Byelection a must win for Tories in Steve Kent's old district

It's the first byelection since the Liberals swept to power in 2015, the first chance for voters to pass judgement.

All three parties have a lot more stake in Mount Pearl North than just a seat in the legislature

Jim Burton, Nicole Kieley and Jim Lester are all trying to become the MHA for Mount Pearl North but each of their parties also have a lot at stake in this byelection (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

It's the first byelection since the Liberals swept to power in 2015, the first chance for voters to pass judgement.

All three parties are trying hard to win the race. At stake is not just a seat in the legislature, but a chance to start building a narrative towards the next election.

Jim Lester, PC

PC candidate Jim Lester is playing up his farming background, and a family name that's been in the area for 200 years. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

This district should be Jim Lester's to lose. The area has been solidly Progressive Conservative for the past 24 years.

Lester is battle tested, he ran in Mount Pearl-Southlands in 2015 and came within a few hundred votes of beating then-Liberal Paul Lane.

He's playing up his down to earth farming background, which is why he's the only candidate wearing overalls on his election signs.

And that Lester name, known for its farm fresh produce, is one he's leveraging in this campaign.

"I've lived here. My kids go to school here. The Lester family in particular, we've been in Mount Pearl for almost 200 years. So I would like to hope that people will look at the individual and see what they themselves can bring," he said in between knocking on a residential street in St. John's.

He'll have to draw on his own name recognition to win.

Steve Kent was an MHA with a lot of personal popularity in the district. And even though Lester said the two are friends, Kent's new job managing the City of Mount Pearl means he has to stay out of the race, he can't campaign to ensure his past supporters vote for Lester in the future.

This race also comes at a time of transition for the party. Paul Davis is leaving as leader but his replacement hasn't yet been decided.

The district of Mount Pearl North has been held by the Progressive Conservatives for 24 years.

But Lester and the PCs are counting on low approval numbers for the Liberal government to keep voters from voting Liberal.

"I think when people go to the go to the ballot box they're going to say 'OK well, if I say yes to the Liberals, I'm saying it's been OK. You know, keep doing what you're doing. And we'll see again in 2019,'" said Lester.

The PC Party thinks it has a shot at ousting the Liberals in 2019, and that ambition makes this a must win for the party.

It's not a good sign for picking up enough seats in 2019 if the party can't even hang on to a traditionally safe seat in a byelection.

Jim Burton, Liberal

Jim Burton meets with a supporter during door-to-door campaigning (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

The Liberal Party also thinks it has a shot at taking the seat, which would be the first time it's been Liberal since 1993.

A recent 17 point jump in the polls has put a spring back in the Liberal step (even if no one in the party can point to a direct cause in that surge) and people inside the party know that Jim Burton is the best candidate they could ask for.

Burton already has name recognition from real estate and for the charity work he's done.

He's chair of the board of directors for Hope Air, a charity that helps with travel for people needing medical appointments.

Burton is now hoping to turn his success in other areas of life into success in politics, and at 58 years-old, he said he's running out of time to make the jump.

"Now is the time, if I'm going to do this, I have to do it now," he said.

"Really it's all about passion and wanting to give back. Myself and [my wife] Dera have done very well in our business life throughout Newfoundland and Labrador," he said.

He almost got into federal politics in 2015. After initially saying he'd run for the Liberal nomination in St. John's South-Mount Pearl, he bowed out, citing ongoing business interests, paving the way for Seamus O'Regan to run.

Burton's back room work with the party, helping candidates, and helping to raise hundreds of thousands for the party, has earned him many favours that he can now cash in.

In the week since he's been campaigning he's had the premier and numerous cabinet ministers and MHAs making the rounds on his behalf.

The federal Liberals are still extremely popular in the province, and so last weekend's door knocking with O'Regan is influential.

But he downplays that part of his campaign.

"I'm not really interested in a free ticket. I'm someone who's always worked hard for what I achieved in my life. This is no different," Burton said.

For the Liberals there's very little downside in this byelection. If they lose, the excuses are already written. It's a traditionally PC area and byelections are usually hard for governments.

But if they win, it's a boost of confidence in the party, and in Dwight Ball as premier.

Nicole Kieley, NDP

Nicole Keiley says her accomplishments stack up against two better known candidates (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Like the PC's, this byelection comes as the NDP is starting to turn its attention to finding a new leader.

Earle McCurdy stepped down in September, leaving Lorraine Michael to run the party until a new leader can be chosen.

Nicole Kieley, the party's candidate, knows that any success will come from her own track record in the community, not because of strong traditional support for the NDP.

She doesn't have the same brand name recognition as Burton or Lester, but she thinks her accomplishments will stack up.

"Certainly there [are] well known folks. I feel that I am somebody who has contributed to the community. It's one thing to be well known and then there's another thing to be an individual who has lived and supported an area and known in a way of contributing," she said.

Nicole Kieley's says her work in for non profit groups will give voters a socially progressive choice in the by-election (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Kieley headed up the graduate students union at Memorial University, the Women in Resource Development Corporation and currently leads the NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre.

It will be a tough race for Keiley to make her mark however, with the NDP a distant third in polls provincially.

The best a candidate has done in the area was Cle Newhook, who got 20.7 per cent of the vote in 1988. Exceeding that number would already be a win.

It's not just the three big parties with candidates, Hudson Stratton has also entered the race as an independent.

But all three parties know that a byelection win gives you not just a seat in the legislature, but momentum and bragging rights.

About the Author

Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.