Houston paradox hangs over Tory race
The favourite to win the leadership of Nova Scotia’s Conservative party in two weeks is also the candidate who most deeply divides the party – call it the Houston paradox.
Pictou East MLA Tim Houston may be within hailing distance of an unlikely first-ballot win over a strong field of four rivals, despite a selection process that should preclude any candidate from running away with the race. While none of the other four is conceding a thing and insiders in each of their camps remain outwardly optimistic that they have a path to victory, the Houston camp has taken on an air of supreme confidence.
Houston himself, by the luck of the draw, got the last word at the sixth and final leadership candidates’ debate in Truro on Wednesday.
He used the opportunity to issue a battle cry that brought roughly two-thirds of the heavily pro-Houston crowd to their feet in triumphant agreement, while the other third sat in silence. “Stephen McNeil, I’m coming for you.” Houston’s choice of the singular pronoun “I” rather than the plural – and inclusive – “we” in his warning to Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil provides more insight into the race than he intended. Supporters of Cape Breton Regional Mayor Cecil Clarke, who is believed to be running second, and those of MLAs John Lohr (Kings North) and Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin (Cumberland North), likely third and fourth respectively, are angry about the Houston campaign’s tactics.
The longest shot in the race, Julie Chaisson ran unsuccessfully in Chester St. Margaret’s last year and is remaining judiciously apart from the internecine feuds that have characterized the campaign.
There is a sense among Tories in the other three camps that if Houston wins there will be no place in the party for them, or anyone who didn’t back his leadership.
Tories supporting those candidates say the Houston campaign has split the party in two – those who are with them, and everybody else. Party insiders fear that division will carry forward after the Oct. 27 convention if Houston wins.
The Clarke, Lohr and Smith-McCrossin camps each include party stalwarts that any new leader should tap and will need if the Conservatives hope to unseat the Liberals in the next provincial election, not expected until 2021.
And, while he’s the clear front-runner, Houston needs to either win on the first ballot or be close enough to grab victory with minimal second-ballot support, because that’s likely all he’s got.
There are a record 11,000-plus registered party members eligible to vote, but not all votes are equal. That’s because each of the province’s 51 ridings is given equal weight regardless of the number of voting members in any one riding. So, in order to win, a candidate needs fairly broad support spread across the province.
The divide between Houston’s camp and the others deepened in recent weeks, when Clarke, Lohr and Smith-McCrossin criticized Houston’s team for breaking the rules on a number of occasions, including one that drew a fine from the party.
Houston’s integrity was questioned and when Lohr continued in that vein in Truro he drew the vocal disfavour of the crowd. But the tall farmerbusinessman from the Valley has the courage of his convictions and returned to the ethics theme in his closing remarks, courting the crowd’s disapproval a second time.
“The thing about integrity is that you can’t do it half the time,” Lohr said, adding that the Liberal government is tainted by a lack of integrity, and Tories need to set a higher standard if they hope to win.
Clarke and Smith-McCrossin were more circumspect. Smith-McCrossin made a reference to the rules controversy when she said a leader has to stand up and take responsibility for his mistakes.
Lohr, Clarke and Smith-McCrossin have each called on Houston to apologize for breaking the rules, but that didn’t happen.
Preferential ballots were mailed to members more than a week ago and must be back in the party’s hands by Oct. 22 to count. Members can also attend a convention in Halifax, Oct. 26-27 and vote after each ballot.
Whoever emerges as the next leader will have fences to mend and a party to bring together. Clarke, Lohr or Smith-McCrossin would need to reach out, especially to Houston supporters, but it’s Houston who would have the most work in front of him to reunite a party that many members blame him for dividing.