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By Miranda La Rose and Richardson Dhalai Thursday, February 13 2014

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Declaring she’s not weak, People’s National Movement (PNM) Lady Vice-Chairman Pennelope Beckles-Robinson came out fighting yesterday firmly stating she can be a better political leader of the party than incumbent, Dr Keith Rowley.

“I do believe that if I am given the opportunity, I can do a better job,” Beckles-Robinson told reporters at Balisier House, Port-of-Spain in her first press conference since announcing her intention to vie for the post of political leader in the PNM internal elections on May 18.

She fielded an array of questions such as if her quiet manner was a disadvantage over Rowley’s more outspoken strong personality, and if she felt the country would vote for another woman prime minister.

First though, she dealt with concerns about Rowley’s leadership.

“Issues of connectivity and inclusion,” she said were advantages she had over Rowley. “Whether we accept it or not there are people who still believe that the PNM operates much like a cult. Certainly in those areas I think I can make a difference.”

On competing against Rowley when the party is perceived to be strong under his leadership and it is believed her bid will divide the membership, Beckles-Robinson said she does not accept that view as PNM founder Dr Eric Williams, the country’s first prime minister, was challenged, former political leader/prime minister Patrick Manning was challenged on two occasions, in one instance by Rowley, and the PNM has withstood it all.

Noting that the party is 58 years with a democratic base, she said, “You just don’t challenge because you feel like challenging. You challenge because you think you can bring something different to the party.”

Beckles-Robinson said she has listened to the people who want the PNM to return to office in 2015, and they believe that she is the best person to lead the party back to power.

“I am convinced there is tremendous support and that I have a very good chance of winning the leadership,” she said.

On why she did not challenge Rowley in 2010, she said, “I did not think it was the right time. We had just lost the general elections and Dr Rowley had just taken over the leadership. I was of the view that he should be given the opportunity to lead.”

In the last elections, Beckles-Robinson was not chosen as the candidate for Arima, although she was the MP under the then Patrick Manning-led administration.

On whether or not she will be accepted as political leader when she is not a senator, and will not function as Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament, if elected to head the party, Beckles- Robinson said there is precedent in Barbados where a leader of the opposition was not the leader of the main political party. A similar situation, she said exists in India where leader of the Indian National Congress Sonia Gandhi is not the leader of the government, but is leader of the strongest party in that coalition administration.

While she could not say if the one-man one-vote system will benefit her campaign, Beckles- Robinson said it has created a lot more interest among the membership who believe they have a greater right in the participatory process and determining the party’s leadership.

Traditionally a delegate system, she said only 800 to 900 delegates representing a membership of 75,000 to 85,000 voted for the leadership. She congratulated Rowley for pursuing the one-man one-vote system. On remarks that now is not the right time for another woman to offer herself as a candidate for political leader and prime minister because of perceived failures of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Beckles-Robinson said if one woman or man failed it does not mean another will. “I do not buy that argument. I would like to think,” she said, “that we have an educated population who vote on issues and do not vote on gender.”

Though she has always advocated the advancement of women in politics, she said at the same time she believes TT will vote because of what is offered and that they see something different.

When Persad-Bissessar offered herself to lead the United National Congress, Beckles-Robinson said she does not believe people voted for her because of her gender.

On the view of not being as aggressive a leader as Rowley, she said some people mistake quietness for weakness.

As an aspiring political leader and prime minister, she said people will compare her to others, but she was not worried as she has the experience to lead and to deal with hostile situations.

“I have the skills that is required to deal with government and opposition,” she said noting, “I had my share of Penny in the office hiding” having had to deal with trade unions among her different ministerial portfolios overtime.

Many things, she said, have prepared her to deal with situations when it comes to being firm and in taking a softer stance. This includes the criminal courts in which she has worked for 26 years, training under former prosecutor and attorney, the late Theodore Guerra SC, and growing up in an environment of protest, including Bloody Tuesday (a day of labour unrest in 1975 when unions representing oil workers and sugar workers marched in San Fernando and were met by brutal police resistance) and taking part in the Black Power marches of 1970.

Her father Lionel Beckles, who was present at the press conference, spent time at Carrera Island prison because of his involvement in the trade union movement. “I was in the home the night when they came for him and I had to deal with that,” she said. Questioned about her loyalty to the PNM she said people will try to tarnish her reputation, but she is not disturbed.

“I am a member of the PNM. I have had my own challenges in the PNM. I was moved out of the Senate in 1998. I am out again in 2014. I was rejected for Arima in the 2010 elections, and I never once questioned those as reasons for leaving the PNM,” she said.

On support from outside the party, she said, “Mr (Anand) Ramlogan is over and above to say what he said. He is not a member of the PNM. He cannot vote for me, and I wish he could stay out of PNM business.” Ramlogan recently said Beckles-Robinson would be a better leader than Rowley.

One of her main concerns, however, she said, is the February 28 deadline given for prospective members to join the party and the unavailability of application forms, and the availability of the list of voters to whom candidates could appeal to.

She has raised these concerns with the Central Executive and the General Council of the party. Asked about a slate, she said, there will be one but they were in the process of putting that together. The night before, on Tuesday, Beckles-Robinson was heartily received by supporters at a cottage meeting organised by The Preserve the Balisier advocacy group at Radix Beach Resort, Mayaro where she again addressed the question on her chances of becoming the country’s second woman prime minister.

“Some people are saying that you have Kamla who is a woman and you can’t have a next woman. Well, Kamla is Kamla and Penny is Penny, let us make that very, very clear as we move forward,” she said to resounding applause from supporters who crowded the conference hall and spilled out onto the nearby courtyard.

“Here are some people who believe that using such words like Penny soft, well let them wait and they will find out who soft and who not soft,” she said, adding, “people mistake quietness and gentleness for weakness. You could be quiet and dignified and firm, what you need to do as a leader is to motivate people to be productive.”

Beckles said her meetings would not focus on bacchanal but would be “focusing on delivering policies and listening to the people, so I could improve the quality of life to the people of Mayaro and Trinidad and Tobago.”

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