When did Alexa McDonough’s people realize that her Halifax opponents were not going to roll over and play dead just because she is a national leader and home-town favourite? Anthony Salloum, who handles public relations in the New Democratic Party leader’s riding office, got a hint of what may be ahead when he went hunting for campaign space one night three weeks before the writ was dropped. As Salloum piloted his red Mazda through the mostly empty Halifax streets, he repeatedly found himself following a black sedan carrying two middle-aged men who seemed to be jotting down some of the same landlord’s numbers. The next morning when he called to ask about one of the digs, he learned that the Progressive Conservative party had, just minutes before, leased that very space. The NDP had to settle for another choice: two cavernous floors on a main thoroughfare with next to no parking.
As the election campaign heats up, the fighting promises to be bitter, not just in the glare of the national spotlight, but also at the grassroots level. Among the ridings where the battles are likely to be particularly intense: Vancouver Centre, currently held by Liberal cabinet minister Hedy Fry; Calgary Centre, where Conservative Leader Joe Clark is fighting for his political survival; Markham, Ont., where the Canadian Alliance gained a foothold with the Sept. 7 defection of Tory MP Jim Jones; Laval, Que., narrowly won by the Bloc Québécois in 1997largely because the federalist vote split between the Liberals and the Tories; and Halifax, where NDP Leader Alexa McDonough is trying to hold her own seat and beat back a Liberal resurgence in Atlantic Canada. Over the course of the campaign, Maclean’s will talk with voters in those ridings about key issues (page 26). Maclean’s correspondents will also provide in-depth profiles of the five ridings. This week, Halifax Bureau Chief John DeMont looks at Halifax:
The building should have given McDonough’s organizers a warm feeling of
déjà vu. The same space, after all, served McDonough at as campaign headquarters for her reher nomination sounding 1997 victory that helped promeeting: a vide the beachhead for the NDP’s Liberal challenge breakthrough in Atlantic Canada. But so much has changed since then: the Liberals, after ignoring the region in the run-up to the last election, have been spending freely Down East this time around. Meantime, NDP popularity—already rock-bottom across the rest of Canada—has plummeted to almost single digits in Adantic Canada. McDonough, as a result, will be spending most of the campaign far from her own riding, trying to keep her party afloat. That’s bad news for any leader—even one with a reputation for such saintly rectitude in her home province that political opponents call her “the Mother Theresa of Nova Scotia politics.” And it helps explain why her wellorganized local campaign blasted so quickly from the starting blocks last week in Halifax. Her phones were hooked up
NDP Leader Alexa McDonough is a home-town favourite, but Halifax riding is a place where fortunes have often been reversed
before the Tories, Liberals and Alliance had even nominated candidates and, within hours of the election call, orange and black “Alexa” signs seemed to sprout like exotic Halloween plants on lawns throughout the riding. “People don’t vote for the party, they vote for Alexa,” says Don Mills, president of Corporate Research Associates Inc., a Halifax-based polling company. “She seems unassailable.”
But odd things have a tendency to happen when voters step into the booth in Halifax, a diverse urban riding of about 80,000 stretching from the port city’s old-money south end out to the middle-class suburbs and the gritty working-class north end. In recent history, Halifax has ebbed and flowed according to the big national trends. During Joe Clark’s 1979 minority, Tory lawyer George Cooper took the riding by just 15 votes. A year later, when Trudeaus Liberals seized a majority, ex-premier Gerald Regan made Halifax a Grit seat. In 1984, with the country going Conservative, Halifax voters chose Tory lawyer Stewart Mclnnes, who was later awarded the supply and services and public works cabinet portfolios in the Mulroney government. But in 1988, while his party retained power,
Mclnnes was upset by Liberal Mary Clancy, a lawyer, who won even bigger five years later during the Grit sweep. In 1997, Nova Scotia decisively turned its back on the Liberals, and it was McDonough’s turn. She took 49 per cent of the vote, topping former provincial Tory cabinet minister Terry Donahoe and Clancy, who finished third. “I have always felt that Halifax is a perfect microcosm for all of Canada,” McDonough says. “There is no disconnect between the issues that resonate there and the preoccupations of the entire country.”
Local issues do matter in Halifax. The Liberal reluctance to replace the decrepit Sea King helicopters resonates with members of the Canadian Forces and their families, while cutbacks in health-care funding strike a special chord in a city that serves as the region’s medical centre. Meanwhile, a federally funded harbour cleanup seems no closer to reality after seven years of Grit rule. “Alexa has been too busy being a national leader to be attentive to her riding,” argues Paul Fitzgibbons, 42, a former printing company owner who is standing for the Tories. Even if that is the case, few Liberals or Conservatives really expect McDonough’s performance as a constituency politician to cost her her seat. All but invisible on the national stage, she remains person-
ally popular in Halifax, where the ex-social worker and millionaire’s daughter has always appealed to voters from different levels of society. The question is: can McDonough, who, as former leader of the Nova Scotia NDP, won her Halifax provincial riding four consecutive times before jumping to federal politics, hold on if the tide turns against the New Democrats? “She runs ahead of her party,” maintains Agar Adamson, a political science professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. “Alexa is a national leader in a place where that counts for a lot.”
The riding, after all, has a historical precedent for supporting leaders of national opposition parties: Robert Stanfield, the federal Tory leader, won the Halifax seat three consecutive times during the Trudeau era. The difference was he came within a hair of forming the government in 1972. McDonough, if early predictions hold true, could see her NDP lose its official party status. The Grits hope that subtlety registers with voters-—and that on Nov. 27 the people of Halifax decide they would rather support a member of a party that could form the next government, rather than send the leader of a marginalized party back to the House. I Even so, Halifax Liberals are not ex¡ actly brimming with confidence about I taking the seat. Party organizers hoped
1 that regional strongman and former û senator Bernie Boudreau, the minister
2 responsible for the Atlantic Canada * Opportunities Agency, would decide I to take on McDonough in Halifax. Instead, he resigned from the Senate to
run in the nearby riding of Dartmouth, a seat held by the far less formidable New Democrat Wendy Lili. The upshot: the Liberal banner in Halifax is carried by Kevin Little, 37, a fiscally conservative United Church minister with an intriguing résumé who has never been elected to public office.
Even Little, who has appeared in the now-cancelled Black Harbour CBC TV series and worked for U.S. presidential candidate Gary Hart, concedes the national Liberal campaign will be throwing its weight behind Boudreau, a cabinet minister who faces a tough three-way battle, rather than a no-name candidate running against a locally popular national leader. “I know the odds are against me,” he says. “I’m running against an icon.” Asking for a miracle is too much. But in Halifax, as he well knows, stranger things have happened. EH
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