Former Cabinet minister and Leader of Government Business Truman Bodden is no longer in politics, but he still has strong opinions on what’s best for the Cayman.
In the second segment of a new monthly series, The Journal sat down over dinner with the long-time politician at the Brasserie Restaurant to discuss Cayman’s state of affairs.
Truman Bodden doesn’t seem like a typical politician. Soft spoken and mild mannered, he certainly doesn’t seem to fit the profile of today’s rough-and-tumble legislator manoeuvring through the acrimony of Cayman’s party politics.
But for nearly a quarter of a century, Bodden played a key role in Cayman’s political scene. That ended with an election defeat in 2000, but it has not stopped him from speaking his mind on national issues he feels are important, usually through a letter to the editor co-signed by his friend and former legislator, John McLean.
In addition to his long political career, Bodden is an attorney and had a law firm – Truman Bodden & Company – which he started in 1972 and left in 2010, a year after a merger with Higgs and Johnson.
Bodden is conservative by nature and he admits he’s always been a bit wary of the media. But he’s readily agreed to an interview with me for The Journal over dinner, maybe because it takes place at the Brasserie, one of his favourite restaurants.
“I come here more than I go anywhere else,” he says soon after we’re seated.
No stranger to fine dining, Bodden was a founding member and director of Cayman’s chapter of the gastronomic society Chaîne des Rôtisseurs. Now he’s a member of Cayman’s Slow Food group.
But Bodden also likes Cayman’s local food – turtle stew is his favourite – which he eats several times a week. It’s no surprise, then, that he likes the Brasserie, which has embraced local ingredients perhaps better than any other fine-dining restaurant in the Cayman Islands.
Menus aren’t brought to the table this evening; Executive Chef Brad Phillips has planned a special six-course tasting menu that will heavily feature local ingredients in four of the courses. All the courses will be paired with wines selected by General Manager/Sommelier Kyle Kennedy.
Several of those ingredients will come directly from the property surrounding the Brasserie, either from the screened-in chef’s garden attached to the restaurant, or from the outdoor gardens that occupy almost every available space around the car park. When it comes to the farm-to-table approach to dining in Cayman, the Brasserie led the way.
The fresh ingredients start coming right away in the amuse-bouche – goat cheese mousse with arugula, cherry tomatoes, sweet almonds and red beets from the garden. Served with Veuve Clicquot Brut Champagne, the amuse-bouche is indeed a mouth amuser, the literal translation of the French word.
Later, with a top-off of Champagne, chilled local cucumber and avocado soup is served as the first course. Various chilled soups are a fixture at the Brasserie’s seasonal monthly harvest dinners and for good reason: they’re different and they highlight the benefits of fresh produce deliciously.
Outwardly, Bodden might not seem like a politician, but he certainly is. It takes no time before the conversation turns to politics, and in particular party politics, of which Bodden is not an advocate.
“Party politics in small countries is very divisive,” he says. “It divides not only friends, but it divides by families as well. And it divides up the country. It makes politics too bitter and aggressive.”
He noted that it today’s divided political scene, new governments often change previous government’s decisions and change almost all of the people on appointed boards.
“We never reversed other government’s decisions,” he says. “And when we came in, for the first six months, we tried to keep as many of the last government’s people; we transitioned it to new members, but many members remained throughout. In [the education ministry], people I appointed my first term were still there when I came back [four years later].”
When he was a legislator in the pre-political party days, Bodden ran with what was known as the National Team. He has heard the arguments that the ‘teams’ of Cayman’s earlier days were not really much different from today’s political parties, but he disagrees.
“The difference between a team is that we preserved our independence,” he says, adding that the country’s interests always came first. “We had no party whip. We had no party line. We merely agreed on broad principles.”
Today, Bodden sees politicking done for political gain to the detriment of the country. He supports Premier McKeeva Bush’s recent refusal to deal with all of the opposition’s private member’s motions.
“I am glad McKeeva has resisted this excessive debating,” he says. “If you remember the last two years of our government, [MLA Kurt Tibbetts] used that as a tactic to really just grind us to a halt. He brought motion after motion after motion. McKeeva has political strength there; he has votes. We didn’t have them so we got into trouble. We could have done a lot more. Kurt is one of the most destructive oppositions; the thing is, [political] parties as opposition are very destructive and Kurt is very effective and very destructive”.
Before the political party system, the acrimony between legislators didn’t exist as it does today, Bodden says.
“I always found [the relationship between legislators] very cordial,” he says, noting that he and former West Bay Legislator Benson Ebanks were close friends, but you couldn’t tell it in the chamber of the House.
