Although he’s a young 50 years of age, Leader of the Opposition Alden McLaughlin is a grizzled veteran of Cayman’s political scene. With the country’s next general elections a little more than a year away, The Journal sat down with McLaughlin to discuss the Cayman Islands and its politics over dinner at Karma Restaurant & Lounge.
Perhaps because the Cayman Islands has been through so much over the past 11 years, it seems Leader of the Opposition Alden McLaughlin has been on the political scene forever, often playing the role of foil to Premier McKeeva Bush.
First elected in 2000, McLaughlin has been a George Town representative through some of Cayman’s most tumultuous times, but it was something that happened early on that has probably moulded his political persona as much as anything else: November 2001s government “coup” was legislators led by Bush relegated then-Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts to the opposition.
Having been a lawyer and, from 1993, a partner of the law firm Charles Adams, Ritchie & Duckworth, McLaughlin had his share of rough battles in the courtroom, but he wasn’t initially prepared for the kind of battles that took place in the political arena.
In the first year after being elected, McLaughlin got to see just how different political battles were from courtroom battles.
“In entered into [politics] filled with all sorts of idealism,” he said. “I can’t even say it was youthful, because I was 39 when I was first elected.”
The political machinations he witnessed in his first year opened his eyes.
“I was so absolutely disappointed and shocked at what I saw as raw ambition in the wake of the 2000 election, that I was knocked back and thought ‘what the hell have I gotten myself into?’.”
McLaughlin said the 2000 election was unique because it was the only election in modern Cayman politics that wasn’t contested and won on a platform of a national team or party.
“You had Kurt [Tibbetts] and myself in George Town as one group and McKeeva and [Rolston Anglin, Cline Glidden Jr. and Eugene Ebanks] in West Bay, Roy [Bodden] and Gilbert [McLean] in Bodden Town as a group and everybody else was running on their own.”
After the election, a coalition government was formed with Tibbetts as the leader of an Executive Council that also included Bush, Bodden, Edna Moyle and Linford Pierson. That government lasted one year before Bush orchestrated the ‘coup’ that ousted Tibbetts and Moyle, who were replaced by McLean and Frank McField.
McLaughlin said he was leery of Bush from the start.
“If I had gone with my own instinct, things could have turned out very different,” he said. “But I was the new boy on the block who knew nothing about politics, and I deferred to persons I thought were much longer in the tooth, much more experienced than me. Who am I – I just got elected a day ago – to really talk about how these things should be. But I wish I had, quite frankly, because it couldn’t have gone any worse than it did in that year.”
After the coup, McLaughlin said be became absolutely determined to create firm opposition to Bush’s government.
“I felt outrage and a sense of great injustice at what had happened with the coup,” he said. “That’s how the [People’s Progressive Movement] came about.
It seemed appropriate that we dined at a restaurant called Karma and, for that matter, that the restaurant is called that.
The location at West Shore Centre has been the site of at least five previous restaurants. But if it had bad karma before, Karma seems to have the ingredients to change its fortunes, starting with a sleek atmosphere that hasn’t been seen in the place since Hurricane Ivan ravaged La Bodega in 2004.
The Asian-themed decor and sophisticated-yet-fun lighting design mirror the fusion aspects of the menu.
“I think this one of the sexiest places in Cayman,” McLaughlin said.
It’s easy to think of Karma as a Japanese restaurant because sushi dominates the menu and it serves beverages like sake in small earthenware pots. But Karma draws on several countries in Asia, like Thailand with its Pad Thai; Korea with its BBQ ribs with kimchee; and even China with its Chicken Fried Rice.
But perhaps one of the most difficult things to get your head around when looking at the eclectic menu is that Karma doesn’t limit itself to Asia; i
t also serves dishes like risotto with black truffles; mussels with chorizo; poutine; and gourmet sliders.
McLaughlin and I were about to take a menu tour.
The party system
Although he was a founding member of the People’s Progressive Movement, McLaughlin didn’t enter politics as an advocate for political parties.
“I was a reluctant convert to the party system,” he said. “But the experience of 2000 taught me that you do the country a disservice going into an election without being able to say… this is what we stand for on these issues and if we are elected [and] this is who your team is going to be and who is going to implement these various policies. My sense of organisation and order and the need for some degree of predictability forced me down a road where… whether we called it a movement or whether we called it an alliance, we had to have a level of organisation. Of course, the [United Democratic Party] had formed themselves over the course of the weekend of the coup, so we did need, in any event, some sort of organisation to deal with that.”
McLaughlin said the coalition government formed after the 2000 election only lasted one year for a reason.
