at political rallies. After the Trafigura Beheer debacle, she began avoiding the press altogether, telling Patterson—the New York Times contributor whom she had known for 30-plus years—that she had been "beaten, banged and bashed by the media…every time they see me they are looking at the majority of Jamaicans who are poor and they can only think, ‘How dare this uppity woman.’"
At a Glance …
Born on December 12, 1945, in Wood Hall, St. Catherine, Jamaica; married Errald Miller. Education: Union Institute & University, FL, BA, public administration; University of California Berkeley, Advanced Management certificate; attended John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Executive Program for Leaders in Development. Politics: People's National Party of Jamaica.
Career: Kingston & St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC) local government, councilor representing Trench Town West, 1974; Jamaica's parliament, Constituency of South West St. Andrew, representative, 1976; Ministry of Local Government, parliamentary secretary, 1977-?; PNP spokesperson on women's affairs, pension, social security and consumer affairs, 1983-89; Minister of Labour, Social Security and Sport, 1989-2000; Minister of Tourism (also kept Sport portfolio), 2000-02; Minister of Local Government, Community Development and Sport, 2002-06; Minister for Sport, 2006-; PNP, chair, February 2006; Jamaica, prime minister, March 30, 2006-.
Memberships: People's National Party of Jamaica (PNP), member.
Addresses: Office—Office of the Prime Minister, 1 Devon Rd., Kingston 10, Jamaica, West Indies.
Christian Science Monitor, March 13, 2006, p. 6.
Cincinnati Post, December 14, 2006, p. A15.
Economist, March 25, 2006, p. 43.
Financial Times, March 29, 2006, p. 6.
International Herald Tribune, April 3, 2007, p. 2.
Jamaica Gleaner, February 26, 2006.
Miami Herald, May 7, 2007.
New York Times, January 9, 2007.
Times (London, England), March 25, 2006, p. 46.
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