New Brunswick·Profile

Riding spotlight: Why Saint John Harbour is one to watch

With strong candidates, a history of close races, and a diverse electorate, the campaign in Saint John Harbour is heating up.

Well-known Saint Johners Liberal Gerry Lowe and PC Barry Ogden in a race with NDP Leader Jennifer McKenzie

Running in Saint John Harbour are, from left, Progressive Conservative Barry Ogden, Liberal Gerry Lowe, New Democrat Jennifer McKenzie and Wayne Dryer of the Green Party.

Saint John is a city of contrasts — and nowhere illustrates that better than the electoral district of Saint John Harbour.

The riding stretches from Mount Pleasant — with residents including billionaires Arthur and John Irving — to the gritty subsidized apartments in the Rifle Range, the working-class lower west side, and the hard-up but slowly gentrifying south end.

With a history of tight elections and two well-known Saint Johners running for the two leading parties, Saint John Harbour — with its mix of lower and upper-middle class neighbourhoods — will be a race to watch. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Voter engagement is usually low in Saint John Harbour. In the last provincial election, only 5,253 people of the 11,229 on the list of electors cast a ballot — an abysmal turnout of 48 per cent.

It's often a nail-bitingly close race. In 2014, Liberal MLA Ed Doherty won by a scant 71 votes. Before that, Progressive Conservative Carl Killen defeated Doherty by just nine votes.

The Red Rose Mansion on Mount Pleasant Avenue, which falls within the riding of Saint John Harbour. (Julia Wright / CBC)

With outgoing Liberal MLA Ed Doherty retiring this year, the contenders for the two leading parties are PC Barry Ogden, a community activist and retired teacher, and Liberal Gerry Lowe, a city councillor and longtime businessman.

While similar in some ways — both are lifelong Saint Johners, both newcomers to the parties they hope to represent, both immensely connected to the city — their campaigns reveal radically different approaches.

Signs for Gerry Lowe and Barry Ogden on the corner of Prince Street and Route 1 on the lower west side. Both men are well-known in the city for their work on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised, but when it comes to campaigning, they take two radically different approaches. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Hoping to recapture the riding for the NDP is the party's leader, Jennifer McKenzie. The Greens are fielding small business-owner and Green Party candidate Wayne Dryer.

With less than three weeks before the Sept. 24 election, the campaign is heating up — and the neighbourhoods around Saint John's freezing-cold harbour are ones to watch.

The riding encompasses the neighbourhoods loosely arranged around the Saint John Harbour, pictured. It includes everything below Lancaster Street, on the west side, neighbourhoods from Reversing Falls Bridge up to the Rifle Range, and the southern peninsula as far east as Haymarket Square. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Man of many projects

Barry Ogden proudly points out the scuffs on his brown dress shoes.

"People want to see the candidate," he said. "I can tell you that doing 8,000 homes is quite a rigorous chore … I've worn my shoes out. I actually have no tread left."

Barry Ogden, second from left, canvasses door-to-door with volunteers Kelly Goodick, Christopher McCready and David McCready. 'People want to see the candidate,' according to Ogden, who said he's personally visited some 8,000 doors since he started campaigning in February. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Ogden has been a relentless promoter of the Marigold Project, University of New Brunswick Saint John football, and his multi-decade attempt to have a full-scale model of the Marco Polo built in Saint John. With succession plans in place for his volunteer efforts, he said, he's focusing 100 per cent on his political ambitions.

Ogden's platform echoes causes he's championed over his volunteer career.

"We need to solve that problem of having the oldest schools, the highest child poverty rate, the most slums and the most illiteracy," Ogden said.

A campaign sign near the entrance to the Rifle Range, a low-income neighbourhood in the north end of Saint John. All four candidates emphasize that poverty and disenfranchisement are the biggest issues facing the riding. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Excessive taxation, he said, is also "a big issue."

"We're sending far too much tax to Fredericton under Gallant, and it's just increasing," he said, adding that "with the carbon tax it will be far worse."

Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs has promised, if elected, to refund any carbon-tax revenue to New Brunswickers if Ottawa imposes its own pricing regime on the province. 

"I taught political science and I know how the rules and laws were written against Saint John, and that's something I want to change," Ogden said.

Tough, behind-the-scenes approach

Gerry Lowe might be a politician. But politicking isn't his style.

"I don't like cold-knocking on doors," he said.

"It's not my piece of cake."

At 76, with a Grade 11 education, he's made his name as a cab company owner, firefighter, a union rep for Canada Post, and as the owner of dozens of bars, restaurants and billiard halls.  

