Grassroots democracy in Heart's Content

James McLeod
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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.”

Twitter: TelegramJames

Organizations: Tory, IceCaps, PC Party Society of United Fishermen

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Recent comments

  • Ali babba
    April 18, 2014 - 21:50

    Charlene Johnston best bring her delegates to attempt to vote for her...cause I dont know a soul in this district willing to elect another PC!

    April 14, 2014 - 16:04

    Do the people of our great province understand, one of the biggest scam was every pull on our people, was committed by the liberals party. They just use a difference style of a fix concerning who the leader maybe. Just go back in time, when Judy Morrow told the people she feel Dwight Ball was the leader for the party. Everybody know the out come. Has for Danny - Jim - Cathy - Paul they were only use as token in the race. Dwight was ask a question from Cathy Bennett, If he was premier, would he put a stop to the Muskrat Falls project. Lots of wind from Dwight, but no straight answer. Please explain what is the difference in liberals fix and the PC's fix?

  • darrell
    April 14, 2014 - 15:42

    Frank, get out while you got any sense left in ya. You are entering a lose lose situation….but wait, all you want is to get a quick trip to the top post and you couldn't care less if the PCs win the next election. You have your stamp. If you're such a politician, you have absolutely no experience and have shown no interest in local, municipal or provincial politics until now. And we thought you were a family man, yeah right.

  • Virginia Waters
    April 14, 2014 - 12:51

    What do you guys want - jam on it? I have become a staunch critic of this regime, but even I see nothing wrong with this news story (news report Blackstrap - not a column). He went, he saw, he asked, and he wrote. He didn't editorialize. He did present the salient facts - notably that Barry was MIA, that Coleman was there but left before the vote, that it appeared to be a Coleman friendly crowd (surprise, surprise), and that it was a relatively low-key, perfunctionary exercise. Except for the welcome bits of humour, it was all in all a fair description of a fairly boring exercise - one that will be repeated fifty times or so across the province with an outcome that will surprise no one. Move on - nothing to see here.

  • Blackstrap
    April 14, 2014 - 12:06

    Interesting column? I feel like it was a fluff piece. Mr. McLeod, your analysis lacks insight or substance in this article. How is this leadership charade any more democratic than the open-ended Liberal nomination process? (Even unscrupulous Tories like Danny Breen could sign up and influence the outcome) The Liberals, at least, put up a small show of competition between Ball, Antle, Bennett, Bennett and Dumaresque. This PC sham, however, is not a convention. It's a coronation. Danny Williams picked Frank Coleman and that's all there is to it. You yourself demonstrated that the delegates don't have a clue about policy. They don't know and they don't care about each candidate's positions. The fix is in, that's why. Danny Williams is calling all of the shots from the backroom and Bill Barry doesn't have a chance of getting elected.

  • William McCann
    April 14, 2014 - 10:31

    It was a great meeting, lots of people and intrest in our party. I was really suprised at the turn out. It shows that Charlene Johnson our Finance Minister has a lot of support in her district. Our PC Association is alive and well in Trinity -Bay de Verde.

  • W bagg
    April 14, 2014 - 09:56

    Yup, a baby shower trumps democracy. Tories got their priorities straight

  • David Hereaux
    April 14, 2014 - 09:43

  • Gerry Taylor
    April 14, 2014 - 08:28

    This is one of the most interesting and down to earth columns I have read for some time.

  • Charles
    April 14, 2014 - 06:37

    Can we have one leader, who know his/her butt from a hole in the ground, instead of another figure head, with out any knowledge of everyday life or issues. Yes they may be educated, but that has far as its go. Leader is someone who got the chestnuts. to stand for the people, not just to pull the party lines. We the people got to put a stop to the way, we elects person, to represent in the HOA. There should be a questionnaire containing to one question, Question should read, where do you see your district economy in the first four years? if we were to elects you?

  • concerned
    April 14, 2014 - 05:37

    "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" - Yes James this is grassroots democracy in action. A candidate supported by the finance minister, with no view as to who or what he is, except he is supported by a former premier who they all owe. The delegates who are not related to the MHA will then likely have to support her views. In Peckfords book he had a similar tale of a ridings association meeting with Smallwood. This maybe grassroots, but it is not democracy. The lemmings are simply following....

  • Scott
    April 14, 2014 - 05:15

    LOL..Really, I have to say we does pretty good picking out our leader's, Or do we, That the question. We got Mr Coleman, at one time in his life, who starts a business, but couldn't stand on his owns feet. But had to go back to the family business, in order to keep food on his table. Then you got Mr Barry, his only concern is, making sure nothing changes in the fishery, to interfere with his operation. Then you got Mr Ball, some one whisper in his ear, he would make a good leader, sad thing about its, He believe them, has of to date the man didn't show any kind of policy, He known for his one liner ( Elects Me Then Find Out ). What can I say about Ms Michael, Not much. fine lady, poor leader.