“Besides raw ambition on the part of McKeeva in particular and some others… there was no common platform, there was no common philosophy. No one had sat down and said this is what we think about education, about the economy, about healthcare, about infrastructure.”
As the PPM’s first general secretary, McLaughlin devoted a lot of time to establishing the party and its policies. “I… can’t begin to tell you how hard that job was to build the party, to build support and get membership and develop policies,” he said. “It was a really, really tough year, but a wonderful experience.”
His work also paid off, with the PPM convincingly winning the government by taking all nine seats it contested in the 2005 election and then adding Cayman Brac and Little Cayman MLA Moses Kirkconnell to the fold for good measure after the election.
McLaughlin has heard the complaints arguing that Cayman’s party system has caused division in the community, but he doesn’t think it is any worse than before the PPM and UDP were formed. He said party politics have been around a long time, even if the groupings weren’t officially called parties.
“The distinction about who was on which side has been around as long as I remember,” he said. “I think people just want to believe that things were a lot more benign in an earlier times. My own personal experience is that’s not the case at all. The feuds were absolutely bitter.”
He noted that since 1972, when Cayman got a new Constitution that gave a little more control to local government, organised political groupings have always been around, including the Jim Bodden and Truman Bodden-led Unity Team.
“That was a party in everything but name,” he said.
McLaughlin thinks the political parties will continue to dominate future elections, as they have the past two, and there’s little chance for a coalition government.
“The parties are too big, the parties are too strong and while there’s this sort of attraction for the idea of independents, when people actually go to vote, at least in Cayman, it’s proven otherwise,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any chance at all of any independents getting elected in Bodden Town, George Town, or West Bay for that matter.”
If there is more division in the community now, McLaughlin thinks its a reflection of one man instead of the party system itself.
“I think the worst thing that’s ever happened to politics in Cayman is called McKeeva Bush,” he said. “Because McKeeva just… just exacerbates and… makes dissention where they need not be any and makes issues of things that ought not be issues. This nonsense about what colour a person wears… is absolute lunacy.”
McLaughlin said he didn’t want to give much comment to the media last December about there being a ban on red Christmas tree lights in Cayman Brac because he didn’t want to validate that kind of issue, which he called “petty nonsense distractions”.
His animosity towards Bush has limits.
“Actually, I dislike how he operates,” McLaughlin said. “He would never be my friend because… I just know too much about the man personally, too much that I don’t like at all. But I have no hate for him. I have no hatred of anyone to be truthful; life is too short and hatred takes too much energy.
“If Mac was sitting over there, I’d go over and mess with him; that’s how I am. I do it all the time.”
As for Cayman’s party system causing divisiveness in the community, McLaughlin said the elected representatives play a big role in how supporters behave.
“I think it’s important for those of us in leadership positions, especially in a little place like Cayman, not to become so militant that our supporters behave as though they need to kill anyone who supports the other side. I’m vehemently opposed to that. This is my country. I got to live here. My kids are here. I hope to live long enough to have some grandchildren here. My family’s been here on my father’s side from eight generations. I don’t want anything bad to happen to this place. I really don’t.”
Food and wine… and Scotch
Normally when someone is interviewed for the Journal’s “A Dinner Conversation with…” article, the restaurant serves a set-menu of what it does best. This was problematic for this interview because one of the things Karma does best is sushi and McLaughlin doesn’t eat raw fish. Here’s where Karma’s eclectic menu came in handy as Executive Chef Aaron Molloy was able to serve an array of food from the menu that included plenty of sushi for me and several other items for McLaughlin.
The beverage selection was just as eclectic. Since sushi is one of the more difficult foods to pair wines with, Karma chose a variety of beverages, including beer, sake, wine and a martini for me, while McLaughlin stuck to his favourite: single malt Scotch whisky.
Molloy came out to greet us and to inquire about food allergies and our tolerance to spicy foods.
“You can make it as spicy as you want, don’t worry about me,” said McLaughlin.
That established, Molloy started us with a bowl of spicy Thai chili edamame with sea salt, the simple but healthy and satisfying starter found in most Asian restaurants that serve sushi.
Waiter Francesco Piscopo served me a bottle of Leffe Blonde, a Belgian pale ale with a slightly sweet malty taste that actually went well with the spicy edamame. McLaughlin was served Glenmorangie, a single malt Scotch he knows well from a distillery founded back in 1843. A glass of ice was served on the side with a spoon and throughout the evening, McLaughlin popped a cube or two into his glass of Scotch.
