Newfoundland and Labrador Tories launch fresh leadership race

Leadership race is take two for governing Tories after debacle that was first attempt

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – It’s Take Two for Newfoundland and Labrador’s governing Tories as they launch a fresh leadership race after the debacle that was their first attempt.

Progressive Conservatives and their critics alike have compared Take One to an embarrassment at best, a political Gong Show at worst.

“Some would say you couldn’t write the sequence of events like that if you were to try,” Paul Davis said last week as he gave up his post as health minister to contend.

Nominations close Monday. But Davis and another cabinet minister, Steve Kent, have so far stepped up along with John Ottenheimer, a former Tory government minister of health and other portfolios.

Kent resigned as municipal affairs minister to run. The winner will be chosen Sept. 13 at a delegated convention in St. John’s. An election is expected some time in 2015, if not sooner.

It’s a far cry from the first leadership contest that attracted not one high-profile Tory. It was triggered when former premier Kathy Dunderdale quit in January after a slide in the polls and her handling of power blackouts raised doubts about her leadership.

Premier Tom Marshall took over on an interim basis but wants to retire.

Progressive Conservatives have held a majority in the legislature since 2003 but trail the Opposition Liberals in recent polls. They’ve also lost three byelections, two in former Tory strongholds.

Just three caucus outsiders lined up to take Dunderdale’s place before a string of bizarre incidents left political neophyte Frank Coleman as the only candidate left standing in the race.

The successful businessman from Corner Brook faced a media barrage over his pro-life views and a government contract involving one of his former companies. He shocked even Tory insiders when he suddenly withdrew last month, nixing a planned coronation.

Coleman cited an undisclosed family matter for his decision.

He became the sole contender after the party ejected one of his two opponents, retired naval officer Wayne Bennett, for Twitter posts that compared his online critics to Muslim terrorists.

The other challenger, fishery magnate Bill Barry, dropped out after saying the race was stacked in Coleman’s favour.

Coleman’s exit created a whole new set of circumstances, said Davis, who declined to enter the first race last March and endorsed the businessman.

“I was in a different place personally and my health was in a different place,” said the former police officer and spokesman for the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

Davis, 53, was diagnosed in 2011 with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer.

“I’m in a position now where I can take this on,” he told reporters Wednesday at his campaign launch.

Davis, who was first elected in a 2010 byelection and previously served as a town councillor and deputy mayor of Conception Bay South near St. John’s, is already hailed by some pundits as the one to beat.

Kent, 36, a former mayor of Mount Pearl outside St. John’s and a strident defender of the Tory government’s record, has nothing but good things to say about Davis, a friend for two decades. He helped Davis win his first municipal campaign in 2001.

“That’s one of the reasons I believe this will be a clean, spirited, positive race,” Kent, first elected provincially in 2007, said in an interview.

Both Davis and Kent so far have the support of one cabinet minister each along with several caucus members.

Ottenheimer, 61, declared his candidacy last month and said he also has cabinet and caucus backing.

“There’s no question we’ve gone through some difficult times,” he said in an interview. “We need a good race.”

Stephen Tomblin, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, called the first leadership round “a train wreck.”

The Tories now have an especially credible candidate in Davis, he said. Ottenheimer totes political baggage from his time as health minister in 2005 amidst a scandal over botched breast cancer tests, while Kent unsuccessfully sought a Liberal nomination for a federal byelection in 2000 after testing the waters with the far-right Canadian Alliance.

“He communicated very well and he seemed almost likeable,” Tomblin said of Davis. “It’s important that people connect with you.”