New Brunswick

Midway through 1st term, Saint John mayor considers provincial election run

Saint John Mayor Don Darling confirmed Tuesday that he's considering running for the Liberals in the September provincial election, saying his ability to bring about change might be better served in Fredericton.

Mayor Don Darling says representing Saint John Lancaster riding may be better fit for goal of driving change

Mayor Don Darling said the New Brunswick Liberal Party approached him about running in Saint John Lancaster, and he's seriously considering it. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

After weeks of speculation, Saint John Mayor Don Darling confirmed he is eyeing a run with the Liberals in the September provincial election.

Darling, who is halfway into his first term as mayor, said his influence and ability to effect change may be better served at the provincial level.

"It's about having a lasting impact, driving the change we need for the city, and improving the lives of our citizens," Darling said Tuesday.

"Having business, and the investment climate in the city improve, more clarity has come to me that the majority, if not all major change we need for Saint John to move forward and thrive, is provincial in nature."

Being mayor is like being chairman of the board with no vote.- Saint John Mayor Don Darling

The New Brunswick Liberal Party approached the mayor about running in the Saint John Lancaster riding.

The seat, in west Saint John, is held by Progressive Conservative MLA Dorothy Shephard.

Darling said he doesn't make light of his commitments as mayor, but "being mayor is like being chairman of the board with no vote," which he said can impede the results he's after.

"I think there will be some folks that would expect I should stay in my role of mayor, what I ask them to think about is, what's the objective here?" he said.

Many people in Saint John Lancaster are angry with the city and Darling about continuing problems with water. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

"If I believe that my energy and my passion can result in a better quality of life in a more sustainable Saint John … a thriving city where citizens feel that vibrancy, I'm asking for folks, if that's what I get to, I'm asking for folks to support that."

Shephard was skeptical that people would appreciate the mayor's switch to provincial politics after his brief experience as  mayor.

"‎I know the people of Saint John Lancaster, and they are not going to respond well to a Mayor who, after less than half his first mandate, is going to abandon his commitment," Shephard wrote in an email.

Darling would be tying himself to a government that has squandered energy opportunities and "signalled to the world that New Brunswick is closed for business," she said. "I'm up for that debate."

Water controversy

Taking the temperature of Saint John Lancaster might find the blood of many voters boiling over the way the city handled the switch to a new water system.

As part a safe drinking water project, about 5,600 customers in west Saint John were switched to water drawn from the South Bay well field instead of the Spruce Lake Reservoir in September.

Since then, 214 people have filed complaints with the city over leaking pipes and about 200 people have signed up to be part of a class-action lawsuit filed against the city. The city has not yet filed a statement of defence.

Darling has come in for criticism at public meetings, and frustrated residents and business owners also launched a ratepayers' association to deal with the water problems.

'A range of issues'

Darling said it's clear people in west Saint John are passionate about their city.

"If I look back 15 years from now and say I was able to give my all every day to put every ounce of passion in the job to make west Saint John a better place, what would that legacy look like?" Darling said.

"I think west siders care about water, but I think they also care about their tax rate, water rates, the economy, jobs, a future for their kids, a range of issues. And so do I, very passionately."

Moves to provincial politics mixed

Historically in Saint John, municipal officials taking a run at provincial office have had mixed results.

Former mayor Mel Norton didn't seek re-election as mayor and went on to make an unsuccessful run for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick.

Liberal Shelley Rinehart, the former deputy mayor, lost in the Saint John East byelection in 2014 and went on to lose in the mayoral race to Darling in 2016.

Former Ward 3 councillor and Conservative Carl Killen won by a meagre seven votes over Liberal Ed Doherty in the 2010 provincial election for Saint John Harbour, and in 2014 he was edged out by Doherty by 71 votes.

And in 2005, then deputy mayor Michelle Hooton ran unsuccessfully as a Tory in the byelection to replace Elizabeth Weir in Saint John Harbour. She later lost to Coun. Gerry Lowe in the 2013 byelection for Saint John's Ward 3.

'Toughest job'

Darling said serving as mayor "is the toughest job I ever had," and he is virtually on call all the time. 

"I get feedback everywhere I go, but I love it," he said. "I'm passionate about my city and I got into public service to make a lasting impact on my city.

"That hasn't changed. But I haven't figured out the best place to do that. I think it's worthy of some real consideration."

About the Author

Sarah Trainor is the morning newsreader at CBC New Brunswick. She has worked for the CBC since 2005.