Piscopo served several single malts during the dinner, including Glenfarclas, a Scotch McLaughlin said he had never had before.
Over the course of the evening, I learned that McLaughlin has a fairly limited palate when it comes to foods, but when it comes to Scotch, he’s a bit of a connoisseur.
“In single malts, the range of flavours is just amazing,” he said. “Some of it so clean and some so smokey, like Laphroaig. Ever heard of that?”
I hadn’t – red wine is my alcoholic beverage of choice.
McLaughlin, on the other hand, prefers a good glass of single malt Scotch whisky.
The Dart Group
Over the years, the PPM hasn’t had a lot of contact with the Dart Group, Cayman’s largest developer, even when it controlled the government from 2005 to 2009.
McLaughlin admits the Dart Group has reached out to him on a number of occasions.
“It’s one of those funny things; you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t,” he said. “With someone like McKeeva at the helm, the first thing you’ll hear is… I was meeting with the Darts so I could make a deal, too.”
McLaughlin said inferences of corruption really influence they way he approaches situations.
“I know who I’m dealing with. Mac will say anything, do anything, if he thinks it’s going to make his political enemies look bad,” he said. “So given [The Dart Group’s] closeness with Mac, I’ve really been very careful to keep an arms-length relationship with them.”
Beyond perceptions, McLaughlin said he is not anti-Dart, but that he does have concerns.
“My concerns with what is happening with Dart really are deep, historical and leave me with an abiding sense of concern and worry about the future of this place,” he said. “That is not meant to reflect badly on Dart, but I just have a great deal of concern about the sheer economic power of one group of companies.”
McLaughlin said that when the UDP Cabinet granted Ken Dart Caymanian Status in 2003, it “essentially removed any ability to control what [The Dart Group] got into, how much they got into and what they could do from a business perspective. Because now he operates like any other Caymanian… [except] with what appears to be a bottomless treasure chest.”
Because of Cayman’s tax structure and the resulting relative lack of government money, McLaughlin said that having one company with that much economic power could cause problems.
“If you aren’t extraordinarily careful and clever, that level of economic power is such that… it can wind up influencing every significant decision that gets made. This is no reflection on Dart – it could be anyone.”
However, McLaughlin said he doesn’t blame the Dart Group for pressing every advantage it can.
“They’re business people,” he said.
Although some of the political and public rhetoric in recent months has called for Dart to leave the Cayman Islands, McLaughlin said he doesn’t believe that.
“I don’t think we should want to want them to pull out at all,” he said. “But we do have to manage what they do better, which is not as easy as some people might think. The reason that they buy businesses, many businesses, is that people want to sell them. But I do believe from talking to a number of other people in businesses, that they do aggressively pursue business that they want. That they will… do whatever they think is necessary. That is part of what is generating [the public] negativity.”
Although he has concerns, McLaughlin also sees the benefits of Dart’s investments in Cayman.
“Everything the Dart Group has done, they’ve done extraordinarily well in Cayman,” he said. “Camana Bay is an absolutely gorgeous facility and is something of which I think that we should be – and I think most people are – immensely proud.”
McLaughlin said that Camana Bay adds a whole new dimension to Cayman.
“I go there, not all that often, but I go and when I go, I always enjoy it- just the place, let alone whatever it is I’m there to do.”
Should the PPM win the government again, McLaughlin said he is very conscious of the fact that they would have to deal with the Dart Group.
“They are important player in Cayman and by-in-large they’re a very good corporate citizen,” he said, adding that he is not out to slam the Dart Group. “But, like anything else, you’ve got to manage those kinds of affairs.”
McLaughlin agrees that the government is going to have difficulties funding large infrastructure problems going forward and that he has no objections to public-private partnerships, as long as they are “open, transparent, properly documented, properly costed – all the things the [current] government isn’t doing”.
“I believe because the standards which we’ve set in Cayman and the kind of people we attract to Cayman, both in terms of doing business and those who are visiting, want First World facilities and First World infrastructure and it’s always a major challenge to able to do that,” he said.
“People scream and shout about government spending so much money, but people scream and shout about why isn’t government doing this, or why isn’t government doing that and how can we have a healthcare system like we have and how come the roads aren’t better than they are – it’s the way it is all over the world. So we’re going to have to find ways [to fund needed infrastructure] and I’m not at all averse to government taking steps to work with the private sector.”
McLaughlin also realises that certain infrastructure projects – like creating major new roads – are very expensive and don’t lend themselves easily to public-private partnerships. In those cases, multifaceted deals like the one the current government has proposed with the Dart Group might be necessary. But those kinds of deals, especially with someone with as much economic power as the Dart Group, can be dangerous.
