Social activist and former Roman Catholic nun Lorraine Michael easily won the leadership of the Newfoundland and Labrador New Democratic Party Sunday.

Michael defeated writer Nina Patey, who had sought office twice for the NDP during the 1980s, with a 107-5 vote count.

"Folks, I know we can make it work, and I know we can get an NDP government in Newfoundland and Labrador," Michael told delegates at a St. John's meeting hall.

Michael replaces Jack Harris, who has led the provincial NDP since 1992. Harris announced last October his intention to step down as leader.

Michael said her primary goal is to build district associations that can wage viable campaigns for the general election expected in fall 2007.

Her immediate goal, though, is to get elected to the legislature.

"This summer will go towards getting my name out there, getting my message out there, meeting people and making sure we're ready for hopefully a byelection that will get me into the house," she said.

Harris, a lawyer who has held the downtown St. John's district of Signal Hill-Quidi Vidi since 1990, said he will fight to keep the district in the NDP camp.

"She's committed to working with people and that means bringing people into the party and having a strong team going into the next election," Harris said.

"I think it speaks well for the future."

The NDP currently holds just two of the 48 seats in the legislature, and has never been able to form a larger caucus.

Michael's election helps set the table for the next provincial election. The Liberals are again seeking a leader, following the resignation almost three weeks ago of fledgling leader Jim Bennett.

Bennett, a west coast lawyer with no previous political experience, was unopposed for the Liberal leadership contest this winter. He stepped down amid obvious acrimony in the provincial caucus over his leadership style.

Both the Liberals and NDP will be challenged to unseat Danny Williams' Progressive Conservative government, which has been holding a strong lead in public opinion surveys.

For instance, the most recent Corporate Research Associates tracking poll, released in March, found that the PCs had 69 per cent of decided voter support. In the same poll, the Liberals had 18 per cent and the NDP had 10 per cent.

Michael is new to elected politics, but has been active in social campaigns for years.

While a nun, she ran a left-leaning social action committee within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's, and spoke out frequently during the 1980s and early 1990s on issues such as poverty, unemployment and gender equality.

Michael left the church in 1993, disillusioned with its handling of complaints of sexual abuse by clergy.