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JIM VIBERT: The mud is flying in provincial Tory race

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

Just when you thought the Conservative leadership brawl was as down and dirty as it can get, mud starts flying from a deeper ditch.

Cape Breton Regional Mayor Cecil Clarke ended last week with an email to party members that included screenshots of Facebook posts from a Cape Breton party member — and Tim Houston supporter — named Wayne O’Toole, who mused expansively about the bleak political futures of Tory MLAs Alfie MacLeod and Eddie Orrell, two Clarke loyalists from industrial Cape Breton seats.

“As we speak, Tim Houston campaign team members are organizing to take out PC MLAs Alfie MacLeod and Eddie Orrell in the next election — just because they’re supporting me in this leadership race,” Clarke charged in an email adorned with a photo of Houston and O’Toole together.

Houston, the Pictou East MLA and leadership front-runner, responded that his supporters are free to express their views, that all his supporters aren’t “campaign team members,” and that his views and theirs may not be the same. “That’s how it works.”

“We need a Leader who will stick to what really matters and rise above spending the final days of the campaign trolling Facebook,” Houston wrote to Tories. “I’m not going to spend time looking for negative comments from party members supporting other candidates to spam your inbox.”

The latest Clarke-Houston dust-up gave Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin (PC-Cumberland North) an opportunity to repeat both the current and more distant “darker parts of this campaign,” before suggesting all five candidates sign something called a “respectful conduct protocol,” pledging good behaviour.

Her proposal includes having leadership contenders encourage their supporters to be respectful of other candidates and not “engage in booing, heckling or using abusive language — at either party events or on social media,” and that supporters be “respectful of sitting Progressive Conservative MLAs and not suggest they be replaced on the basis of which leadership candidate they support.”

Insisting she wasn’t singling anyone out, Smith-McCrossin summarized the campaign’s low points as:

“The debate around Tim Houston’s campaign breaking the rules ... Tim Houston’s supporters booed (leadership candidate and Kings North MLA) John Lohr at the debate in Truro. Cecil Clarke is highlighting that Tim Houston supporters are looking to unseat sitting PC MLAs Alfie MacLeod and Eddie Orrell because of their support for Cecil.”

It’s normal for the presumed front-runner to draw fire from the candidates chasing him, but in the Tory leadership, it’s become a driving narrative.

In this race, the favourite is also the candidate that opponents say most deeply divides the party — call it the Houston paradox.

The Houston campaign maintains that its opponents are worried by the large number of new members Houston’s team brought into the party.

And Houston’s camp challenges the idea that it is dividing the 11,000-plus-member party, conceding instead that some Tory stalwarts fear their influence will be diminished in the large political organization the leadership has spawned.

Whether the 7,000 new members attracted by the leadership contest will — as frequently occurs — vapourize after a new leader is chosen, time will tell.

Meanwhile, if he gets his vote out, Houston appears to be within hailing distance of an unlikely first-ballot win over four strong rivals, and despite a selection process that should preclude any candidate from running away from the field.

While every member has a vote, all votes are not equal. That’s because each of the province’s 51 ridings is given equal weight regardless of the number of voting members a riding produces.

So, in order to win, a candidate needs fairly broad support spread across the province.

While no one is conceding a thing, and insiders in every campaign remain outwardly optimistic that they have a path to victory, the Houston camp has taken on an air of supreme confidence.

Houston himself, by the luck of the draw, got the last word at the sixth and final leadership debate in Truro last week, and used the opportunity to issue a warning to the premier.

“Stephen McNeil, I’m coming for you.”

Houston’s choice of the singular pronoun “I” rather than the plural — and inclusive — “we” offers more insight into the race than he intended.

Supporters of other candidates believe the Houston campaign has divided the party in two — those with Houston and everybody else — and they fear that rift will continue after the Oct. 27 leadership convention, should Houston win.

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