“As government gets entwined with them, ultimately economic control equates political control. That’s just the reality,” McLaughlin said. “Then government becomes obligated and they wind up making deals like this, which are going to have long-lasting impacts. That’s one of the reasons I’m so worried about the Chinese – that’s just a big financing deal.”
Choosing the right partner for public private partnerships is also an important part of the equation. McLaughlin said he is more worried about the potential of having the China Harbour Engineering Company develop Cayman’s cruise berthing facilities than he is about the Dart Group.
“China Harbour is just bad news,” he said. “Just go and do the research. If they had looked around for the worst company they could possibly get, they couldn’t have done a better job in choosing it. Just talk to the people in Jamaica, as I have.”
Sushi, tacos and more
When people hear the word sushi they often immediately think of raw fish. But there are many types of rolled sushi that use cooked seafood or vegetables without any raw fish at all.
Chef Molloy served us one of them.
“One of the themes here at Karma is sharing, so what I’m going to start you off with is two of our signature dishes,” he said.
The first was the Karma Roll, one of the restaurant’s sushi choices that doesn’t use raw fish. Instead, it features local cooked lobster rolled in sushi rice and then topped with seared Kobe beef and crispy shoestring potatoes. It is served with drawn garlic-lemon butter and the resulting combination is unlike any kind of sushi I’d ever had.
McLaughlin and I shared this dish, as well as another Karma favourite, red snapper tacos – chu
nks of red snapper fish wrapped along with a crunchy salad that includes mango, jalapeño and jerk mayonnaise in soft tacos – served with Thai Sriracha sauce and lime wedges. Both selections are available for lunch and dinner and the fish tacos would make a great lunch or snack by the bar on their own.
These dishes were followed by wild mushroom sushi-rice risotto with fresh shaven black truffles for McLaughlin and a selection of mixed sushi for me.
“This is good,” McLaughlin said of his risotto. “I’ve never had this before. I’m not really a fan of Italian food, so risotto and that sort of stuff is not something I [usually eat].”
While McLaughlin continued to sip on his Scotch, Piscopo served me Gekkeikan Black & Gold, a junmai ginjo sake. Although many people think of sake as a rice wine, it’s more like a rice beer because it’s brewed.
“This can be served hot or cold,” he said of the sake, adding that with the food pairing, Molloy thought it better served cold.
It paired very well with my sushi selection, which included a dragon maki roll – a delicious sushi roll with tempura yam and mango and topped with raw salmon and thin slices of avocado – four pieces of ahi tuna sashimi and two pieces of fresh market nigiri.
What we had eaten was so far was quite a bit of food.
“I’d better stop if there’s more coming,” McLaughlin said.
West Bay Road realignment
When it comes to the issue of the possible closure of a section of West Bay Road, McLaughlin’s objection is not a fundamental one.
He acknowledged that developer Stan Thomas, who sold the land to the Dart Group in 2011 after running into serious business problems as a result of the financial crisis, also wanted to move a section of the road and the PPM didn’t outright dismiss his proposal.
“He made a presentation to Cabinet. He was proposing what he was going to do and the development of this five-star facility and a whole range of other things and part of it would require.. what was called the realignment of the road. But it never really got anywhere near a decision for us because it just took so long and whatever was happening in his life stopped him,” said McLaughlin, noting however, that Thomas only wanted the road to be rerouted around the Courtyard Marriott Hotel and not as far as the Dart Group has proposed.
McLaughlin thinks the scope of the Dart Group’s proposal is much bigger partially because of the government’s desperation to get something done.
“Dart went at this very aggressively because they knew the government was in a real bind,” he said. “McKeeva had declared the country bankrupt and then set off on all of these missions seeking to bring investors here and it turned out to be zero.
“Having done all of that, he came up with – up to that point – nothing that was actually going to stimulate the economy. Two years down the road, when Dart approached them about the dump… some bright light at the table says ‘well, don’t you want to do more than that?’. And that’s how this deal started.”
McLaughlin doesn’t think the government working with the Dart Group is a bad thing; he just doesn’t like the deal they’ve struck so far.
“I think that what they’ve negotiated, based on what I know, is not a terribly good deal for Cayman at all,” he said. “When the assessments are done, if the assessments are fair, I think they are going to show that Dart has significant economic advantage as a result of these deals.”
Additionally, McLaughlin thinks a big part of what Dart gives in the deal – completing the Esterley Tibbetts Highway extension all the way to West Bay – is not a priority for Cayman, even if the government couldn’t afford to do it any other way in the near future.
