Party leader quashes any hint of planned political infiltration
© — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
The upcoming September election is already creating a buzz at St. John's City Hall.
Speculation that an orange wave is moving towards St. John's City Hall has been swirling for months and as the municipal election approaches the gossip continues to swell.
"The rumour, of course, is the NDP is preparing a slate to run in the municipal election and over the last number of months the rumour mill has indicated candidates are being actively recruited to run, and I believe that to be so," St. John's Mayor Dennis O'Keefe told The Telegram during a candid, sit-down interview.
"I've been told the goal in the city of St. John's is to get six seats - the magic number. There's 11 on council, including the mayor, so if you can get six positions on city council you will always have the majority," he said.
The mayor, who is running again in the September election, said when the rumours initially came to his attention early last year, people were telling him the NDP was trying to take control of city councils in different parts of the country with the aim of using that power to eventually take over provincial governments.
He said those rumours continue in St. John's with an even more intriguing tidbit added to the hearsay heap.
"A really interesting rumour that's all around the city and came to me from a number of sources last week is that the leader of the party, Lorraine Michael, is considering resigning her position and taking a run at being the mayor of St. John's," O'Keefe said.
"Absurd," Michael said Friday when asked if she was contemplating wading into municipal politics.
Michael said it doesn't make any sense for her to turn her back now on a thriving party she has worked so hard to build.
"Here I am, the leader of a provincial party that is growing and becoming a real force in the province and is something I committed myself to doing when I ran for the leadership in 2006," she said.
"Now is so exciting for me to be the leader of our party because we have made progress, and the goals I've been setting for myself and the party are being met. I'm so excited about continuing to lead my party into the 2015 election and it would be rather absurd for me at this point to say it's over and done with - that's crazy," said Michael, adding she hadn't heard the rumours.
"All I can think is there are a lot of Tories out there who would like to see us fade away and who would like to see me fade away, and my message to them is, it's not going to happen."
Michael also said there is no plan by the provincial NDP party to run a slate in the municipal election.
When contacted by The Telegram this week, several St. John's city councillors confirmed they've heard rumours about the NDP running candidates. Two - Couns. Sheilagh O'Leary and Sandy Hickman - said they have not. Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff couldn't be reached for comment.
"As far as I know, municipal politics is a non-partisan entity," O'Leary said.
"It always has been and that's the reason I have been drawn to it. Everybody has their own political leanings, but that's their own business. But as for an NDP slate, it's the first I've heard of it," she said Friday.
"I don't know where the rumours are coming from. I've been having lots of dialogue with people regarding new interested bodies running for municipal politics, especially because I'm the newcomer who did so well the first time. I'm getting a lot of people coming to me for advice and interest, but this is the first I've ever heard of an NDP slate."
O'Leary, who polled the highest votes of all candidates in the 2009 election - 24,056 - was given an endorsement for the mayor's chair by federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair last year when he was in St. John's for an NDP fundraiser.
She has said in the past she's thinking about running for mayor in this year's election, but would only confirm Friday she will be seeking re-election.
O'Leary said when Mulcair commented she would make a good mayor, it was done unbeknownst to her.
"And as I've reiterated since then, I'm totally open to endorsements. If Justin Trudeau wanted to come and endorse me I would be more than welcome to receive it, or anybody else who wanted to throw their support behind my form of leadership at city hall," she said.
O'Keefe and other councillors agree the rumours may have originated from Mulcair's endorsement of O'Leary and just kept gaining momentum.
"Everybody in the city knows Coun. O'Leary is still in the process of trying to make up her mind if she's going to run for the position of mayor, and it doesn't bother me who runs one way or the other," said O'Keefe.
"I'm running for mayor I'll run on my service to the city, so if someone wants to run for the position of mayor and they think they can do a better job then I leave that up to the good residents of the City of St. John's."
But politically speaking, he said councillors shouldn't be toeing any party line.
O'Keefe's colleagues agree.
Couns. Frank Galgay, Debbie Hanlon and Gerry Colbert, who are not seeking re-election, said they've heard the rumours and agree with the mayor about politics in the chamber.
"Partisan politics doesn't serve the best interests of the municipality. If you begin to adopt that model, the city loses its objectivity and sense of independence," said Galgay.
Colbert, another veteran councillor, said he remembers a few elections back when a group of people shared an agenda to get seats on council, but it didn't work.
"Not one of them got elected. People did not like a slate, they did not like the fact that there was going to be a group on city council who, by the nature of the cohesion, could control council. They wanted 11 individuals as best they could to speak their own mind and not have to toe a party line and they were very clear about that," said Colbert.
Couns. Danny Breen, Wally Collins, Bruce Tilley and Hickman are seeking re-election.
Collins said he doesn't know if the rumours are true but the bottom line is that politics doesn't belong in the chamber.
"My gut feeling is if they want to run, that's up to themselves, but I don't agree with one party running municipal politics. The more individuals, diverse people, the better, because you have ideas coming from a range of different people with different thinking," he said.
Coun. Tom Hann hasn't announced his intention regarding the election, but he agrees that diversity adds spice to debates around the chamber table.
While Hickman said he hasn't heard the rumours, he is a strong supporter of an independent council.
"A municipality is and should be comprised of a cross section of the community, and in the larger cities it requires full-time councillors, which makes it a little more difficult, but in St. John's the brilliance of it is it's a part-time position. Therefore, if somebody has their own business they can run, or a teacher can run, or a doctor can run, and that's what makes it so well rounded and that's important," he said.
O'Keefe said slate politics is an old-fashioned way of running towns and he doesn't want to see it in St. John's.
"If you're into party policies, party discipline and party agendas, I think it would be really negative for any municipality to go down that road," he said.
"We have a good system. ... We have five wards, four at-large councillors, a mayor and deputy mayor who make their decisions based on how they feel on a particular issue, and the party line, party policies, doesn't come into play, and that's the way it should be."