Picking a political banner often depends on prevailing winds

By MARK COFFIN

“I was inspired by (Pierre) Trudeau. He captured the youth of my generation,” recalls Alexa McDonough. “But then I was really appalled by the shortfall between what was espoused on the election trail and what they actually did with the power that they got.”

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Alexa McDonough wasn’t the only member of the NDP who first engaged in politics as a young Liberal.

“I was inspired by (Pierre) Trudeau. He captured the youth of my generation,” she recalled. “But then I was really appalled by the shortfall between what was espoused on the election trail and what they actually did with the power that they got.”

Former NDP finance minister Graham Steele and former NDP backbench MLA Clarrie MacKinnon were also supporters of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau during their youth.

Very few of the former MLAs we sat down with for exit interviews spent much time hanging around political campaigns before running for office themselves. And if they did, it was often with a different party than the one they ran with.

“When I was at university, I supported Flora MacDonald, who was a Conservative,” recalls Leonard Preyra.

Preyra was an NDP MLA and cabinet minister and self-described lifelong social democrat. Being a social democrat, however, meant supporting candidates that championed social democratic values, regardless of which party those values showed up in.

“(Flora) was in many ways a role model,” Preyra told us. “I suppose I could just as easily run for a Red Tory, a Red Tory leader."

The overlap between the philosophies of social democrats and Red Tories was something we heard about from a handful of MLAs from both the NDP and the PC party.

“Oddly enough, (Progressive Conservative Premier) John Hamm and I got along very well in the years that we worked together; we still do. And you know, ideologically, I think the idea of social justice, you know, is something the Red Tories and the NDP have in common.”

This reality is often overshadowed by the partisan political dynasties of Nova Scotia — Elmer and Peter MacKay who served the riding of Central Nova. Premier Gerald Regan and his son, House of Commons Speaker Geoff Regan. Premier John Savage and Halifax Mayor Mike Savage.

It’s easy for us to mistake the exceptions for the rule. Before deciding to run, most MLAs were only marginally more involved in political parties than a typical engaged citizen who doesn’t belong to one.

So how did they choose the party they landed in?

“That's really a hard question to answer,” Francene Cosman tells us. Cosman was a Liberal MLA for the riding of Bedford in the 1990s, but she didn’t start out on the red team.

“Because, at one time I was a candidate for the Tory party because I wanted to oust the (Liberal) government of the day … who were putting the garbage dump in Bedford,” she recalls.

“Didn't have a sweet clue what any of it was about. I was a young woman with two small children and didn't get the nomination and sort of dropped back from the politics of the day around party affiliation.”

Cosman trained and worked as a nurse, and was later elected as the first mayor of the Town of Bedford. After serving as mayor, she applied to be the executive director of the Liberal party, and a few years later became a candidate.

During her time in the government, she served as the party’s whip while John Savage was premier. It was her job to keep Liberal MLAs in their seats and voting according to cabinet’s wishes. Cosman, like practically all former MLAs, remembers the key points along the path that brought her to the Liberal party.

But the party someone ran for was just as often a consequence of chance as much as it was a decision of ideology.

“Because they asked me to,” former cabinet minister, and MLA, George Archibald responds. That’s why he joined the PC party.

“My father and mother were both came from staunch Conservative families,” former Truro MLA Jamie Muir replied. “Not that that should influence a person.”

Tories in Nova Scotia have been known to jokingly describe the difference between their own party and the Liberals by saying: "They’re in and we’re out."

Darrell Dexter, the only leader of the NDP to make it to the premier’s chair, frequently described himself as a "conservative progressive." With an ideological spectrum this blurry, MLAs who didn’t have an airtight response to this question for themselves deserve some slack.

Of course, some MLAs put serious thought into choosing their parties. For those more deliberate about their choice, their personal values had strong congruence with the values and positions held by the party they ultimately chose.

Wayne Adams worked as a journalist, and was elected five times to municipal council before deciding to try his hand at provincial politics.

“I was courted heavily by both parties, all three parties, I should say,” he recalled. “I carefully looked at the parties — who did the most for my people for the most number of years, particularly in the history of my race in the province of Nova Scotia.”

Adams, the first African Nova Scotian to serve as an MLA, was elected in 1993.

He went to elders in his community of Preston, before deciding which party to run for. ‘"I'm thinking about running provincially,’ he told them. “‘Should it be NDP, Tory or Liberal?’

“Inadvertently, unanimously, with no exceptions, I was told ‘You better run Liberal, take care of your people because no one else will'.”

Want the full story? This article is an adapted excerpt from the weekly podcast.

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