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Sharon Hay-Webster - Politics in her blood

Published:Sunday | June 27, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Howard Campbell, Gleaner Writer

EVEN THOUGH she was only 18 years old, October 1980 was a turning point for St Hugh's High School student Sharon Hay. Jamaica's most anticipated general election was to be held that month and she wanted to be a part of it.

"The person I was engaged to at the time didn't want me to vote, and it caused a big fight," she recalled in a 2003 interview. "The PD (polling division) was just down the road from where I lived so I sneaked out and voted."

Her vote failed to help prime minister Michael Manley and the People's National Party (PNP) to a third term, but 17 years later, as Sharon Hay-Webster, she entered parliament as the party's member of parliament (MP) for South Central St Catherine.

Hay-Webster retained her seat in the 2002 an 2007 elections, presiding over a constituency where gang violence and poverty is prevalent. Recently, she announced that she would not seek a fourth term as MP. The buxom Hay-Webster, 48, has come under pressure during the last year. She was born in the United States and is one of seve-ral MPs who hold dual citizenship. Hay-Webster has refused to step down from her seat despite intense lobbying from the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

Dual-citizenship issue

Last week, she told The Gleaner that the dual-citizenship issue did not influence her decision to step away from politics in two years.

"To tell the truth, the petty politics and crime and violence have sapped me. That has been a big part of my time as MP," she said. "I need to look now at my own development."

The matter of Hay-Webster's dual citizenship came up after the PNP challenged the legitimacy of JLP candidates with similar status, leading up to the September 2007 general election.

After successful court challenges by the PNP, by-elections involving three of those candidates were held. The JLP easily won the polls.

Hay-Webster and Olivia Grange, her JLP counterpart in the neighbouring Central St Catherine constituency, have worked relentlessly to bring peace between Spanish Town's gangs, especially the One Order, which supports the JLP and hard-core PNP backers, the Klansmen.

The police blame hundreds of deaths in the region on the long-running One Order-Klansman feud. There are still some skirmishes, but the dispute between the factions has cooled considerably, which Hay-Webster points to as one of her achievements.

"The fact that we have peace in Spanish Town shows leadership made a difference," she said.

Grange, now minister of youth, sport and culture, was elected MP in 2002, said she has forged a solid relationship with Hay-Webster through mutual respect.

"As women, we probably communicate better and have less of an inclination to be hostile," Grange said. "We also have a motivation to save lives."

Thirteen years ago, Hay-Webster took over a seat that has been solid PNP territory. It had been held by Ripton McPherson, Derrick Heaven and Heather Robinson.

Like Robinson, Hay-Webster was never a quiet backbencher. In 2003, she controversially suggested sterilisation methods for women as a way of population control. Two years ago when she supported Peter Phillips' second unsuccessful run for PNP president against incumbent Portia Simpson Miller, there was speculation her days in the party were numbered.

Political roots

There have been high points. She rose to a senior level in the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states organisation; in 2003, Hay-Webster represented CARICOM as part of a team that travelled to Africa to transport ousted Haiti president Jean Bertrand Aristide to Jamaica where he was granted temporary asylum.

Hay-Webster's political roots are deep. Her grandfather, Lucien Hay, was an ardent PNP supporter who worked with the party's first president, Norman Manley.

Her father, Lloyd, ran unsuccessfully as the party's first candidate for the North East St Catherine constituency in the 1976 general election.

Though she was strongly influenced by the socialist policies of Michael Manley, Hay-Webster became an educator before she entered politics, lecturing at the University of Technology.

She says the failure to emulate Manley's social impact of the 1970s will be her biggest political disappointment.

"I'm a passionate person and I think as political activists we have failed the people of this country," she said. "I believe we need to involve the views of everybody, and not just because of their politics."