Paulwell: Portia chose me to succeed her
Former PNP chairman, VP talks enduring political pain, making enemies in minefield
Phillip Paulwell’s yet-to-be-written book will detail the feverish, closed-door negotiations for the exit of former People’s National Party (PNP) President Portia Simpson Miller from the helm of the party in 2017 following its electoral defeat in...
Phillip Paulwell’s yet-to-be-written book will detail the feverish, closed-door negotiations for the exit of former People’s National Party (PNP) President Portia Simpson Miller from the helm of the party in 2017 following its electoral defeat in 2016.
Paulwell, a trusted political lieutenant, personal friend and confidant of the charismatic, now-retired Simpson Miller, last week told The Sunday Gleaner that she had chosen him as her successor in the gritty St Andrew South Western constituency she represented between 1976 and 2017, with an uncontested snap election breaking her reign between 1983 and 1989.
Paulwell’s acceptance would have meant him moving from Kingston Eastern and Port Royal, where he was born and raised, and from where he was first elected to sit in Gordon House in 1997 with 81 per cent of the votes polled in that election. He is now a six-term member of parliament in that seat.
Instead Dr Angela Brown Burke, then councillor for the Norman Gardens division in the constituency, received the nod to take the reins, even as some also believed that long-time Councillor Audrey Smith Facey would have been a better choice.
Brown Burke won the 2017 by-election following Simpson Miller’s departure and held on to the seat in the 2020 polls.
But the details of how it all unfolded will be read in the near future, Paulwell promised.
Well known as the life of the party, especially his, he turned 60 years old on Friday.
The raging pandemic halted plans for a shindig and instead, he gave out gifts to mark the milestone. Four laptops were presented to the Women’s Centre of Jamaica Foundation for pregnant teens to be taught coding; two washing machines were donated to the Maxfield Park Children’s Home by himself and Councillor Dennis Gordon, who also celebrated a birthday on Friday; a microwave and cheque to clear an outstanding water bill were given to Reddie’s Place of Safety, plus $16,000 to defray plumbing costs; and the annual Paulwell top boy and girl awards for $50,000 each was launched. An electrical drum set and amplifier were also gifted to the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts and a scholarship launched for an associate degree for a boy from the renowned Alpha Boys’ School.
When it became public that his United States visa was revoked in 2019, it did not come as a surprise for many, for – like Cabinet Minister Daryl Vaz, who also had his document cancelled – Paulwell is believed to court trouble. Both men had their visas restored last year. Paulwell has promised to comment on his visa issue at a later date.
“I can definitively say that Portia and I discussed me replacing her in South West. That was part of the discussions I had with her, but in the end, I turned it down. I had discussions with stakeholders in East Kingston, and in the end, I said no,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
“It was the most difficult thing for me to pull up stumps and leave. I have built relationships, and I have deep roots. The people here would have been very upset with me if I left. I did tell ‘Sister P’ no,” he added, drawing on a moniker Jamaicans use to affectionately refer to Simpson Miller.
Asked about Brown Burke as the eventual successor to the long-serving Simpson Miller, he said, “I think you need to leave something for me to write. Talking about it now has awakened memories and I think I need to write something.
“I believe it would make for interesting reading and I think persons would love to hear it because I was deeply involved in the negotiation,” he added.
But he remains worried about the PNP’s current standing, with the party having now suffered two consecutive defeats in a general election – the first since the 1960s.
“I am deeply concerned about the PNP’s inability to come back together to become the attractive alternative government. I believe we lost the 2020 election miserably because we are not united. As the former chairman, whose sole intent was to unify the party, I must say that the efforts that were put in have failed. I believe those efforts were deliberately sabotaged,” he said with some sadness.
Constant floundering by the current Government has still not made the PNP more appealing.
Although a decision was taken not to have internal challenges to both himself – as he held dual roles as chairman and vice-president – and the other three vice-presidents, who resigned en bloc last July, Paulwell said that he knew challenges were on the horizon because of heightened group activity.
A process of negotiations to heal the wounds and stop the division remains incomplete, but Paulwell believes PNP President Mark Golding still has enough goodwill to resolve the issues before it’s too late.
“The PNP is still the natural majority party in Jamaica, but because our house is not in order, people are not even listening to us ... ,” said Paulwell. “The party leader must take control because you cannot proceed with 50 per cent of the party. To this day, I haven’t published why I resigned as chairman. I sent a detailed letter to the party leader and to the team that is involved in unifying the party to explain why.”
Paulwell said that he and Lisa Hanna, who Golding defeated in 2020 for the presidency, were not enemies. Instead, he pointed to others under Golding’s big tent.
Smear campaigns, NetServ, Cuban light bulbs
He had been living with the painful allegations of corruption. That and allegations that he is homosexual. According to him, the homosexuality and corruption rumours are two of the worst allegations to shake.
Paulwell’s public life has been dogged with allegations of political sleaze while his private life also preoccupying the minds of others, who have questioned whether he is on the down low – a term used to describe closeted homosexual relationships.