“I think that’s one of the lowest priorities that we have,” he said. “That’s one of our big issues. The road that really needs to be built is not the road they’re building. They need to build that airport road connector.”
Even though the PPM Cabinet never formally decided on Stan Thomas’s road relocation request, McLaughlin said he personally wouldn’t be against having the road go around the hotel. He does think the Dart Group has asked for too much though.
“I just think that Dart has seized an advantage they saw,” he said. “I think even their best minds might be saying, ‘damn, we went too far’ because of the level of opposition there is to it now. And I think the way the opposition is going, if they physically try to close that road in the present environment, it’s not going to be a pretty picture.”
The Landfill issue
Another part of the Dart deal involved closing, capping and remediating the George Town Landfill and creating a new solid waste management facility in Bodden Town. McLaughlin is against this part of the deal.
“I don’t blame Dart at all for wanting to get rid of the dump once and for all because it’s got to be seriously adversely affecting what they’re doing there and the whole value and attractiveness of what they’re doing,” he said. “But I don’t believe for a moment that we need to move the dump from there. Everything we saw and heard when we were in government told us what needed to be done in terms of remediation of the current landfill and the development of other alternative waste management processes can be done on the government land that is actually there. But I don’t blame Dart for not wanting to have it there, so they cut the best possible deal.”
McLaughlin acknowledged that the problem his government had with tackling the landfill problem was money.
“That’s the problem with the one up at Bodden Town, too; it’s just that Dart is going to fund it,” he said.
McLaughlin believes the government could have negotiated a better solution.
“The best bargaining chip from my standpoint with Dart over the dump is the dump is a major problem to them where it is,” he said. “Regardless to what government does or doesn’t do about it, they need to fix it.”
McLaughlin said that from what he’s heard so far, the Dart Group is simply creating a new “glorified landfill” in Bodden Town.
“Who wants a dump in their backyard? That’s one of the realities to it,” he said, adding that from a political standpoint, this plan would likely have severe consequences for the UDP.
“It would be a miracle if either of the UDP representatives get reelected in Bodden Town,” he said. “I suppose they were hoping and praying there wouldn’t be major opposition to it.”
Karma has had one of the more popular booths at the Taste of Cayman food festival the past two years. What Karma served was their wonderful Kobe sliders. These mini burgers on mini buns are a favourite at the restaurant as well.
An order usually comes with three sliders, but knowing that we’d eaten a lot, Molloy served us two each topped with two of the more popular accompaniment selections: roasted red pepper with goat cheese and Brie cheese with truffle. Other combinations available are blue cheese caramelised onions; jerk with hot peppers; and the classic cheddar with pickle and tomato.
The sliders are served with a side of togarashi pomme frites – thick cut French fries dusted with a powdered Japanese chili pepper. Served in a crisscross stack with two small earthenware ramekins filled with ketchup on either side, the look of the French fries gives an Asian feel to what is otherwise a classic American finger food. Of course, Karma’s sliders are in a completely different league than what might be found in an American fast food establishment. Made with ultra tasty Kobe beef – best served medium – and then topped with imaginative gourmet toppings, Karma’s sliders are one of those things you remember… and yearn for.
“I’ve heard of those things, but I never had one,” McLaughlin said.
I’d heard of sliders as well, and had many over the years – but not as good as this.
Despite being pretty full, we finished our sliders and pretty much all of the fries.
Piscopo brought McLaughlin another Scotch and he served me a
Molly’s After Eight Martini, a delicious, minty cocktail with Irish Cream liqueur.
“I don’t think I can eat any more,” McLaughlin said.
He was wrong.
Among the many public statements made in opposition to various Government initiatives, was one by the independent legislator from North Side, Ezzard Miller, who said he planned to go with a delegation to London to visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Miller mentioned East End MLA Arden McLean, a PPM member, as one person who would be going with him, but surprisingly, not McLaughlin, the leader of the PPM.
McLaughlin said he hadn’t been invited to go on the trip, at least up until the time we had dinner and that McLean told me he didn’t know if he was going.
“Arden told us last night that he hadn’t made any commitment,” McLaughlin said. “Ezzard told him he had invited me; he hasn’t invited me. We had a number of discussions over many months… about the possibility of a trip…. but I was stunned when I saw the report [in the media].”
He said he was also surprised to learn Miller was asking people to fund his trip to London, although he admitted the trip would be expensive. He said when talking to his PPM colleagues just the night before, they were talking about sending the whole Parliamentary group to London.
