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The contender? 

Darrell Dexter’s New Democrats are no longer the “free-floating failures” of Nova Scotia politics. But can the NDP take the next step and actually win power?

“Got it!” the young woman announces triumphantly as she breezes back into the NDP’s storefront office off Wolfville’s main drag, holding aloft a roll of inch-wide orange ribbon.

“Told you,” King’s South candidate David Mangle says to no one in particular. “Anything you need you can get at the Home Hardware.”

It’s 4:25 on a warm, wanting-to-be-sunny Wednesday afternoon, and the buzz, such as it is, is that Darrell Dexter will be here soon. It is the third day of the first full week of campaigning for the June 13 provincial general election, and Dexter is spending this afternoon on a minivan tour of the Annapolis Valley, planting the seeds of constituency campaign offices in Greenwood, Wolfville and Windsor.

He’s already done his main media event of the day—a morning photo-op at Northwood seniors’ centre in Halifax. Dexter used the setting, carefully stage-managed to win precious air time on the supper-hour TV newscasts, to attack his Conservative opponents for breaking a 1999 promise to expand long-term care facilities in the province. The theme for today, and for much of the first stage of the campaign, will be that the Tories—who’ve filled the weeks leading up to the election call stealing the most popular promises from the NDP’s platform—can’t be trusted to actually keep them.

The Halifax reporters, having already been fed the basis of the story du jour, don’t bother to accompany Dexter to the Valley. On the one hand, that makes sense—constituency office openings are usually just more camera-friendly grip-and-grin events—but, on the other, it doesn’t. The future of Rodney MacDonald’s Conservative government—not to forget the NDP’s, and perhaps Darrell Dexter’s own electoral fate—will almost certainly be decided in a half dozen rural ridings like this one in King’s South.

Once you venture out beyond the NDP’s seemingly impenetrable electoral fortress of Halifax, in fact, King’s South is as promising as it gets for Darrell Dexter’s prospects of becoming premier.

The riding is not only home to Acadia University in socially progressive, Officially Sustainable Wolfville but there’s also fertile electoral ground for vote-tilling in the nearby, ever-expanding exurbia around the shopping- centred community of New Minas. In the last provincial election, the NDP’s David Mangle finished second here, 553 votes behind Tory cabinet minister David Morse and 112 ahead of a popular Liberal candidate.

On the face of it, Mangle’s prospects seem better this time. Morse, a controversial minister of community services whose resignation the opposition has frequently demanded over the last three years, is a polarizing figure who may repel as well as attract. Ray Savage, the Liberal candidate, faces the double whammy of not only being less well-known than his predecessor but also running for a party whose new leader is not especially popular, even among Liberal faithful.

For his part, Mangle, one of the co-founders of the Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op, has buffed up his personal political profile since the 2003 election. As more than one person in his headquarters is eager to tell me today, he recently won a seat on town council with the most votes of any candidate in the race.

Mangle, who has spent the early part of this afternoon knocking on doors in a trailer park behind the Sobeys in New Minas, is cautiously optimistic. “We were 500 votes shy last election,” he acknowledges, “but it was my first time around, and we’ve learned from that.” One of the lessons, he says, is the importance of getting the vote out. “We took this poll by over 60 percent,” he says of the area around the trailer park, “but only 30 percent of the eligible voters actually voted. So we know we have to be more efficient this time, get to more doors during this campaign.” He pauses, repeats what is already the local campaign’s rallying cry: “If we had gotten just 12 more votes in each of the polls last time, I’d have won.”

Electing an NDP MLA in King’s South is not without precedent. Bob Levy, the personally popular son of a former Conservative politician, won the riding for the New Democrats in 1984. Four years later, with John Buchanan’s Conservative government under fire for corruption and patronage, there was optimistic talk King’s South might become the building block for an NDP electoral breakthrough in rural Nova Scotia. Instead, the wily Buchanan coupled announcing the 1988 election campaign with appointing Levy—who wanted out of politics because he’d been going through marital difficulties—a judge. That effectively undercut NDP attacks on the government’s patronage record, handed King’s South back to the Tories and consigned the NDP to yet another decade on the margins of political power.

Even without having to cope with a Machiavellian maneuvre like that, the NDP’s prospects in King’s South this June remain problematic at best. Despite the controversies incumbent David Morse may have stirred in Halifax, most independent observers say he’s viewed locally as a “very active, very visible” constituency politician who will be difficult to unseat. And, if the Liberals do lose support, they say, there’s at least as good a chance those ballots will end up in Morse’s tally as in Mangle’s.

Which is why every vote counts. And why David Mangle is keen to make sure his leader’s first campaign visit to the riding today goes well. Which, in turn, is why he wanted that roll of orange ribbon.

