Dominic Cardy is hoping a more moderate election campaign platform and a professional organization will catapult the NDP back into the Legislative Assembly.
The NDP has been without a seat in the legislature since the retirement of former leader Elizabeth Weir. The party was dealt a crushing blow in 2006 when the party’s support fell to 5.1 per cent and was unable to field a full slate of candidates.
Roger Duguay led the party into 2010 with low expectations and was able to double the party’s percentage of the popular vote to 10.3 per cent, but still the NDP was relegated to watching the debate inside the legislature from the visitor’s gallery.
Born: July 25, 1970
Education: Bachelor of Arts degree in political science at Dalhousie University
Political life: Acclaimed leader of the New Democratic Party in March 2011. Ran unsuccessfully in the 2012 Rothesay byelection.
Personal: Married to Margot Cragg.
He inherited a party that had roughly $300,000 in debt and several riding associations that were inactive. Cardy said he’s had to spend the last three years focusing on political fundraising and basic organization so the party could be ready for the Sept. 22 election.
“I worked quickly to recognize the problems,” he said.
“I put the focus on dealing with organizational problems and being public with them. I wanted to show people that if I can get the NDP into a state of a viable contender for government, considering these problems, then imagine what I can do if we can get this group of people into government.”
The early focus on repaying the party’s past debt also placed the NDP in a tough spot heading into the fall campaign.
“The biggest challenge [of the 2014 campaign] will be financial. I came in [as leader of the party with] $300,000 in debt on the books, we got rid of that but that meant we weren’t raising money for this campaign,” he said.
The NDP leader has fought to maintain a high profile since he became leader in 2011 despite not having a seat in the Legislative Assembly.
He worked with the Progressive Conservative government to have two anti-patronage bills introduced and then passed.
He was also consulted by Finance Minister Blaine Higgs on a part of the government’s legislation that requires political parties to disclose the costs of election promises during campaigns.
As well, Cardy ran in the Rothesay byelection in 2012 when former cabinet minister Margaret-Ann Blaney quit to become the president and chief executive officer of Efficiency New Brunswick.
Cardy finished in third place, but he was only behind the Liberals by about 170 votes.
Raised in Fredericton
Cardy, 44, was born in the United Kingdom but moved to Fredericton when he was young. He recalls early battles with teachers at George Street Middle School as formative in his political ideology.
“When I was a kid, watching fellow students having problems with teachers and principals and noticing kids in my class who came from poor families had more difficulties than kids in my class who came from middle-class families,” he said.
“I was angered by that and wanted to do something about that.”
Cardy graduated from Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University with a political science degree. While in Nova Scotia, he became the president of the province’s NDP youth wing, he worked as an assistant to a NDP MP in Cape Breton and he worked on several election campaigns.
In 2000, Cardy worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade on projects aimed at increasing support for banning land mines.
His frustration over inequality that started on the schoolyard in Fredericton led him to work to foster democracy in foreign countries. He worked for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs from 2001 to 2008.
Cardy helped promote democracy in Nepal, Bangladesh and Cambodia. During his time abroad, the NDP leader and those he worked with were threatened by political opponents over their work and beliefs.
He said those experiences help him understand how “incredibly lucky we are compared to other places in the world.”
In his personal time, Cardy likes to fly ultralight airplanes. He’s been flying the lightweight aircraft since he was 16.
Cardy jokes that he first learned to handle the headaches of government bureaucracy while trying to bring his ultralight plane with him while working overseas.
Flying planes, Cardy said, has demonstrated to him the importance of hard work and discipline.
“Every second in an airplane you have to be aware of everything around you and you have to be constantly aware of the variables,” he said.
Cardy’s leadership has hit a few snags along the way, particularly over his positioning of his party’s policy stances.
Cardy is a moderate and an admirer of former British prime minister Tony Blair, who championed a so-called Third Way instead of traditional left-wing policies as leader of the Labour Party.
There have been some who define NDP supporters or those who aligned themselves on the left of the political spectrum who have not embraced Cardy's moderation of the party’s stances.
'The idea that it is somehow left wing to be financially irresponsible and to have unbalanced budgets year after year is crazy. There is nothing left wing about being incompetent.' - Dominic Cardy
“There has been a real effort to modernize the policy and in some cases have a hard discussion of what it means to be a social democrat in New Brunswick in 2014,” he said.
“Being a social democrat in New Brunswick is to recognize the power of government to do good, but also power of the government to do bad things, but to recognize that.”
Cardy doesn’t shy away from the criticism from traditional supporters, who are uncomfortable with how he tacked his party closer to the centre of the political spectrum.
In many cases, Cardy argues, NDP policies have been implemented across Canada, such as the introduction of public health care. But he said some voters who described themselves as “progressive” are actually “conservative” in their desire not to change their long-held policy beliefs.
The NDP leader said he has no plans on refighting political fights that were won by previous NDP leaders decades ago. He said he wants to fight to build a better health system and improve literacy rates, instead of haggle over the merits of deficit spending.
“The idea that it is somehow left wing to be financially irresponsible and to have unbalanced budgets year after year is crazy. There is nothing left wing about being incompetent,” he said
“It is foolishness when people say spending more money than they have is progressive. That’s not progressive that’s irresponsible.”
The NDP experienced a surge in popular support early in 2011, when it hit 20 per cent. The party’s support hit a peak of 27 per cent in May 2013, which put the party within the margin of error of the Progressive Conservatives.
The party's support has slowly eroded in recent public opinion surveys. In May, support for the NDP dropped to 16 per cent, still well above the level of support the party received in the 2010 election campaign.
Cardy said the more consistent trend is the party being above 20 per cent in popular support. He also points to the high level of undecided voters in the polls as a positive sign for his party.
“People are looking for a reason to vote the party that was in there, but they didn’t have an option other than the traditional old-line parties. But I’ve been trying to show our party is a legitimate contender,” Cardy said.
J.P. Lewis, a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, said the NDP will need to work hard to clearly articulate a vision that is different than the two traditional party if the NDP hopes to win over a significant number of Tory or Liberal voters.
"I think he will have to put out a compelling platform that separates them and gives voters an alternative choice to the Liberals and the PCs," he said.
"And also to stop the tide nationally, where the NDP brand has been hurting. If you look federally, they have gone down, and obviously they had a bad election in Ontario and they lost government in Nova Scotia."
In order to show the party is ready to be taken seriously, Cardy said he plans to run a provincial campaign, instead of spending the entire writ period in his riding of Fredericton West-Hanwell.
“This is not just about me. I am not in this to be a single MLA sitting in there raising points, no matter how valid. I want to bring a government that reflects conscious of a whole province,” he said.
The UNB political scientist said Cardy is playing a risky game if he focuses too much of his effort on a provincial campaign rather than just working to secure his own seat. Lewis pointed to federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May who saw her party's share of the overall vote decrease in 2011 but she won her own seat in a British Columbia riding.
"Even if the NDP is popping up into the teens [in popular support], I don’t see how they could ignore putting all their resources into a couple ridings and getting a seat in the legislature," Lewis said.
Cardy will be in a unique position compared to his predecessors when it comes to visiting other ridings in the province where the NDP boasts high-profile candidates.
The NDP has also recruited candidates who once stood for election under a different banner. For instance, John Wilcox, who placed second for the Liberals in the same Rothesay byelection that Cardy ran in, will be running for the NDP in 2014.
Cardy said this high-profile recruits prove the NDP is now a serious party that voters can trust.
“New Brunswick deserves better,” Cardy said.
“We have to offer an alternative but the alternative has to be clearly distinct from the two old line parties.”