“I said, ‘do you all have $40,000 to spare’?” McLaughlin said. “A business class ticket costs $5,000 and hotels in London are hugely expensive.”
Beyond the cost, McLaughlin has other reservations about making the trip.
“This is my issue. I am not at all convinced yet that it is something I should do or that I will do, at all,” he said. “It’s a good publicity stunt. People who are frustrated will think you’re trying to do something, but the constitutional reality is, that there really is little, if anything, that the FCO are going to do in relation to this – certainly not in relation to the policy decisions.”
McLaughlin said that under Cayman’s current constitution, Cabinet has full responsibility for the formulation of policy.
“The governor has no say in it whatsoever,” he said, noting that the governor only has say in his areas of special responsibility, those of internal and external security and the public service.
“If there are good governance issues, that’s a different matter. But… are we saying that we are not satisfied with the governor?”
McLaughlin said he wouldn’t know what to say to people here or in London about the goal of the trip.
“What are we going to say to them before we leave and what are we going to tell them when we come back?” he asked. “As importantly, what are we going to say to the people over there? I sat around the table with the FCO and the foreign affairs committee and various other functionary groups from the UK for 11 years. They’re going to say to me, ‘Mr. McLaughlin, you were one of the crafters of the current constitution, surely you must know well what the constitutional remit [of the UK government is]’.”
McLaughlin said it was one thing for an independent member to go, but an entirely different thing if the leader of the opposition goes.
“You create expectations,” he said. “I’m not ruling out the possibility of going, but… this is the thing: What is it precisely we’re asking the UK to do?”
McLaughlin said he could already guess what the FCO might say to him: “They’d say, ‘Thank you for coming all this way, Mr. McLaughlin. So you and lots of people are dissatisfied with the policy decisions the government are making. OK, the next election cycle should take care of that’.”
McLaughlin said he might be criticised if he doesn’t go to London, but that he wasn’t going to do something he didn’t think was the right thing to do.
“I get beaten to death [by the public], and in fact I’m getting beaten to death now, because I’m not more vocal and I’m not attacking the government the way many people think that I should do. But I told many people over the course of the last few days… “Listen, I am not the swashbuckler that Ezzard is; I don’t believe in this principle which he espouses that all you need is 10 per cent of the truth… as long as people believe what you say. That’s not the way I am and then I wouldn’t be true to myself. Of course I could be mistaken, but I am not going to go and deliberately say something is the truth,which I don’t believe. It runs contrary to me; I can’t live with myself.”
When he says things like that to some of his supporters, McLaughlin said they question his desire to win the election.
“I tell people all the time… I’ve won three elections and I haven’t changed the way that I am. I’m not saying I don’t have to make certain adjustments now that I’m leader and I have to smile more to people – I’m happy to do those sorts of things; that’s not changing who I am. But if I have to turn into another person to get elected, you can find somebody else.”
Schools and education
The building of two new high schools on Grand Cayman could have been the crowning achievement of the previous PPM government and of McLaughlin, as minister of education, personally. Instead, it turned into a debacle of cost overruns, work stoppages and lawsuits. Worse yet, neither the Clifton Hunter High School nor the new John Gray High School have been completed yet.
McLaughlin has taken almost merciless criticism for what happened. Four years later, he stands by his decision to build the schools, but he admits mistakes were made.
When he’s asked why he pushed to have the schools built, McLaughlin said he tells people that equity has always been the underlying principle for him as far as education is concerned.
“Kids on the eastern end of the Island have always been shortchanged in terms in access to amenities and facilities and all that sort of thing,” he said. “And I was determined we were not going to stand on the road where we build one high school, which has state-of-the-art everything, and one set of kids get it and the other set of kids don’t get it.”
As much as he believes building the two new high schools was the right thing to do, he said some things went wrong in the process.
“The thing is, the costing of the schools… was so very wrong. Had I known from the start that this design was going to result in even the figure which was ultimately bid – sixty-something million – I wouldn’t have gone down this road, because I would have determined it was just too much money.
“There came a point when bids came in initially where I said we can’t do this and of course that got everybody scrambling – the chief officer, people in the ministry, the guys who bid on contracts, everyone. The result of that was the application of this concept of what they call value engineering, where those who bid come back to the drawing board and [take certain design elements out]. And that’s how we would up with the $60-something million. One was $50-something, but on average, $60-something million.”
According to recent statements made by the government, the schools are now going to cost more than $100 million each, although McLaughlin said he doesn’t know where that figure comes from.
In addition, McLaughlin said the project suffered when the project manager, Dave Smith, quit.