“We would rough each other up; we would raise hell with each other and people would think ‘they must hate each other’,” he says.
But what happened on the House floor stayed on the House floor.
“I always… told new politicians. ‘you can fight inside the chamber, but when you come in the common room you sit and you have coffee and you be decent to the person you may have been pounding up or may have been pounding you up politically’.”
His said Benson Ebanks and Jim Bodden were good examples of how nothing that happened on the House floor was taken personally.
“They would keep pounding each other up and they would both go, on Thursday, down to Rotary together in the same car.”
In his first eight-year stint in the Executive Council – which was what Cabinet used to be called – Bodden was part of the government with James M. ‘Jim’ Bodden, Cayman’s first National Hero.
“There were times when Jim and I disagreed on issues; we stated our views,” he says, adding that on two occasions, he disagreed with his friend in the open forum of Legislative Assembly. There were no hard feelings between the two for him doing that.
Bodden said his first government was with Captain Charles Kirkconnell, Haig Bodden and Jim Bodden on the Executive Council.
“The way we ran the government, Captain Charles and I combined – very conservative – and then there was Jim and Haig. So you had a balance.”
They were working together for a common goal, not only within the elected government, but in the civil service as well.
“One good thing that we had when I was in government, we had teamwork,” Bodden said. “If you were prepared to spend the time and to lead rather than to push people, then you could do so much more.”
As close as he was associated with Jim Bodden, it was another legislator who really helped shape his political career.
“Captain Charles was really my mentor on running the country, or I should say, the business side of running the country,” he said, noting that he also gave sage advice.
“Captain Charles told me never take up a collection for your political campaign; fund it yourself,” he said. “You can then look anybody in the eye and you don’t owe them anything. It’s one of the best pieces of advice I ever had. So nobody could really come to me and say ‘you owe me’ for something. Those days are gone. Political parties now need a lot of large money.”
True catch of the day
People don’t necessarily think of the Brasserie as a seafood restaurant because seafood is only a small part of its menu. But it’s the only restaurant on Grand Cayman that has not one, but two of its own fishing boats – the Brasserie Catch and the Brasserie Catch II. The boats go out daily and the Brasserie Restaurant, naturally, gets first crack at whatever fish they bring back.
On this evening, a freshly-caught wahoo was filleted only 15 minutes before we sat down to dinner and then seared and on our plate for the fourth course, bringing unmistakable freshness.
Before that though, the second course featured fresh black snapper tartar served with garden ackee – from the tree growing in the car park – pickled diakon radish and island chips. Kennedy serves it with Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinet Riesling from Germany.
“It’s off dry,” says Kennedy. “It has a little bit of sugar, but the acidity in this wine is so high it really balances the wine. It’s a great food wine.”
He explains that a common misconception with the word Kabinet is that people think it refers to sweetness, but it just refers to how ripe the grape is when it is picked.
“The final sweetness of the wine is still up to the winemaker,” he says.
Bodden likes the wine and shows he has a good nose, commenting on the telltale signature of German Riesling – the slight aroma of diesel fuel.
Our dinner occurs soon after legislators on both sides of the House agreed to amend a section of the Public Management and Finance Law to stipulate that government accounts for the financial years starting in 2004/05 and running through 2007/08 do not need to be audited and published.
Bodden clearly believes this is wrong, particularly because the People’s Progressive Movement government of 2005 to 2009 spent about $1.5 billion.
Bodden blames the audit problem on Cayman’s move from the cash-based to an accrual accounting system, something he says was heavily promoted by former PPM leader Kurt Tibbetts, even though there were many known problems with governments trying to implement such a system.
“One of the problems with this system of accounting is that there is less openness, less responsibility of parliament,” he said, noting that accrual accounting systems work for private companies, but not governments.
“Private companies have limited liabilities whereas government has unlimited liability…
When a private company mashes up, they go in liquidation.”
Bodden said the accrual-based accounting system has several problems.
“One is decentralisation and you have to link together something like 14 accounting heads to get a consolidated audit. That’s a nightmare,” he said. “The second is, the output-based accrual accounting system circumvents the separation of powers because the legislature loses control over the executive.”
Whereas once Cayman’s budget was previously presented and approved by the Legislative Assembly through a list of specific line-item expenditures, with the accrual system there is a sum total listed that gives the executive discretion on spending it didn’t have before.
“This is where there’s another problem,” Bodden says.
Known for his fiscal conservatism, Bodden abhors irresponsible spending.
“One of the things that should not have happened is that we shouldn’t have gotten into irresponsible government, irresponsible financial government,” he says.
