Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

Fickle townies, a Jack attack and Justin's coattails: St. John's East is back in play

It's hard to believe now, but St. John's East used to be the safest of Tory blue seats. As John Gushue writes, the volatility of the voters there is renowned, and is giving this year's race some pep.

This seat has changed sides no less than 6 times in just over 3 decades

Liberal Bonnie Hickey, New Democrat Jack Harris and Tory Jim McGrath all have one thing in common: they represented St. John's East in Parliament. (CBC)

It's safe to say one thing about St. John's East: it's not safe for anybody.

That is, anybody who is a politician. Voters in the riding have proven consistently that they like to change it up, having elected MPs from the Liberals, New Democrats and Conservatives in recent years.

 In fact, the seat has changed sides no less than six times in just over three decades.

No wonder it's considered such a swing riding — and this year features a rematch, to boot, with incumbent Nick Whalen, who yanked East from the NDP four years ago, facing a challenge from the very man he unseated, Jack Harris.

Being a swing wasn't always the way it rolled back in the day. For a few decades, St. John's East was Tory town, and was — most of the time, anyway — safely blue. That was when Jim McGrath held the seat in what historically looked like a personal fiefdom.

McGrath was just 25 when he was first elected in 1957, and — apart from a mid-Sixties interruption at the hands of Liberal Joseph O'Keefe — made the House of Commons his home for the next three decades.

They were called 'Fish & Chips'

His tenure included the 1979 election, when the PCs won and Joe Clark became prime minister. McGrath went into cabinet as fisheries minister, while neighbouring John Crosbie in St. John's West became finance minister — the local nickname for the duo, thus, was "Fish and Chips." (It still makes me chuckle.)

McGrath left office not at the whims of the electorate, but at the invitation of the Brians Mulroney and Peckford to become lieutenant-governor in the fall of 1986.

His seat remained vacant until the summer of 1987, when a young lawyer named Jack Harris made a bid for the NDP … and upended the sense of townie politics however. (It came less than a year after Gene Long won a provincial byelection in the downtown district of the same name.)

Tories of the ages must have been rolling in their graves to see the NDP triumph in their turf.

Rarin' to go: Anthony Germain speaks with candidates from the three major parties in St. John's East

Former NDP MP Jack Harris is gunning for his seat back. He is taking on incumbent Liberal Nick Whalen and Conservative Joedy Wall. 9:01

Harris's victory was short-lived. Ross Reid and the Tories took the seat back in 1988.  

But the new Tory era did not last long, because an even bigger upending was in store.

An upset for the ages

In 1993, Bonnie Hickey — a rookie who won a Liberal nomination that no one else seemed to want (until, of course, the election was over, when there were regrets all round) — swept Reid out of office, capping him at just one term.

No one was more shocked than Hickey herself. A now-retired colleague told me of how Hickey needed to be coaxed from behind a locked door on election night because she was so overwhelmed by the reality of actually winning.

There were more swings in store. Former provincial Tory minister Norm Doyle defeated Hickey in the 1997 election, and then held the seat for a little more than a decade.

And then Jack came back.

After Doyle's retirement, Harris won the seat by a landslide in 2008, a full two decades since he had last been an MP. In the interim, he had become a household name in local politics, as the provincial leader of the NDP.

But lest anyone think the seat had become safely orange, another disruption was looming. 

'So fuddle duddle happy'

Liberal Nick Whalen surprised himself, and everyone, by showing Harris the door in 2015.

"I'm so fuddle duddle happy, I could fuddle duddle cry," Whalen told supporters that night — echoing a deep cut of Canadian political trivia by adapting Pierre Trudeau's infamous 1971 quote about the F bomb other MPs swear they heard him utter in Parliament. 

Liberal MP Nick Whalen has made headlines a few times, including an eye-roll in the House of Commons to show his opinion of Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant. (House of Commons)

Whalen was no doubt helped by the surge of Liberal support across Canada in the final stage of the 2015 campaign. The Liberals, after all, took all seven of the seats in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Justin Trudeau's coattails don't seem as long at the start of the 2019 campaign, although Whalen heads into the race with the advantage of being an incumbent. 

Harris is itching for redemption, and appears to have mobilized the NDP machinery. 

Also running again: David Peters of the Greens. The party stalwart pulled 500 votes in the last election. 

A new candidate is Joedy Wall, the mayor of Pouch Cove, who is running for the Conservatives. Before you say "Joedy Who," let me repeat two words: Bonnie Hickey. The Tories have a natural constituency in the area, and if the national campaign picks up steam, don't rule anything out. 

That's good advice, either way.

St. John's East always seems like it's in play. The steady-as-she-goes era of Jim McGrath feels like a very long time ago indeed.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

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