THERE were tense moments at yesterday’s St Andrew East Rural candidate selection exercise at the People’s National Party (PNP) headquarters in St Andrew, as businessman Peter Blake defeated incumbent Member of Parliament Damion Crawford to secure the right to represent the party in the next general election.
The selection exercise teetered on the brink of a firestorm after it was announced by PNP Deputy General Secretary Julian Robinson that Blake polled 217 votes to Crawford’s 166, which flat-lined the young MP’s political career. Just over 500 delegates were eligible to vote. One ballot was spoilt.
Heading into yesterday’s run-off, which began at 10:00 am and ended at 3:00pm, an embattled Crawford told the Jamaica Observer that he was “pretty confident, having done the work”.
“Our people are coming out early; we knew the rain was going to fall, so we had to ensure that we had the Xs in the boxes. We are confident… I think there are more people who are satisfied than dissatisfied,” he said at that time, noting that it was an internal election and immediately following would be the process of getting “all PNP” on board.
Singing to the same tune, Blake, who was the 2011 standard-bearer for the party before being replaced by Crawford, said: “We feel fairly confident enuh… the people are about to speak, or have spoken already.”
At the same time, he rubbished rumours that the party would defy the delegates and replace him for the highly anticipated general election if he emerged the winner, insisting that the party would not put the constituency through the “trauma of a selection” and not use him.
“It is being repeatedly reported to me by delegates and constituents that my opponent and his agent have been telling them that should I be successful in the upcoming selection, that it is the intention of the party not to ratify me as the candidate,” Blake said in a letter to General Secretary Paul Burke.
In responding to his concern, Burke said: “…My own opinion, based on your concerns about a negative campaign being waged against you, is that they would have to be new concerns as the unsubstantiated concerns of the past, I believe, could not hold any merit whatsoever at this time.”
Orange-clad party faithful in support of Crawford converged just outside the gates of the party’s headquarters, at times obstructing traffic, eating, drinking and smoking, while supporters of Blake stood on the opposite side of the road looking on tentatively.
Several tents set up by the MP housed supporters and members of his campaign team, who went through lists ensuring their delegates had turned up to vote. In the meantime, challenger Blake, who operated from a house on Bougainvillea Avenue in Mona, conducted a roll-call himself before delegates were transported to the party headquarters where they cast their ballots.
Shortly after 3:00 pm, when Robinson announced the results, tempers flared as disgruntled Crawford supporters became boisterous, hurling objects at times and even threatening to fight.
“No Crawford, no vote!” supporters of the first-time MP shouted.
“East Rural St Andrew a go to Labourite since Crawford nuh get it!” one supporter said, arguing that Crawford promotes education and development of the constituents.
“This man is not about handouts and that is why them fighting him. Him build road, centre, and educate wi. Who is this Blake? Mi never see him yet,” said another Comrade.
But the majority of the delegates who voted showed their approval for Blake, with one insisting that the businessman was who he saw working in the constituency for most of Crawford’s stewardship.
“Damion stand up and seh him nuh inna curry goat politics, but a nuh suh di ting guh. You can’t just change the ting suh; it’s a process,” Clifton Findley, a Blake supporter said.
“Him dis wi — call wi all ply-board Comrades and curry goat Comrades. Him seh him naah come nuh funeral. Well, wi naah vote fi him,” Carlene Whyte, another Blake supporter, said.
Blake, after learning he had triumphed, said: “The people have spoken. The people are the power and the people were over on this side.”
Asked what would be his next move, Blake responded: “Whole heap of work, and we’re going to win the constituency for the People’s National Party.”
He denied that there was any form of disunity within the constituency and extended an olive branch to Crawford.
“Just work with me, just like how I worked with you and build the community as one,” urged Blake.
In the meantime, Crawford struggled to temper the reaction of his supporters who levelled accusations of foul play against the party Secretariat.
“I am as surprised as you are. But at the end of the day, the party has procedures and we entered, so therefore, the results we have to accept,” he said to loud boos and shouts of “no”.
“I knew what I was risking when I decided to do what I did. I risked my career for children who I don’t even know their names. I spent $600,000 to do diagnostic tests; I could have easily done it for fertiliser. So if you risk and don’t get the return, accept the risk,” the MP said to more boos from his supporters.
“I was a PNP before I was a candidate. I will remain a PNP, even if I am not a candidate.”
He downplayed talk of foul play in the selection, instead stating that he had every confidence in the party’s secretariat. “There were 400 delegates and the majority felt that what I did wasn’t satisfactory, and I will support the victor 100 per cent,” said Crawford.
Crawford is the last among several PNP members of parliament who have been challenged for their candidacy.
The rumblings within the constituency emerged after Crawford announced that he would not be seeking re-election. He admitted that he was not convinced at the time of his announcement that the style of politics he brought to the constituency would propel him to victory at the polls. He later made an about-turn, saying that his earlier announcement was a trick.