When talking about irresponsible spending, he looks directly at the previous PPM government and specifically the current Leader of the Opposition, Alden McLaughlin
“I supported PPM six or seven years ago because I figured that Kurt – well I know Kurt – was honest,” he said. “I figured he wasn’t going to do very much, which is the best thing for a politician – to not do very much. A politician that’s done very little is safe. But I hadn’t figured on Alden.”
Bodden said McLaughlin thought the public deserved certain things, so he gave it to them, even though the government didn’t have the money to pay for them, resulting in massive borrowings.
Instead of building cash reserves during a period of economic boom and spending during a recession, as Bodden believes governments should operate, he says the PPM just spent and spent some more, leading to unprecedented levels of debt, which he thinks will take almost a generation to repay.
“The problem that we really have is that the only solution for the excessive debt is 20 years of repayments,” he says. “There is no other solution to it.”
Once the PPM realised they were unlikely to win the 2009 election, they purposely made it difficult for the new United Democratic Party administration, Bodden believes.
“They had borrowed short term that was due a month and a half after the government changed. I mean that’s wicked. It wasn’t a small amount; it was something like $140 million. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
Bodden says it’s a pity the UK didn’t intervene before the debt got so high and that it’s wrong to make the public pay for politicians’ mistakes.
“If you allow political parties to irresponsibly borrow and waste money and you find solutions from the people rather than [the sitting government] finding financial solutions to their problems, you’ll end up like all the other countries that are bankrupt,” he said.
“What should really happen is that when they mess up, their salaries should be taken. When they break those five principles of responsible financial management, they should not be allowed any new borrowings – and the UK is doing that now. And they should not be allowed any new expenditures so the recurrent can’t expand the way the PPM doubled the civil service.”
Cayman crab and Ohio corn
Sandwiched in between the two fresh fish dishes was Cayman land crab fettuccine with Ohio sweet corn and braised shiitake mushrooms. It’s a bold, wild-looking dish, but delicious.
It was Chef Phillips at his best, inventing new, modern ways to present traditional Cayman dishes, in this case land crab.
“Land crab is tough to work with because it’s not as sweet as northern crab,” Phillips tells us later. “So we made it rich, rather than trying to make it sweet, but the corn kind of helped with that, too.”
Phillips is originally from Ohio, from where he sourced the sweet corn – which is unlike anything that can usually be purchased in Cayman.
“I knew it was available and the price on it dropped so low because it is in full harvest right now, so it kind of made up for the freight cost.”
That’s the kind of attention the Brasserie puts into its dishes. They use local ingredients whenever possible, but for what they can’t get in Cayman, they source the best – like the extraordinary micro-greens they buy from The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio.
Bodden served as the education minister for four terms in office.
“I think I’m still the longest serving minister this country has had. I did 16 full years,” he says.
As is the case when it comes to the PPM’s spending, Bodden is highly critical of the way McLaughlin served his four years as education minister.
One of his criticisms is directed at the two high schools the PPM government started and remain unfinished today even though tens of millions of dollars have been spent. In the end, Bodden says he expects the two schools to cost more than $200 million in total.
“The money spent on those schools would have been better spent on the teachers,” he says, noting that other new schools have been built in Cayman for far less money.
Bodden also believes the design of the schools is wrong.
“Alden was obsessed with this open-type classrooms,” he says. “Last time we had that was probably 70 years ago when we couldn’t afford partitions.”
Bodden thinks McLaughlin’s concept of separating vocational learners from the rest of the students is a mistake as well.
“The world chain of thought has been a comprehensive system,” he says. “You don’t remove the less intelligent and put them on the technical side. You get a stigma. You keep them all in the same system, but you cater to their abilities. I don’t agree with segregating.”
He says it’s interesting that McLaughlin criticised past education in Cayman.
“Alden and his friend there Chuckie – Charles Clifford – went through the upper school system,” he says. “They both went through the law school that we set up. And they will tell you that they are very brilliant, excellent people.”
When it comes to what has been referred to as social promotion – the advancement of students regardless of proficiency or achievement – Bodden is conflicted.
“I laboured with that,” he says. “The psychological analysis of that is that it creates a stigma and it’s psychologically bad for a student. But personally – even though I didn’t do this – personally I think they should stay there until they pass. But the chain of thought there is that they should move up. At the most you should keep them back one year.”
Bodden sees part of the problem in the schools today stemming from a lack of discipline, not only in school, but at home.
“In our day, if you got up [out of your seat] you got your bottom beat,” he says, noting that even after he became minister of education, there was still administered corporal punishment in the schools.
“We didn’t have to do it very often to keep [the students] in line.”
