Not so black and white

So, as promised here are my thoughts on the Jamahl Simmons vs UBP saga of the past couple of days.

Firstly, some disclosure and background.

When Jamahl joined the party (brought in by Wayne Furbert - then Party Chairperson), I was asked to sit on the Branch Candidate Selection Committee as one of the 4 Central Party reps while the Pembroke West Branch had 5.

The two choices presented were Neville Darrell (current Warwick West #28 MP who is retiring at the end of the term due to a severe back injury) and Jamahl Simmons.

The way the meeting played out was that the Central reps were pushing for Neville over Jamahl due to Jamahl's recent arrival from the NLP, where he was a recent arrival from the PLP. My/our position was that Jamahl was open to 'carpet-bagger' criticism and that he should put some time into the party before being handed a UBP safe seat, and that Neville had more experience with his 30 year career and didn't come with Jamahl's musical chair baggage.

The branch members however felt very strongly - very strongly - that they wanted Jamahl, a young fresh face in their area and basically told the Central representatives "Thanks for coming out but you've got 4 votes we've got 5, we'll take Jamahl" - which was entirely their prerogative.

So I have a little background in the early stages. All I can say is that somewhere between that meeting and 2007 something broke down, and I was not around for that. This dispute came as a surprise to me.

Also for the record, I should state that due to time pressures with my family and work I don't have much involvement in the Central party structure anymore and very rarely attend caucus (twice in the past 12 months I think).

I should also say that I know a lot of players in this. I know and like Jamahl a lot, I know and like Wayne a lot, and I worked with some of the people in the Pembroke branch. So I admit that I may be a little close to this situation, which is one reason why I have taken a few days to mull it over before piling in (in addition to fielding quite a few emails and phone calls from perplexed/concerned Bermudians).

I've also had a little email correspondence with Jamahl over the past few days, and I've expressed to him my disappointment that his time in the UBP ended this way, but also my disappointment with the tone and venom that was on display at Monday's press conference, which I think were over the top - and didn't do him any favours (other than trying to endear himself to Dr. Brown and the PLP perhaps).

And finally in the disclosure category, I spoke with Wayne for about half an hour on Monday night, and he read to me a number of email exchanges between himself and Jamahl over several months which confirm that Wayne did indeed reach out, offered support and strategy, and was generally assured by Jamahl that his support was appreciated, although the emails became progressively more hostile to the branch.

But with all that said, I'm going to try and take a dispassionate look at this, or as best I can:

Before I get into the specific accusations I would like to point out that of all Bermuda's political parties, the UBP may be able to claim the most success in working with Jamahl - he lasted 5 years, which is longer than he lasted in the PLP and NLP.

Graeme Outerbridge (NLP) used to rant and rave about Jamahl to me in emails and over at Limey in Bermuda, and berate him for the way he left the NLP. I dismissed it and argued with Graeme that he was being unfair - the usual rants from the at times zany "Big Bad Wolf" - but maybe I shouldn't have.

The first thing to point out in this whole saga is that Jamahl has been a member of every political party in Bermuda in less than 8 years, and left all three in a blaze of glory; the UBP are not alone here. With that kind of history - at age 34 - perhaps you need to look at yourself not necessarily others as the problem, or accept that you don't work well as part of a [political] team. Maybe you're more cut out as a free-agent or an independent.

Now, with respects to the allegation that the movement against Jamahl was racial; that accusation seems shaky.

Jamahl has a valid point about the UBP needing to recruit not just more black candidates but also branch workers. But that's not an easy task. People don't really want to get involved in politics here, so the core workers have been at it a long time, which in the UBP's case means that they are not just older, but more white.

However, because people who are opposed to you are of one race, doesn't mean their complaint is racial. There are a couple of possibilities here:

1) Race was a factor.

or,

2) Race is a convenient and effective accusation against the UBP, used to cover up Jamahl's own inadequacies, but one which plays nicely into the dominant PLP-fed narrative about the party.

Adding to the problems with the race allegation, the candidate the branch now wants is also black - Erwin Adderley. So it's hard to reconcile an accusation that you're being chased out because you're black, when the replacement is black, unless you make the racial argument that Erwin is somehow less-black than Jamahl.

Most importantly Jamahl has failed to substantiate his accusation of racial attacks, other than saying that his black supporters were threatened and he was called lazy.

If he's serious about eradicating racism in Bermuda then he should name and shame. I talked to Wayne Furbert and a couple of others about this allegation, and they say they can't substantiate it. It's clear who was apparently threatened, but so far no-one has been able to say by whom. It's one of those, "I heard that someone at a cocktail party said that if ...." At least that's what I've been told, so on that basis I'm not sure what can be done unless Jamahl or someone else names the individuals involved.

With respects to 'they called me lazy'. I presume what Jamahl is implying here is the classic 'black people are lazy' slur.

Jamahl's situation over the past few years has been incredibly stressful, as he lost his home and his step-son's father in Hurricane Fabian, has had health issues with both his son and now very recently himself, and was recently complaining that he can't find work.