His short-lived marriage to businesswoman and former beauty queen Kerry-Ann Clarke gave fodder to the homosexual and bisexual rumour mill, which he firmly believes was the machinations of persons within the PNP. He has also faced allegations of wife-beating.
Everything was above board in the construction of his house, insists Paulwell, who has battled claims that built a house using materials earmarked for the Liguanea Post Office. All the required documents were sent to the Integrity Commission, including the contract for the house and mortgage, without questions.
Paulwell said he had purchased the less-than-half-acre property for $1.8 million at the time, but within six months, the value rose to $5 million. The house took about three years to build, but even before construction had began, he was shocked to see pictures of a house persons claimed was his. In 2015, he sold a car and closed the mortgage.
His financial statements are public and a declaration of J$40 million in 2016 was adjusted by persons with ill-intent to read US$40 million and circulated.
He cites three main reasons for the smear campaign against him.
Citing his many successes in areas of policy for Jamaica, the politician said that he made many enemies among special interests groups. He made no friends for breaking the telecoms monopoly, and neither did he endear himself to those who profited from the conditions prior to the liberalisation of the motor vehicle industry. His strong positions on the Jamaica Public Service (JPS) – that the company has not done right by Jamaica – was another enemy-creating deed, which led to a journalist alerting him to an alleged plot to discredit him by a company whose licences he threatened to revoke.
Undermining efforts were also strong inside the PNP.
“Politics becomes dangerous when individuals see their ability to rise at the expense of destroying others,” he said, blaming himself for not doing enough to speak about issues that have arisen, such as what is known as the NetServ scandal.
Nearly $200 million was lost in the effort which should have been the forerunner to the now business process outsourcing industry. Subsequent probes did not lay blame at his feet. He admitted that his “exuberance that the business could provide 40,000 jobs” was the extent of his involvement, although he acknowledged that there could have been tighter oversight.
“NetServ came but did not have the contract to support the number of seats required. But when they left, they left everything. All the computers were there,” he said.
Called the Grey Knight in the citation for his Gleaner Man of the Year Award in 1999, Paulwell would endure many dark nights as he took heat for the programmes under his portfolio.
The Cuban light bulb programme became one such and a court matter ended after six years with charges dismissed against his Junior Minister Kern Spencer.
Spencer and his former personal assistant, Coleen Wright, were freed of all charges of fraud, money laundering and illicit enrichment in 2014 after they were charged in 2009.
Spencer, the former St Elizabeth North East member of parliament, had exited the political stage, but has recently made a comeback, becoming chairman for the PNP’s Region Five.
“There was no fall to take. Kern Spencer took no fall for me. It was his programme and as it turned out he was acquitted of charges. We did benefit because the light bulbs came and the JPS recorded reduction in usage,” Paulwell said, dismissing the question immediately.
He admitted, however, that there were concerns with the distribution of four million bulbs donated by the Cuban government, an agreement negotiated between himself and the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Successes in political field
The liberalisation of the telecommunication industry was cited as one of his finest achievements, without which there would be 16 more years to go on the 50-year monopoly with Cable & Wireless, which was set to be the exclusive provider of telecommunications service until 2038.
After Denis O’Brien, under the Digicel banner, had paid the Jamaican Government US$48 million in spectrum licence fees to provide cellular service, storm clouds had not dissipated. Even 48 hours before the company launched its operations in 2001, there was no agreement with Cable & Wireless for interconnectivity services.
Paulwell, then technology minister, remembers calling all parties to a meeting at 2:00 the morning before the launch and an agreement was reached.
Issues arose from a legal battle between himself and the Office of Utilities Regulations (OUR) and ended in defeat for him at the United Kingdom-based Privy Council. The OUR called him the meddling minister as he raised objections to the regulatory strictures being placed on the new entrant.
“I would have [had] to resign as minister if there was no launch,” he said.
The end result is that there is now mobile service in nearly all areas of the country despite connectivity issues.
Among his other successes during his years in politics, Paulwell said, is the liberalisation of the Trade Board during his time as administrator, and later as minister, providing the gateway to motor vehicle ownership in Jamaica.
“Everyone driving a pre-owned car, and everyone who can import a used car [is able to do so] because of the work I did as minister. Deregulation was the best thing for that market. Teachers, police, and civil servants could now own a car,” he said.
He celebrated the work of the Bureau of Standards, especially under Dr Omer Thomas.
Testing and certification were rigorous and issues such as expiry dates, labelling and instructions in English on products were instituted. The metric system was also ushered in under his watch with the Bureau as the regulator.
Because of Jamaica’s enforceability problem, he said, the bad gas fiasco (2015) could have been averted with proper management. However, Jamaica has improved on standards and is now a signatory to all international protocols.
A former mining minister, he does not support mining in the Cockpit Country, but believes a balance must be struck.
Paulwell harbours no bitterness towards those who have smeared him inside and outside the PNP. He is satisfied with who he sees in the mirror.