Bodden said when he was growing up, a punishment administered in school usually didn’t end there.
“When you got a spanking in school, you came home and got it again,” he said. “You have to have structure in your life and you have to have discipline in your life. Every time I got out of line, my father took his belt off and beat hell out of me. And I don’t regret it.”
Phillips isn’t the only one who likes to push the limits at the Brasserie.
With the fresh wahoo, Kennedy serves Planeta Cerasuola di Vittoria, a red wine from Sicily.
It’s a new wine for the restaurant made from a blend of two Italian grape varieties, Nero d´Avola and Frappato.
“It’s a very nice, light drinking wine with cherry notes,” says Kennedy. “I prefer it slightly chilled.”
The nose and taste of the wine is truly unique and somewhat surprisingly, it pairs very well with the firm-fleshed wahoo.
The next pairing the food for the fifth course – a duo of braised beef short rib and aged Kansas City steak. Similarly to the way it is with fish, people don’t normally think of the Brasserie in terms of steak, but it’s one of the menu items in which Phillips excels. Cooked medium rare, the steak almost melts in your mouth because the 28-day aging process breaks down the muscle fibres.
With the red meat, Kennedy brings out the big red wine, Casa Lapostelle Cuvee Alexandre Cabernet from Chile, which is perfect for the course.
To anybody who has followed him, it’s no secret that Bodden opposes independence for Cayman. He even opposed constitutional advancement, at least in the form put forward by the PPM government and later passed by referendum.
He believes independence would cause problems similar to what has been seen in other Caribbean countries.
“Most of them are wrecks,” he said, adding that they are rife with problems. “It’s a full range of problems; not just financial but social and political.”
Bodden says he hopes independence isn’t inevitable in Cayman and adds that he’s argued before that if Cayman can never truly achieve economic independence, it can never achieve true political independence.
“The countries that go independent merely change the UK for the International Monetary Authority,” he says. “And if you think the UK is harsh, you try the IMF…”
Independence in Cayman would have serious economic consequences, Bodden says.
“The financial centre would disappear if we weren’t a colony of the UK; I have not doubt about that,” he says. “Remember, Cayman started its banking industry when the Bahamas went independent.”
Attention to detail
When it comes to authentic colonial Caribbean decor in a restaurant, the Brasserie stands alone, giving it a stylish yet welcoming feel.
Beyond the decor, the Brasserie does the little things right, from the ever-present flower arrangements and table decorations, to making their own hot sauce and pickled scotch bonnet peppers.
Two years ago, the Brasserie unveiled its temperature-controlled wine room, allowing it to put the same kind of care and selection into its wines as it does its foods.
An example of that comes with dessert in the form of Chateau Ste. Michele Late Harvest Chenin Blanc from Washington State, a dessert wine with good acidity that pairs nicely with Strawberry Mascarpone Bavarian, a tasty way to finish the meal.
Phillips comes out to say hello and after posing for a photo with Bodden, the interviewee shows his accommodating friendliness by suggesting he take a photo of the chef with me.
Bodden, who is now 66, says he’s asked by people from time to time if he’d run for politics again, but he said he’s had enough.
“I went in when I was 29, I came out when I was 54,” he says, adding that he couldn’t take it again.
“The constitution has pretty well entrenched the political parties. I would love, if I had enough life left to go back, but political parties are so vicious.”
But Bodden has no regrets with the way he conducted his governments while he was the leader of government, including the fact that he never had a showdown with the United Kingdom.
“I always had a good relationship with them,” he said.
“We stayed within the law. We stayed within the international treaties. And we never had a problem. I never had the UK come to me and say you can’t spend so and so because we never overspent. We borrowed $20 million in a year which I think was the maximum we ever borrowed during those eight years; some years we never borrowed anything.
“And we paid for a lot of capital – all of those schools, community centres, the medical centres/clinics, we paved the airport here, we paved the airport in Cayman Brac, we built the hospital,” he said. “But we built it out of profit.”
With his two daughters – Lexie, 26, and Robbie, 22, moving back to Cayman this summer after completing university, Bodden is looking forward to spending time with them. He’ll also help Robbie start a new business at Camana Bay.
He can also be expected to continue writing letters to the editor for the foreseeable future when he sees the need to write one.
“I’m very proud of the time I spent in government,” he says, pointing to a list of legislative accomplishment during his watch, including the formation of the Cayman Islands Stock Exchange and the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority; a Know-Your-Customer regime that put Cayman back on the good side of the OECD; upgrades to the Trusts and Companies Laws; and innovate revenue measures.
“I think we achieved a hell of a lot.”