So Jamahl doesn't really deny that he hasn't been the most active MP due to his unfortunate personal situation, but at the press conference he just seemed to expect the branch to accept it, which I've been told they did...for awhile.

Apparently a (large) Pembroke regional meeting was held in 2005 when it was requested that he pick up the canvassing, to which he agreed but they feel didn't happen.

Here is where it gets messy. Jamahl says he was working and that he was accused of canvassing with PLP members, who were actually his family.

With all that was going on in his life with his family and health issues, it's understandable that he wasn't able to go 100% in his constituency, but it's also understandable that despite his issues, the branch wanted a candidate/MP who could fully commit after years of personal problem after problem.

But perspective is important; Jamahl feels he was subject to the lazy stereotype when he in fact was caring for his family, while the branch seem to be arguing that they needed someone who wasn't so distracted.

Also on this topic, I'm sure this battle between the branch and Jamahl got nasty. In political parties there is 'politics' and 'Politics'. At times the internal ones can be worse than the external ones, as the PLP can attest. So backstabbing, intimidation and threats are distasteful, but not that much of a surprise and not that unusual. And the UBP should step in and expel anyone who threatens someone else, but as mentioned above you can't do anything if you don't know who did it.

I can understand why Jamahl might perceive it to be racial, but that doesn't necessary mean it is. In fact a number of white folks have commented to me in the past day on how much of a pain in the ass (and nasty) those Pembroke workers can be at times. I can attest to the fact that they're a demanding bunch. At the 2003 election I was working on the UBP's canvassing database, and Pembroke were extremely demanding and a nightmare (and crapped all over me at times). So I can't say the problems he encountered weren't racial, but again, it's not clear that they were.

Frankly, the race charges are lightly supported and in today's paper Jamahl declines to back them up more strongly, which doesn't help his cause.

These attacks are easy and effective against the UBP. They cut deep and are more problematic that Dr. Brown's shameful attack on Grant Gibbons for example.

My guess is that Jamahl's press conference where he portrayed the UBP as a racist organisation will play well with those who want to believe that, and won't play so well for those people who feel that the race excuse is tired and overplayed. In fact, I predict that many of the people who lambasted Jamahl for the past 5 years as a flip-flopping political opportunist will now hold him up as the beacon of truth.

What Jamahl said on Monday certainly hurt the UBP - probably badly. And like most of these situations there is probably an element of truth to some of the accusation, but that doesn't mean they are true...if you see the difference.

But as I said at the beginning, Jamahl has some credibility problems due to his track record of breezing in and storming out of every political party in Bermuda. His inability to last more than a few years is very cogent to his criticism of the UBP, criticism which isn't that different from what he leveled against the PLP when he left.

On to the accusation that Wayne didn't support Jamahl. While Wayne probably could have - and should have - done more to shut this thing down earlier, from the email exchanges he read to me it's clear that Jamahl was sending decidedly mixed messages. But that doesn't really matter, Wayne should have inserted himself more strongly and I think still needs to shift his approach, understanding that he can't be everyone's friend and needs to throw some elbows around at times.

From that perspective Wayne can do better, but he does genuinely care about people and that is not a bad personality trait. He just shouldn't let that override his need to take a strong hand organisationally at times.

I think I've rambled enough. But my takeaway from all this is that this event has exposed the fragility of the UBP model.

The UBP has a much harder job than the PLP. The UBP have to bring together diverse groups of people who have different experiences and perspectives. This can be contentious. Are there racist attitudes among what Jamahl decribes as a vocal minority in the UBP? Yes.

The PLP on the other hand are monolithic and have this 'anti-UBP' cohesion that overrides much of their internal differences. Are there racist attitudes in the PLP? Yep. But because they lack diversity that racism is directed outwards, and means their internal fights are over different issues (chauvinism, homophobia, power etc..)

The UBP's diversity is both a strength and a weakness. Sure there are some wingnuts in the party, but the UBP aren't alone in that respect. With respects to Jamahl's complaint that the membership doesn't represent Bermuda, no party's membership does - worldwide.

Obviously I wish this whole situation had reached a better outcome, but I get the impression that Jamahl wanted out, and it seems highly likely that he'll boomerang back to the PLP.

As one person said to me yesterday, "Will he have to stop off at the NLP on his way back to the PLP?"

Or as someone on the talk shows apparently said, "He needs to forget about the PLP, NLP or UBP and get a J-O-B."

Maybe he buys into the argument that Ewart Brown's ascension has affirmed a PLP re-election and that he'd better cast his lot again with the PLP. There would be no better way to prove your PLP credentials than to mortally wound the UBP on the way out.

Time will tell.

But I'm sorry it has come down this way. I like Jamahl, I imagine there is some truth to what he says, what the branch says, and what Wayne says.

But if you step back and look at the big picture, as I've attempted to do, things aren't so black and white.

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