After the ceremonies inside, Mangle and Dexter will step outside the office, someone will stretch a length of the newly purchased, party-coloured orange ribbon across the doorway and the two politicians will smile and cut the ribbon to officially open the campaign office. With luck, the reporter-photographer from the local weekly will snap a picture and it will end up in the paper, tangible proof of his leader’s interest in King’s South.

“Before the election last time, said we’ll try and get some provincial support down to you,” Mangle remembers. “But then they circled the wagons around Halifax and that was the end of that. This time it looks like we’ll get an election-day organizer as well as a canvass organizer . That tells me they see this riding as winnable, and one they want to win.”

Dexter’s advance team—two women, one from Alberta, the other from New Brunswick—finally arrive at Mangle’s headquarters with news that the leader’s swing through the Annapolis Valley is on schedule.

“I’ve heard that before,” Mangle says with a smile.

A podium has been set up in a corner of the small headquarters office in front of a room divider backdrop. The divider is festooned with NDP-orange balloons, the lectern dressed up with posters touting Mangle and Dexter. About a dozen people, most of whom know each other, have drifted into the office now, and they take up positions around the room in order to provide an audience in case the TV cameras do show up for Dexter’s speech.

They don’t. But Dexter himself breezes in a few minutes later, less a rock star arriving for his performance and more everyone’s favourite uncle who got time off work for today’s family barbecue. Despite the tailored suit and the reality he’s a sophisticated lawyer-politician, Darrell Dexter manages to exude a comfortable-shoe, ordinary-guy charm that almost seems apolitical. And genuine.

No silver spoon socialist, Dexter was born in Milton, Queen’s County, one of six kids of Elvin, a sheet-metal worker-dad, and Florence, a grocery store clerk-mom. His parents, he told one interviewer, “lived from pay cheque to pay cheque, and anything that upset their routine—you know, their ability to pay for heating oil and electricity, buying the kids new sneakers before they went back to school—anything that upset that, that was an issue for them.”

Dexter joined the NDP in 1979 during Alexa McDonough’s first, failed bid for a federal seat in Halifax when the party was still the none-of-the-above choice for most provincial voters, and has supported the party ever since—even as his own career path caromed like a pinball from local news reporter to naval officer to teacher to lawyer to Dartmouth city councillor to member of the legislature, and the party went back and forth like a ping-pong ball between Pyrrhic success and moral victory, never quite managing to convince voters to take it seriously.

During much of the 1980s and 1990s, the NDP suffered from what Acadia University political scientist Ian Stewart describes as “free-floating failure.” Even after many of the traditional hobbles—the I’m-a-Liberal-because-my-father-was-a-Liberal syndrome, or the province’s ingrained patronage culture—had largely disappeared as electoral impediments, the NDP was stuck with a self-fulfilling reputation that they were losers.

That all changed in 1998 when a “perfect storm in reverse” catapulted the provincial party—and Darrell Dexter—from electoral bystanders to Official Opposition.

It actually began the year before, says Stewart, when the federal NDP, led by former provincial leader Alexa McDonough, surprised itself, the province and the country by capturing six of 11 Nova Scotia seats in the House of Commons. It was, says Stewart, the result of a fortuitous collision of time and circumstance. McDonough, after 13 years as the leader of the Nova Scotia NDP, not only had the native-daughter factor working in her party’s favour, but “voters here saw the Reform Party as hopelessly western. The Conservatives, who’d been practically wiped out in 1993, were still non-contenders. And, by 1995, the Liberals had swung hard to the right. That created a vacuum at the federal level that the NDP was able to fill.”

The momentum from that federal victory carried over into the 1998 provincial election when voters—still angry with the provincial Tories for the excesses of the Buchanan years and unhappy with a Liberal government in such disarray it had tossed over its own leader—decided to throw caution to the winds and vote NDP too.

On election night, the Liberals and the NDP ended up in a dead heat with 19 seats each, leaving the Tories in third place with 14. Although Russell MacLellan’s Liberals managed to cling to minority power for the next year, they—and the NDP—ended up on the outside looking in when John Hamm’s Conservatives swept back into power with a majority in 1999. Still, the NDP had “reset the bar” of public expectations. It remained the official opposition and, three years later, after voters reduced the Tories back to a minority, the second place NDP once again held the balance of power with 15 seats.

While the party has been a legitimate electoral contender in every election since 1998, the big hurdle remains: Can Darrell Dexter, its leader since 2001, form even a minority government after this election.

“Anything is possible,” Stewart allows cautiously. He doesn’t sound optimistic, although he concedes the current electoral landscape is “probably as good as it gets from the NDP’s perspective.”

For starters, there’s the fact that Rodney MacDonald won the Conservative leadership. MacDonald, a rural Tory in the free-spending John Buchanan mode who has seemed out of his intellectual and strategic depth in the first days of this campaign, is unlikely to pose the kind of circle-the-wagons threat to the NDP’s Halifax power base his leadership rival Bill Black might have.