“He didn’t really quit in a sense; he wanted too much money and… [then-Chief Officer Angela Martins] determined we couldn’t accommodate him at that salary. So he quit, in about October or November or something like that.”
The relationship with the general contractor at the time, Tom Jones International, deteriorated quickly after that.
“When the project started, everything was running smooth,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t know whether Tom Jones determined they couldn’t do the projects for the amount stated or what it was, but they started having issues. There were four or five stop notices every week that had to be negotiated. And when Dave left… and we didn’t have a replacement project manager, that’s when things really started to slide.”
It’s been said that the operational costs of the schools will be very high.
“I hear all of that, but I don’t believe it,” said McLaughlin. “I believe the operational costs of those schools are going to be significantly less – to run one of them – than what we’re doing in these very inefficient facilities with air conditioning stuck in the wall and a whole range of other issues. The point that is overlooked time and time again is what is being constructed now are not just schools, but essentially community centres, hurricane shelters, sporting facilities… so the overall operational costs of the facility are likely to be significant, but you can’t compare that to what you’re doing now.”
Because the schools were designed for many purposes, the overall cost to build them was higher than if they were merely learning facilities. Still, if he had it to do over, McLaughlin admits he’d change the design of the schools.
However, the physical plant was only part of the sweeping changes he made in education. He said the changes he implemented to the education system have already started impacting children’s lives in a positive way.
“Despite the fact that I get beaten to death… by the current [education] minister, he adopted virtually [all the system changes] – to his credit – that were developed under my administration, and moved most of it forward,” he said. “There aren’t a great deal of structural changes. From the country’s perspective, there is real continuity. I think the constant climb in the number of kids who are getting… pass rates is an indication the foundation,which was set under my administration is solid and that his continuing with it is the right thing to do.”
Ice cream to scream for
Some people always have room for dessert. I’m not one of those people.
But Karma’s ice cream is something special, if merely to watch it being served.
Molecular gastronomy is the hottest new trend in cooking and while there’s a certain gimmicky nature to it, it’s based on science.
The trouble with making fresh ice cream is, as anyone who has every tried to do it can attest, it is hard to get it to into a state of frozen creaminess. This isn’t the case if you use liquid nitrogen.
Nitrogen is a harmless gas and if fact makes up about 78 per cent of the air we breathe. In its liquid form, it’s very, very cold; like -320 degrees Fahrenheit cold.
Poured on top of the ingredients for ice cream and stirred around, liquid nitrogen will create in a matter of a few minutes a wonderful, creamy frozen dessert that is simply delicious.
At Karma, this process is done right at your table, and it’s well worth having, even if you’re full.
The ice cream flavours change all the time and there are usually three to choose from. McLaughlin chose white chocolate with banana. He didn’t know about Karma’s unique process and was rather surprised when Piscopo brought the large canister of liquid nitrogen over to the table and started making the ice cream. As soon as he poured the liquid nitrogen into the bowl with the ice cream ingredients, thick vapour enveloped the bowl. Piscopo stirred the cream for a minute or so and then added a little more liquid nitrogen, creating another cloud of vapour.
“Amazing,” said McLaughlin. “I’ve never seen that done before.”
Piscopo says the liquid nitrogen ice cream is very popular.
“When tourists see it being prepared at another table, they want to try it,” he said. “It’s something unique.”
Indeed, while he was making the ice cream, those seated at other tables in the restaurant intently watched.
Keeping in Karma’s sharing theme, McLaughlin and I shared the ice cream, which tasted great.
In its totality, the meal was one of most diverse I’ve ever had, outside of a food festival like Taste of Cayman. High-grade sushi,fish tacos and sliders aren’t a meal combination you normally see. However, while the choices might seem incongruous at first, it’s interesting to know that I returned to Karma with my wife and some friends a couple of weeks later and we ate sashimi, sliders and ribs, followed by ice cream of course, and it was wonderful.
We had finally finished eating, but we still had items to discuss, so I order an espresso. McLaughlin opted for tea. Earl Grey. Hot.
When it comes to how Cayman will manage government finances going forward, McLaughlin is clear on the development versus direct taxation question.
“The day we stop developing is the day we stop growing is the day we start dying,” he said.
He believes measured and planned development is the key, but he talked about the inability of successive governments to establish over-arching legislation to properly plan development.
“The reason that hasn’t happened is that we go through all of these motions, but we never get any national buy-in and you certainly don’t get buy-in by the key players,” he said. “You’ve got to have a plan that still leaves Cayman attractive to developers. If the development plan prohibits most of the kind of development that happens, you’ve killed it off.”