While he's reluctantly joined Facebook, he's not into "techie stuff." When asked about Twitter or Instagram, he demurs.

"I don't know what those are," he said.

But his phone rarely stops ringing, and he's constantly talking to voters on the street, at Tim Hortons, or at community barbecues.

"You have to run the campaign based on yourself," he said.

Gerry Lowe, a city councillor, businessman and former union rep for Canada Post, said he realized after Frank McKenna asked him to run that 'there are so many things that have to be changed and they all exist in Fredericton.' (Julia Wright/ CBC)

A city councillor for five years, he played a key role in successfully persuading council to ask the province to repeal the city's longstanding tax deal with Irving Oil on the Canaport LNG terminal.

He decided to run provincially for the Liberals at the request of Brian Gallant and former premier Frank McKenna.

"There are so many things that have to be changed and they all exist in Fredericton," Lowe said.

His major concerns include affordable housing and fair taxation — especially greater control for the municipality over taxes and assessments and phasing out double taxation.

Carmarthen Street looking down to the south end, where both Gerry Lowe and Barry Ogden say a new school is needed. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"I'm sure Barry wants a school [for the south end] — but I think I know how to get a school," Lowe said.

"Where I have an advantage is I've been a councillor for five years, I know the workings of the province, and I know the workings of the city.

"I don't have a great education or nothing, but I'm pretty street smart when it comes to that, and I can do good for the city."

NDP hoping for a comeback

The New Democrats also have a foothold in Saint John Harbour.

NDP Leader Jennifer McKenzie is seeking to recapture the success of former party leader and MLA Elizabeth Weir, who represented the riding from 1991 to 2005.

Fredericton-born McKenzie became party leader in the summer of 2017 after four terms as chair of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. She lived until recently in St. Martins, where she ran for the federal NDP in Fundy Royal in 2015.

NDP candidate Jennifer McKenzie, right, speaks with south ender Judith Meinert at her home on Princess Street. Because the riding is so diverse, McKenzie said, 'you’re going to get a diversity of points of view, which I think makes it a rich and interesting place to live.' (Julia Wright / CBC)

She recently bought a house at the base of Mount Pleasant, and has been campaigning in the riding for "eight or nine months."

She has called for Lowe to withdraw from the race because of a conflict of interest with his position as a city councillor. (Under the elections Act, Lowe would only have to resign from council if he wins a seat in the legislature.)

Saint John Harbour has been a close race in past elections. In 2014, outgoing Liberal MLA Ed Doherty won by a scant 71 votes. Before that, Doherty lost to Progressive Conservative Carl Killen by just seven. (Julia Wright / CBC)

McKenzie has campaigned on a promise to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

"It's a beautiful riding with beautiful people," said McKenzie, an engineer by training.

"But I've encountered some poverty that is just heart-wrenching … I think it's imperative that we address that.

"The NDP has always fought for the everyday person, for the worker, for people living in poverty. There's a lot of need, and a lot of diversity in this riding." 

Evolving Green Party

They say the third time's a charm — and Wayne Dryer is hoping to prove the adage true. 

Dryer ran for the New Democrats in 2010, and the Greens in 2014, but the Green Party candidate says this year's race in Saint John Harbour is different.

Green Party candidate Wayne Dryer has lived in the south end for over 30 years and operates a small business in the north end. 'The real decisions that affect New Brunswickers are not being made by the legislature,' Dryer said. 'They’re being made by larger economic forces. ' (Julia Wright / CBC)

"I've watched the way the party has grown from a party that had really good ideas, to a party that has really good plans and really competent people," he said.

Acknowledging injustices against First Nations people and standing up against the "larger economic forces" that control New Brunswick, he said, are top of mind.

"The economic factors will be a part of that decision-making process, but we will make the decisions and take the responsibility," he said.

"We don't owe anybody any favours and we're not going to be controlled by any other entities."

The view from the Sydney Street side of Queen Square. With 10,828 people on the list of electors in 2018, and the riding's long record of low voter engagement, tapping into the issues that unite a diverse riding is one challenge facing the four candidates. (Julia Wright / CBC)

While he acknowledges the Green Party likely won't form a government, "it is very likely that we could hold the balance of responsibility in a coalition government if neither the Liberals or the Conservatives form a majority," he said.

"If that happens, we'll start to see a real democratic process taking place. One part or the other will not be able to totally control the agenda."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Information Morning Saint John host

Julia Wright is a lifelong Saint Johner and the host of Information Morning Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.