To make prospects even brighter for the NDP, the Liberals are in a mess. As the campaign began, party leader Francis MacKenzie remained largely pinned down in his own Bedford riding, struggling to win his own seat, while many of the party’s traditional power brokers were content to sit quietly on the sidelines, waiting for him to lose so they can start the rebuilding process again.

Darrell Dexter, on the other hand, is his party’s best asset. Michael MacMillan, the chair of the political science department of Mount Saint Vincent University, recently told Canadian Press that “Dexter has many of the same strengths that John Hamm had—a very pleasant personality from small-town Nova Scotia, someone who goes over very well in front of gatherings.”

A low-key moderate who has nudged the party ever closer to the political centre without straying far from its progressive roots, the policies Dexter’s NDP has championed—from public auto insurance, to improved treatment for seniors, to the elimination of the HST on essentials—transcend traditional political labels. “I don’t think we’re moving to the centre so much as the centre is moving to us,” Dexter insists. “I kind of joke with people: do Nova Scotians want Progressive Conservatives or conservative progressives?”

Dexter recalls a phone call he got from the secretary of the Centennial Branch Legion in Dartmouth. “He said, ‘Darrell, I know you’ve been going all over the province with your petition on long-term care? Why don’t you bring it over here?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, I understand and I respect the Legion’s rules against politicking on Legion property.’ There was silence at the end of the line, and then he said, ‘Well, Darrell, we don’t consider this a political issue. This is a common sense issue; it’s the right thing to do.’” Dexter smiles. “So I went right over and dropped off copies of the petition and let them distribute them.”

Dexter probably could not have done a better job of steering the NDP through the tricky shoals of minority government—propping up John Hamm’s Tories with timely compromises while wrangling concessions for a variety of key NDP—and public—priorities. But political parties are rarely rewarded for playing nice, so now Dexter must now find a way to separate himself from the Tories.

New Conservative leader Rodney MacDonald has made that easier—and harder. Easier because MacDonald is no John Hamm, and harder because MacDonald’s first throne speech, budget and platform rip off many of the NDP’s key promises, including elimination of the HST on home heating oil.

That’s one reason Dexter’s focus today is on broken Tory promises. During his brief speech to the faithful at Mangle’s constituency office, Dexter reiterates his morning attack on the Tories for failing to follow through on their long-term care commitment, and stays on message with his own rural-friendly promise. An NDP government, he announces, will introduce a $250 tax credit for volunteer firefighters. It’s a promise, he pointedly tells the audience, the Tories themselves made seven years before but never kept. “It was an excellent idea,” Dexter says. “It would have been excellent if the Conservatives had kept the promise. They did not.” The NDP, he says, will.

But will the promise of kept promises be enough to help David Mangle pull in those 12 additional votes per poll he says he needs to turn the tide? Or allow Doug Sparks to win a three-way race in Preston that was so close last time only 80 votes separated the riding’s first from third-place finisher? Or win in Queen’s where Vicki Conrad is running again to try and close the 421-vote gap between herself and Tory cabinet minister Kerry Morash? Or make the difference in Waverley-Fall River-Beaverbank, where Percy Paris lost to Tory MLA Gary Hines in 2003 by just 363 votes? Darrell Dexter, in fact, very calculatedly launched his party’s election campaign in the Waverley riding and, by then end of the second week of the campaign, had visited the constituency two more times.

But even if the NDP does manage to add those four seats to its current 15 and perhaps pick up a few more without losing any they currently hold, will that push them over the edge to form a government?

It’s still unlikely, says Ian Stewart. “There are only a finite number of seats the NDP has any realistic hope of winning. Much of rural Nova Scotia is still a black hole for them.” Worse, if the Liberal vote does collapse, as many are expecting, Stewart says that might end up converting some of their red seats to Tory blue, making a majority Conservative government considerably more likely than a minority NDP one.

An NDP victory, concludes Stewart, “would be a long shot. It wouldn’t be as surprising as in 1997 or ’98, but would I be surprised? Yes, I would.”

Darrell Dexter, who describes himself as “a political junkie who thoroughly enjoys the machinations and strategic thinking” that go into such discussions, knows all about those permutations and combinations and what ifs…which may be why he

doesn’t want to talk about them.

What, I want to know, will constitute success for the NDP in this election?

“That’s a loaded question,” he replies. “No matter what I say, I’ll live to regret it. I’ve got too much to think about just campaigning to spend a whole lot of political capital thinking about what the end result is going to be in terms of numbers of seats. We’ll just keep trying to get our message out there and let the voters decide what happens.”

Darrell Dexter has to go now. There’s an orange ribbon still to cut, another constituency office in Windsor that needs opening in a half hour, and too many more days and nights of campaigning to go before the voters render their decision.

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