Monday 13 July, 2020

With 6 election victories on a trot, Shahine was irresistible at polls

Shahine Robinson

Shahine Robinson

By Lynford Simpson

When Shahine Robinson first arrived in Gordon House after her upset win over the People’s National Party’s (PNP) Carol Jackson in the March 2001 by-election, the rookie Member of Parliament (MP) was described as being reserved, even shy by some of her colleagues, observers and parliamentary reporters.

That first impression wouldn’t last long, however, as she quickly gained her political footing and voice, and after almost 20 years in the House of Representatives, had transformed herself into one of the country’s most astute politicians with a knack for not only winning elections, but backing winners. She herself won a total of six elections – four general and two by-elections.

It was evident quite early that she would easily make friends on both sides of the political isle and some of those friendships lasted until her death on Friday, May 29, 2020.

Born Shahine Elizabeth Fakhourie on July 4, 1953, the well-loved parliamentarian was, at the time of her death, the Minister of Labour and Social Security. She held that position from 2016 when the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) returned to state power.

Although she had been ailing for some time, the country received the shocking news on Friday that she had lost her years-long battle with cancer. It came on the same day that her niece indicated via social media that she was “not well”, but “fighting”.

Her death has rocked the governing party particularly hard, coming just a day after the passing of a former JLP stalwart from St Ann, Dr Neville Gallimore, who died on Thursday at age 81.

Dr Neville Gallimore

A little over 19 years ago, Robinson stunned the PNP when she flipped what was once one of the safest seats for the now Opposition party. The PNP, then under the leadership of the PJ Patterson, was so certain of victory that the party’s General Secretary at the time, Maxine Henry-Wilson, told journalists at a press briefing leading up to the March 8 poll, that the then governing party would win the seat by some 2,000 votes.

Suffice it to say that the celebrations on by-election night took place at Belmont Road in St Andrew, and not Old Hope Road in the same parish. Over the next two decades, Robinson managed, through hard work and a deft personal touch, to transform North East St Ann into a safe JLP seat. It did help that she was a hometown girl with strong family roots in the constituency, and her constituents simply adored her.

Before Robinson, North East St Ann was the stomping ground of the PNP, which had lost it just once in a general election when there was a massive swing towards the JLP in 1980. Before that, the PNP had won every contested election in the constituency that was created in 1959. The JLP retained the seat by acclamation in 1983 when Michael Manley’s PNP boycotted the elections, but from 1989 to 1997, the constituency returned to the PNP’s win column at every poll.

As fate would have it, businessman Danny Melville, who was still into his first term, having won the seat in the 1997 elections, abruptly resigned after expressing frustration with the way politics was being practised in Jamaica. That development paved the way for the by-election that would bring Robinson to national attention. She went up against a popular businesswoman in Jackson, and prevailed by 473 votes - 7,797 to Jackson’s 7,324.

In the rematch in the 2002 general elections, it was a high-scoring affair, with the hometown girl prevailing by 11,155 votes to Jackson’s 9,981. She had proven that her by-election win was no fluke, and that she could in fact bring out the votes.

But it was not all smooth sailing for Robinson thereafter, as the affable MP stirred controversy in 2006 when it was revealed that she became a naturalised US citizen that year while being a sitting MP. She handed back her US passport to the American authorities the following year ahead of the 2007 General Elections, indicating later that she perceived her action as amounted to a renunciation of her US citizenship.

Robinson subsequently went on to beat the PNP’s candidate, popular St Ann attorney-at-law, Oswest Senior-Smith, in the elections, but would soon face a legal challenge.

Former MP for the constituency, Manley Bowen, who held the seat for two terms in 1989 and 1993 before making way for Melville, argued before the Supreme Court that Robinson was not qualified to have contested the general elections because of her dual citizenship. Nonetheless, she retained her seat until she was removed by the court in 2010. Robinson was also ordered to pay legal costs of more than $15 million to Bowen. She eventually formally renounced her US citizenship and went on to win her second by-election in December 2010. She also won the 2011 and 2016 general elections for a total of six electoral victories.

Robinson became the first woman to serve, albeit briefly, at the helm of the Ministry of Transport and Works as Minister without Portfolio from November 2011 to January 2012. This was after Bruce Golding had stepped down as Prime Minister, and was replaced by Andrew Holness.

Robinson attended Immaculate Conception High School before going on to Miami Dade College in the United States, where she earned an associate degree in marketing and a diploma in public relations. She worked in the banking and tourism sectors before entering politics.

Her entry into representational politics was not by accident, as she had worked on the periphery of North East St Ann for quite some time before. And both Gallimore and veteran Central Clarendon MP, Mike Henry, were instrumental in get her to agree to make the transition.

In response to her death on Friday, Henry recalled a particular schoolroom discussion in St Ann among Robinson, himself and Gallimore, that he believed cemented Robinson’s decision to enter representational politics under Edward Seaga’s leadership of the JLP.

In citing early indications of strong personal touch as a political operative, Henry said that blossomed to the point where the joint efforts to pull her into political representation paid rich dividends in the form of her upset win in the 2001 polls, which marked the first really significant political win for the JLP for 13 years as the party languished in the political wilderness.

That victory served as a shot in the arm for the party, as although it lost the 2002 General Elections with Seaga at the helm, the return of Bruce Golding to the party then added a jolt that saw the JLP coming to within a few seats of regaining state power.

By 2007, Golding would propel the JLP to victory after 18 and a half years in Opposition. Through it all, Robinson was faithful to her party leaders, beginning with Seaga and continuing with Golding and then Holness.  She was noticeably one of Holness’ fiercest supporters when he was challenged for the leadership of the party by Audley Shaw, and, although appearing gentle in nature, was always ready to defend her position against all comers. Overtime, Robinson also transformed politically into a shrewd campaign organiser and effective platform speaker, and was known to roundly but respectfully criticise the PNP in defence of her party.

She may have lacked the flamboyance or charisma of some her colleagues, but she was seen as a champion of workers’ rights. She also believed that workers should get a livable wage. One of her last major acts as Minister of Labour and Social Security was the opening of the long-awaited debate on the Occupational Safety and Health Bill in the House of Representatives in February 2018.

When passed into law, it is expected to have far-reaching and consequential effects on how the workplace is operated, including how workers are employed, treated and terminated. The bill, which is more than 10 years in the making, and which spans both administrations and at least four ministers of labour, seeks to, among other things, expand the definition of the term ‘worker’.

Dr Winston Green

Of note is that Robinson is the third Member of Parliament to die during the current parliamentary term, which got under way in 2016. Her death follows those of South East St Mary MP, Dr Winston Green, who collapsed and died at home on the morning of August 14, 2017, and East Portland MP, Dr Lynvale Bloomfield, who was stabbed to death in a vicious attack at his Passley Gardens home in Portland on February 2, 2019.

Dr Lynvale Bloomfield

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