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VIBERT: Mayor Clarke’s risky reticence

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

Cecil Clarke won’t say if he’ll resign his job as Mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality should he win the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party leadership next month.

It’s hypothetical, Clarke correctly points out, adding he’s earned a reputation of doing the “responsible thing,” and that won’t change if he wins the leadership.

Okay, except politicians, particularly those chasing votes, spit out hypothetical statements faster than blackjack dealers flip cards. “If elected, I will . . .” What makes this different?

Clarke-the-mayor seems to want to keep CBRM councillors off-balance but, in the process, he risks raising uncertainty among some of the 10,000 or so Tories who will decide the leadership by filling out and mailing in preferential ballots or heading to Halifax on Oct. 27 to vote in person.

Conservatives haven’t won a provincial election since 2006. Rodney MacDonald was premier, and his Tories eked out a fragile minority that survived three years. That’s starting to feel like a long time ago in a party that governed the province for 36 of the 50 years prior.

They want a leader who will take them back to government, first chance.

To permit the hint to persist that, upon ascension, he might split his attention between the party and the province’s second biggest municipality seems like a big risk for Clarke, but he’s taking it.

John Savage was the last municipal leader to win the leadership of a major political party in Nova Scotia. In 1992, after he took hold of the Liberals, Dr. Savage promptly resigned as Dartmouth’s mayor. Four years later as premier, he abolished his old job altogether when he forced the amalgamation of Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford and Halifax County, creating the HRM, which his son Michael now presides over as Mayor. Yes, it is a small province with compelling political turns.

The smart money says Clarke would do the same as Savage, but his refusal to say so seems to surprise some Tories, while others say it’s no big deal.

Clarke’s first ballot support will be pretty much locked in by now, but in this five-person race it is a virtual certainty that the eventual winner will need second or third ballot help from other camps. Uncertainty is the kind of thing that can cut into later ballot support.

One party heavyweight says, compared to everything else going on in the leadership campaign, Cecil Clarke’s equivocation is a sideshow.

The five-person race has been a bare-knuckled brawl almost from the outset, leaving some Tories worried that whoever wins will take over a party with deep and enduring internal wounds.

Most of the criticism about the rancour in the race is directed at Tim Houston, the Pictou East MLA, and front-runner. That criticism comes from opposing camps.

Front-runner status is a double-edged sword — the presumed lead comes with a target — and supporters of both of the other MLAs in the race — John Lohr from Kings North and Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, Cumberland North — accuse the Houston campaign of being overly aggressive and overtly hostile to party members not supporting their guy.

The fifth candidate in the race is Julie Chaisson, who ran in Chester St. Margaret’s in 2017 and finished third, behind Hugh MacKay, the Liberal winner and the New Democrat incumbent Denise Peterson-Rafuse.

Chaisson is the longest of the three long shots on the ballot.

Clarke’s post-leadership employment plans resurfaced as an issue after this week’s CBRM council meeting, where municipal solicitor Demetri Kachafanas provided an opinion that the Mayor’s leadership of a provincial political party would not, in itself, constitute a conflict of interest, and awkward isn’t against the law. The lawyer didn’t say that last bit.

Most observers believe Clarke is solidly in second place, behind Houston, whose Pictou County riding is home to 1,000 of those 10,000 Tory voters, but because the vote is weighted to provincial ridings, Pictou East’s 1,000 members count for the same 100 “points” as every other riding.

Given the animosity generated throughout the race, insiders believe Houston needs first ballot support that takes him within hailing distance of the 50 per cent-plus-one required to win, because they see very little later ballot support going his way. Houston’s camp, obviously, doesn’t share that view.

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