126 Tories pack into a hall to help pick the next premier
The Society of United Fishermen Hall in Heart’s Content is so packed Friday night that it’s tough to move.
The little community hall is the sort of place that has two portraits of the Queen on the walls — one at each end of the room — and in total, 126 Progressive Conservatives are packed into the building to cast ballots in the Trinity-Bay de Verde delegate selection meeting.
Leadership candidate Frank Coleman speaks with Tories at the party’s delegate selection meeting in Heart’s Content Friday night.
Last year, the Liberal leadership race played out in TV advertising, radio spots, mailbox pamphlets and relentless robocalls, and candidates constantly tried to sign up supporters.
By contrast, the Tory leadership isn’t happening in the same noisy fashion. Over the coming months, it will happen at community meetings like this one, with party faithful sitting on church-basement chairs to pick the men and women who will eventually converge on St. John’s in early July for the leadership convention.
The delegated convention process gets a lot of criticism for favouring insiders and party backroom boys, but at least at the delegate selection meeting in Heart’s Content, it feels just about as grassroots as it gets.
One elderly lady won’t say who she’s voting for, but she confides that she’s got a wedding shower at 8 p.m., and so if the voting doesn’t start soon she’s leaving. Another man, asked about his leadership preferences, steers the conversation towards the IceCaps, and how there’s too much fighting in hockey these days.
At each of these meetings — one in each electoral district across the province — party members will select a four-person district association executive along with seven other convention delegates, for a total of 11 voting members from each district. Two of the delegates must be younger than 30, to provide youth representation.
Leadership frontrunner Frank Coleman is in the room Friday night, circulating among the crush of people, as volunteers check IDs and issue ballots.
Coleman says at the meetings people mostly just want to shake his hand, look him in the eye, and get a sense of what he’s all about.
“When I’m going around right now, to be truthful, I’m really introducing myself, and it’s not a really hard sell,” he says. “Tonight I don’t think I had any policy questions; it was really a meet and greet.”
Bill Barry is unable to make it, and sends his regrets. After making the rounds, Coleman ducks out before the voting starts.
Before anybody casts a ballot, though, there’s nominations, and people start shouting out names. Volunteers write the names in black marker on big lined pieces of paper, taped to the walls at the front of the room.
There’s an awkward moment of confusion when Edna McCann, one of the ladies marking down names, is nominated for convention delegate.
“For what?” McCann says.
“For convention delegate,” the PC Party chief electoral officer, Robert Lundrigan, replies.
“Oh, sure,” McCann says.
“OK, write down your name,” Lundrigan says, and she dutifully adds her own name to the list.
When the dust settles, there are 15 names put forward for the seven delegate positions — the four spots on the district association executive were all acclaimed — and the voting gets underway.
For an outside observer, it’s not possible to tell who’s supporting which leadership candidate, but there are a few hints. This is Finance Minister Charlene Johnson’s district, and her mother, father and sister are all nominated to be delegates. Her aunt is one of the four people on the district association executive.
Johnson has already come out and formally endorsed Coleman, and she clearly has an inkling about which way her supporters will vote in July — even the ones who aren’t related to her.
“For us, my delegates have been the same delegates every single year,” she says. “These people have supported me from Day 1, so for us it was a normal process anyway. They can make their own choice, but it’s no secret that I’ve supported Frank and I hope they do the same.”
When the voting gets underway, it has the feeling of organized chaos. Some people go up to the privacy screens set up at the head of the room to fill out their ballot, but plenty of other people just press the ballot against the wall and write on it there, or they used a windowsill, or just fill out their ballot in their lap.
There’s no campaigning, as such. Delegates get nominated, and then people start voting immediately. Lundrigan says the party is very clear: if you want to do any campaigning to convince fellow party members to vote for you as a delegate, “do so elsewhere.”
As soon as the ballots are cast, people begin leaving; they don’t wait to see what the results are. Only a couple of dozen die-hards stick around to see who’s won and who’s lost.
During the Liberals’ leadership race, there were policy debates carried live over the radio and TV, along with a massive advertising blitz and endless voter outreach.
Thus far, the Tories’ process doesn’t any of that kind of in-your-face political messaging. There’s no discussion of policy or party vision in the Society of United Fishermen Hall in Heart’s content — just old party members casting ballots and going home.
Nonetheless, Johnson is encouraged by what she sees. For the Tories, hopefully this is what party renewal looks like. At a typical district association annual general meeting, 20 people is a good turnout; tonight, there are 126 people casting ballots.
“With so many people here tonight, it shows there’s still a lot of interest in our party,” Johnson said. “People still take us very seriously, support what we’re doing and this will help build momentum as we go through for the next election.”