Nova Scotia

Premier confirms chief of staff eyeing leadership run

Premier Stephen McNeil says he's talked to many people considering leadership bids and he intends to remain neutral.

Liberal Party releases detailed rules for leadership campaign as field takes shape

Premier Stephen McNeil says he plans to keep with tradition and remain neutral in the Nova Scotia Liberal Party leadership race. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Premier Stephen McNeil says he only found out last week his chief of staff, Laurie Graham, was interested in taking his job as leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party.

Graham has worked for McNeil in the premier's office since March 2016, first as principal secretary. She has been chief of staff since January 2019.

"I knew that people had called her thinking that she should run, and then I think last week she told me she owed it to them and to herself to consider it and that's what she's doing," he said following a ribbon cutting event in Kentville for a new hospice.

McNeil saw no problem with her continuing to be his top staffer despite her seeking support for a possible candidacy.

"Just as a cabinet minister may be considering it today, I have all the faith and confidence that she would not be using her position as the chief of staff in my office and she knows, as cabinet ministers know, that if they enter the race they will have to step down from their current positions."

Laurie Graham left her job as a reporter in Ottawa to come home to Nova Scotia to work for Premier Stephen McNeil in 2016. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Jane O'Neill, co-chair of the leadership campaign, agreed with that point during a briefing with reporters about the leadership campaign rule process and rules.

"As long as [any candidate] complies with the rules as written, we welcome any candidate who shows an interest."

Sources have told CBC News that Graham could step down to launch her bid as early as this week.

Campaign spending max of $350K

The rules for the campaign were released Monday.

They include the timeline for when the $50,000 entry fee must be paid, as well as an additional $10,000 compliance deposit, which is due at the time of a candidate's filing. The campaign spending limit will be $350,000 and all Elections Act rules regarding who can donate and donation caps will be in effect.

Although the names of anyone who donates more than $200 will eventually be made public through Elections Nova Scotia filings, O'Neill said right now the plan is for them to simply be reflected as having donated to the Nova Scotia Liberal Party. A decision has not been made yet about whether donors will be listed in terms which candidate their money supported.

"We'll look at it, and whether or not that's something that makes sense for us to be doing at a later date or not. But I can tell you that any one individual is certainly not in a position to donate more than the annual limit set by Elections Nova Scotia."

Delegates who are members of the party and have paid a $20 delegate fee ($15 comes back as a tax credit) will be able to vote electronically or by phone.

Voting will take place electronically or by phone from Feb. 1-6 using a preferential ballot. Each of the 55 electoral districts will be worth 100 points, assigned based on vote share. To win, a candidate must receive 2,751 points.

O'Neill said it hasn't been decided how many debates there will be, although the hope is there will be at least two. The debates, along with the convention itself and all campaign activity, must adhere to public health guidelines in relation to COVID-19, she said.

Field begins taking shape

With the rules for the leadership campaign now public, the field is starting to narrow.

Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter told CBC News on Monday that he's decided against making a run. Porter said he made the decision on the weekend.

Business Minister Geoff MacLellan and Health Minister Randy Delorey have also said they're out.

Their cabinet colleague, Labi Kousoulis, is considering a bid, he said Monday.

The Halifax Citadel-Sable Island MLA was first elected in 2013 and has served in several cabinet portfolios, most recently as labour and advanced education minister.

"I've had a lot of people reach out to me," said Kousoulis, a certified management accountant who said people he's talking with appreciate his financial background and the fact he spent time working in rural Nova Scotia.

"I don't take these decisions lightly. I will be talking to Liberals and Nova Scotians and moving forward."

Others mulling leadership bids

All signs also point to Community Services Minister Kelly Regan jumping in the race. The MLA for Bedford was first elected in 2009.

A statement from the "Kelly Regan Campaign" on Monday said the minister would announce her intentions at a formal event next week, and that she "continues to engage with party members around the province as she works toward this announcement."

Education Minister Zach Churchill and Immigration Minister Lena Diab have both said they're considering leadership runs.

Central Nova MP Sean Fraser, who is also the parliamentary secretary to the federal finance minister, and Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin have said they are weighing their options.

Asked about his thoughts on Graham's possible candidacy, McNeil suggested anyone taking over the party would be carrying on the work he started in the fall of 2013 when he led the Liberals back to power after almost 15 years on the opposition benches.

"Listen, I'm thrilled that Nova Scotians want to continue the work that we've had," he said. "The fact that we've had strong people stepping forward, I think it's a good idea that people outside of government are looking at it."

Premier plans to remain neutral

McNeil says he has spoken to other possible contenders about the job and offered them his advice and insight. He doesn't think Graham, who spent several decades as a reporter for CBC and then CTV before working for McNeil, has an unfair advantage by being his chief of staff.

"No, I don't. I believe when the race starts, those who put their names forward will be at the same footing."

The premier said he plans to stay neutral in the upcoming campaign, as tradition dictates.

"Every one of them [has] called me, asked me my opinion [and for] my thoughts."

McNeil laughed when asked if he had dissuaded or asked any of the potential candidates to hold off throwing their hats in the ring.

"Not at all," he said.

"I've said to everyone my job will be to keep this team together as we go through a leadership process."

The Liberals will elect their new leader on Feb. 6. Candidates have until Oct. 9 to officially enter the race.