New leader for NDP in Newfoundland and Labrador

Gerry Rogers, the MHA for St. John's Centre, is the new leader of the NDP in Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo: NL NDP

The race to lead the NDP in Newfoundland and Labrador ended Sunday night in St. John's with the election of Gerry Rogers, the MHA representing St. John's Centre, to the top position in the provincial party.

Rogers replaces interim leader Lorraine Michael, who served as leader following the resignation of Earle McCurdy, past head of the province's fisheries union, in September 2017. The leadership convention that selected Rogers also featured a keynote address by federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.

Rogers won 971 vote (67 per cent) to 479 votes (33 per cent) over economist and university instructor Alison Coffin, the party reported on Sunday evening, April 8. Coffin ran as a provincial candidate in Waterford Valley in 2015 and performed well. Her profession and perceived strength on economic communication figured prominently her campaign and in conversations with supporters. In 2015, for example, Coffin pointed out that the province was "definitely" in a recession, in contrast to reported remarks by the province’s then-Finance Minister Ross Wiseman.

Supporters of Rogers, speaking to rabble.ca at the convention on Sunday, cited her experience, personal qualities and commitment to a range of political causes.

“She’s a strong person. She’s a person who says how she feels and acts on it,” Rick Page, a party member who lives in St. John's, told rabble.ca.

"There's been times where she hasn't done what I've wanted her to do. But she'll always come to me and always say, 'Here's my reasons.' So she's a woman that really stands on principle. She works hard and she's very, very compassionate."

Page went on to express how Rogers' compassion had been meaningful for him on a personal level.

"My wife died eight months ago. ...Gerry came and helped me, helped me get through it. That's the kind of person that she is."

Harry Stone, a long-time NDP member from St. John's, was one of a number of party members who expressed that both candidates are well-liked within the party.

"I supported Gerry. Alison, on the other hand, is a good candidate as well. I don't think, policy-wise, there's a lot of difference,” Stone said. 

Renee Sharpe, a mayoral candidate in the most recent St. John's municipal election, also told rabble that the party membership is enthusiastic about both candidates.

"I really like Alison, I think she's fabulous. I'm a woman who works in collective organizations and I wish we could run this ship together!" Sharpe said. "She's a brilliant economist and obviously there's big strengths in that."

Stone also cited Rogers' seat in the legislature -- the NDP, while it has occasionally polled well, has struggled to win seats in Newfoundland and Labrador, especially outside of St. John's and Labrador West. 

"I think the main difference between the two of them is that we just had a situation where Earle McCurdy didn't have a seat in the House. Gerry has a seat, so she's probably more effective in being able to carry the NDP message." 

"One thing about Gerry is that she's got a long history of social engagement and social activism. She's a go-getter. She's the one who organized a 1,200-person town hall on mental health. And from that, her initiative on mental health in the House of Assembly was passed. ...So I think Gerry's been very effective."

Rogers' advocacy in the House of Assembly led to the creation of an all-party committee on mental health, and has also been credited with reinstatement of the domestic violence intervention court.

"I trust Gerry because she actively, primarily works towards including people who are living on the margins," Sharpe said. She went on to talk about the importance of Rogers' activism around inclusion of social minorities and the impact they face in times of austerity.

"When budgets come out and the cuts affect the most marginalized people in our fuckin' town, she does acknowledge that. She recognizes that and she fights against those cuts," said Sharpe.

Rogers will face the daunting task of improving the NDP's fortunes at a time when the province's finances are under significant stress, triggered in the short-term by a collapse in oil prices and high costs from the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project. Newfoundland and Labrador also faces population decline, especially of young and working adults. Premier Dwight Ball, though deeply unpopular in the aftermath of his government's 2016 austerity budget, has bounced back in popularity, as has his Liberal party. The NDP had polled in first place in May of that year but was not able to maintain that level of support. 

Despite these challenges, significant optimism from speakers and members was evident. 

"It's a good time for the NDP in Newfoundland," Sharpe told rabble, who contested the mayoral race in an election that saw a number of progressive candidates push out long-time councillors. 

"I see a room of people who are champions for people who need champions," said Earle McCurdy in his address Sunday morning. "Our values are in sync with Newfoundlanders and Labradorians."  

After winning, Rogers gave heartfelt thank-yous to her opponent Alison Coffin, past provincial leaders, Singh, party volunteers and her wife, Peg Norman.

"We will continue to work with all of you," Rogers said. "Thank you all for putting your trust in me. I believe that the role of a leader is to harness the energy and the expertise, the passion and the compassion of all of our people. The role of a leader is to embrace the leadership of all of you -- this room is filled with leaders. ...It's an incredible time to be a New Democrat and we have many opportunities ahead of us. We have to grasp those opportunities -- we have to grab those opportunities. We can and we will -- and I believe the people of Newfoundland and Labrador are ready for us."

Photo: NL NDP

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