McLaughlin said that some people argue that it’s already too late in the game for a proper development plan because all of Cayman’s prime land has already been developed or is slated to be.
“But the reality is, when you get up in the air, three-quarters of Cayman still isn’t developed, so there’s a whole lot of things that can still go very, very wrong – or more wrong, some would say – than have already gone wrong. I think that if we are careful about what we do now, we can show that there is hope for development for another couple hundred years.”
McLaughlin also believes that Cayman’s population needs to grow.
“I don’t subscribe to Mac’s theory, or Mac’s aspiration, that we need to jump to 100,000 – 150,000 people very quickly,” he said. “I believe that over time Cayman could. I’ve been to many countries, many in the Caribbean, with relatively small land masses and significantly more population. I think Cayman could comfortably sustain a population of 250,000 to 300,000 over a long period of time… where the culture also has time to adjust.”
Being a politician
Although it’s not set in stone, the next general elections are less than 15 months away. Already, candidates and potential candidates are posturing with rhetoric. McLaughlin doesn’t want to tip his hand – politicians here never do – but he says he expects all five PPM incumbents to run in the next election and that the PPM will run candidates in every district, including West Bay. He said he is ready to lead the PPM into the next election and ready to be Cayman’s premier, but he knows he has his work cut out for him.
“The great challenge for me is getting together the calibre team I need and the numbers of the people I need,” he said. “We need some strong intellect. But it isn’t just about getting people with intellect; people have to care, really truly have to care.”
McLaughlin said people approach him every week about wanting to run for office.
“But most people don’t even begin to understand what it takes,” he said. “It is a huge commitment; it is a full-time commitment; it is seven days a week, and you’ve got to have a really thick skin.”
The public, he says, is rarely satisfied.
“Don’t [run for election] on the basis that you hope people are going to be thankful for the efforts that you’ve made; maybe when they write the history, and you’re gone, perhaps… but the likelihood is, because people are so cynical in this day and age, that if you’ve done something good, people will say ‘ah, that’s what I elected him for anyhow’ and if they disagree with what you’ve done, they’re going to beat you to death at every possible opportunity. So you actually have to have the courage of your own convictions and you got to do things because you believe it’s the right thing to do and whatever the consequences are, the consequences are in terms of what people say. Because if you’re hanging on on the basis that you want to know that people appreciate what you’ve done, and without that you can’t carry on, then I’m afraid this is not the business for you.”
He said being a politician requires sacrifice in terms of time and privacy.
“I don’t think most people truly appreciate how much time it takes and how you rarely have any time that you don’t have to be on duty,” he said. “I know my boys, growing up – and this is one of the things I do regret – my boys didn’t go anywhere with me when they reached a certain age because Daddy had to spend so much time talking to the people. You do concede a whole lot of private time to do this. You really have to have a passion for it.”
Contrary to popular belief, politicians who are professionals like McLaughlin, sacrifice income, too.
“Politics is such a hard, hard life,” he said. “It’s made harder because of people’s perceptions of politicians. Everyone thinks you’re living high on the hog and living the life of Riley and you have no obligations. I think politicians in Cayman are paid very well, but paid very well compared to many politicians elsewhere, not paid very well, some of us anyhow, compared to the professions that they actually came from. If you’re going to be straight; if you’re not going to abuse your office and use it as an opportunity to further your own interests, it is a huge sacrifice and it takes an immense amount of your personal time.”
McLaughlin said he didn’t enter politics for what he could get out through the abuse of office.
“No, and quite frankly, I despise those who do,” he said. “I really do.”
Even though they might be paid well by certain standards, McLaughlin admits that politicians end up giving away a lot of money to people in need who come calling, a seemingly age-old practice in Cayman.
“Yeah, well, particularly in these times, there is huge need,” he said. “I’m sure this is the case with just about all of us, but all of us give away significant – I won’t even tell you off the record on average what I worked out that I give away – significant percentages of our salary. That’s just the way it is.”
In the current times, large numbers of people are having trouble paying their bills, so they come to the politicians, often to their homes.
“They get their electricity turned off, they get their water turned off, they can’t pay for school lunches – the range of things never stops,” he said. “There’s also this perception that government gives us money to help people with…they don’t; nor am I suggesting they should.”
McLaughlin knows that had he stuck with law and not entered politics, he would have made more money.
“If I ever were to focus on what I’ve foregone in income, I’d be perhaps a very bitter person,” he said. “But the pursuit of wealth has never been my ambition. I only worry about money when I don’t have it. I’ll never be wealthy, but then again, I never wanted to be.”