Paul Davis became leader of Newfoundland and Labrador’s governing Tories on Saturday but not before a strange twist at a delegated convention split the embattled party in half.
Progressive Conservatives who voted to elect the man who will become the province’s 12th premier had to go to an unexpected third ballot after support fractured in a virtual tie on the second ballot.
In the end, Davis won 351 of 677 ballots cast compared to 326 for John Ottenheimer.
Davis in his victory speech urged members to prepare together for the battle ahead against the surging Opposition Liberals.
“Coming out of this convention our party is, and has to remain, united and focused and with mutual goals and vision in mind. And I want to assure the people of Newfoundland and Labrador that we are here to govern in their best interests.
“We all came here yesterday supporting our individual candidates. And today we leave as one united team.”
Time will tell how easily leadership rifts will mend.
The decision by party electoral officers to declare that the second ballot was short of a clear majority stoked frustration and had some delegates openly arguing with each other.
Davis had won 340 votes compared to 339 for Ottenheimer. There were 680 ballots cast but one was spoiled with an ‘X’ marked for each candidate, said John Noseworthy, the party’s chief electoral officer.
“An absolute majority shall mean more than 50 per cent of the valid ballots cast on any particular ballot,” the party’s constitution says.
But Noseworthy said he ruled, in consultation with lawyers and top convention officials, that “absolute majority” means 50 per cent plus one vote. In other words, Davis would have needed 341 votes for a clear win, Noseworthy told reporters before stepping out of the briefing to cast his third-ballot vote.
Noseworthy stressed that his decision is final and without appeal under the party constitution.
The third-ballot twist left delegate organizers scrambling to call back supporters who had already left the St. John’s Convention Centre.
Jerome Kennedy — a Davis supporter, lawyer and former justice minister whose seat was lost to the Liberals after he quit politics last year — was livid.
He said “more than 50 per cent” in the constitution should mean simply that.
Davis and Ottenheimer went head-to-head after 36-year-old Steve Kent was knocked out of the race after the first ballot.
Kent immediately backed Davis, 53. The two men served in cabinet together until they both stepped down earlier this year to seek the leadership.
Kent also challenged the party’s interpretation of absolute majority, declaring on Twitter: “340 to 339 is NOT a tie.”
“It is what it is,” he said in an interview when asked if that approach might worsen the party split.
Ottenheimer, 61, left politics in 2007 due to health issues and later served as chairman of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.
Davis must call an election within 12 months of taking office. He told reporters late Saturday that he’s not sure when his swearing-in will happen but it will be soon.
The outcome of the second ballot Saturday was the latest strange twist in the party’s attempt to find a new leader to replace former premier Kathy Dunderdale.
A leadership convention scheduled for earlier this summer was cancelled when businessman Frank Coleman unexpectedly quit for unspecified family reasons. He was the only candidate left in the race after the party disqualified one challenger and the other contender dropped out.
The Tories have held majority power since 2003 and were a potent force under former premier Danny Williams. They had hoped Saturday’s old-style leadership convention would help boost the party after a popularity slump.
Dunderdale won re-election in 2011 after Williams retired from politics but she quit in January amid questions about her leadership and after Newfoundland-wide power blackouts.
The party has lost four straight byelections — three of them in districts that were held by senior cabinet ministers, including the one held by Dunderdale.
Ottenheimer is a veteran of several cabinet portfolios and was health minister in 2005 amidst a scandal over botched breast cancer tests. He apologized for his role at that time during the second of three leadership debates.
He cast himself Saturday as “the candidate of change and the candidate of renewal.”
Ottenheimer took the stage alongside Kent and Davis after the final results were in.
Davis, a former police officer, called on all supporters to rejuvenate the party.
“Today is a fresh start. It’s a new beginning and it represents an opportunity to re-establish our party in Newfoundland and Labrador.”