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Jamaica's First Female Prime Minister

PHILIP MASCOLL, REPORTER - Feb. 26, 2006. 01:00 AM.

KINGSTON, JAMAICA—This matriarchy is to get its first female prime minister.

Portia Lucrecia Simpson Miller — Jamaica's minister of local government, community development and sport — polled 1,735 votes of the 3,808 cast by delegates yesterday to win the leadership of People's National Party.

The working-class woman with a vague degree from a mail-order college in the United States beat three men — two PhDs and a medical doctor — who were her opponents.

This was her second bid for the top job; she was soundly thrashed by current Prime Minister P.J. Patterson for the top job in 1993.

"I never thought I'd see the day when there was a woman in charge of Jamaica. Thank the Lord," wept one of her female handlers after the announcement that Simpson Miller had beat her main opponent, National Security Minister Peter Phillips, by 196 votes.

Finance Minister Omar Davies polled 283 and backbench Dr. Karl Blythe netted 204 votes.

Patterson has said he would resign by April after 14 years on the job. Since the PNP holds a majority of seats in parliament, the party's president automatically becomes prime minister.

In her victory speech, the 50-something Simpson Miller called for unity within the party.

After campaigning under the "Team Portia" slogan, she said: "It is now time for Team Jamaica. I am the first female president of the party and will be the first female prime minister, but it is not about me. I am just the messenger."

Voting started at 9 a.m. in blazing hot sunshine yesterday. Despite the heat, people were lining up at the polling venue — the century-old Jamaica College on Hope Rd. — hours earlier.

Hundreds of people in bright yellow Simpson Miller T-shirts and the orange shirts emblazoned with Phillips' slogan, Solid as a Rock, dominated the landscape.

Red shirts sported by Davies' supporters and slogans favouring Blythe were hard to make out in the sea of yellow and orange.

The delegates were electing the fourth president of the PNP, who will form the sixth government in the 42-year history of independent Jamaica. Simpson Miller will be only the fifth PM, however. Michael Manley headed the government twice, in 1972-80 and 1989-1992.

Voting day was orderly in this country where political meetings and party votes are noisy and emotional affairs.

Incredibly, there was no music despite the massive crowd — a near miracle for any public event in Jamaica, where there is loud music almost 24-7.

But there were fashions. Jamaican women of all sizes and ages adapted the T-shirts handed out by the various camps to suit their personal style.

"I am a serious politician, but a girl have to look good, all the time, every time," said Kenisha Walker, who wore an orange shirt with Phillips' face stretched to the limit above her skin-tight black jeans.

One woman, clearly a senior, chased a reporter away with an admonishment: "Never ask a lady her age or who she is voting for."

Streams of buses brought the delegates into Kingston on Friday in preparation for yesterday's vote.

Many of the rural delegates spent their first-ever night in a hotel, courtesy of the camps seeking their votes.

The party has 60,000 members from a population of more than 2.5 million, according to PNP General Secretary Burchell Whiteman.

Whiteman said the delegates were representative of the 2,700 groups that make up the party's grassroots structure.

Each group that had paid its party dues was entitled to one voting delegate per 10 members. Members of the party's National Executive Council, municipal and national political representatives and party officers are also each entitled to a vote.

Ironically, the man who the four were vying to replace, Patterson, does not vote, as this could be construed as the PNP president supporting one candidate over another.

After the polls closed at 2 p.m., the votes were counted and the results taken to Patterson at Vale Royal, the prime minister's official residence. Patterson was driven to PNP headquarters on Old Hope Road, where, in front of thousands of stalwarts, he announced the winner.

Then, the music started.

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