‘The worst thing…’

There were many moments in her long political career when Alexa McDonough believed the NDP was finally on the cusp of an electoral breakthrough — none as exhilarating but none as ultimately devastating as the 1988 Nova Scotia general election. Alexa McDonough, the former leader of the Nova Scotia and federal New Democratic Parties died on Saturday, January 15, 2022, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. In this excerpt from ‘Alexa! Changing the Face of Canadian Politics,‘ author Stephen Kimber reconstructs the pivotal moment that changed that election’s outcome.

Alexa, centre, with fellow MLAs John Holm(l) and Bob Levy(r) circa 1984-88.

“Alexa?” The voice at the other end of the phone was tentative. The voice belonged to Bob Levy, the NDP’s other star MLA. It was the morning of Thursday, July 29, 1988, and Nova Scotia was days, perhaps hours, from the launch of a provincial general election campaign.

“I’m afraid I’m calling with some bad news,” Levy began. He paused.

Was he sick, she wondered? “Bob, are you OK?”

“I’m not running.” He said it quickly, blurted it almost, then stopped, waited.

Not running? What was he saying? Not running! “Bob you can’t . . . Not on such short notice. The election’s about to be called, and —”

He cut her off. “Wait, Alexa. You’d better hear the rest because you’re not going to be happy when I tell you what I’m doing. . . . I’ve accepted a judgeship.”

Silence. Stunned silence. “Bob, you can’t!”

“I already did.”

She didn’t cry, she would remember later, “but I felt like it.” Instead, she argued, she cajoled, she begged. “Forget me, forget John Holm,” she told him. “We can recover one way or the other, and it’s not your responsibility to worry about us. But can’t you just think about all those people who bled for you, who worked their guts out to get you elected, who gave you money they couldn’t afford, who pounded on doors for you, who pounded the pavement, broke ranks with their traditional Tory and Liberal roots to support you? They’re going to be devastated. You can’t be . . .” She stopped, waited. There was another strained, awkward silence from Levy’s end of the line, incredulity and mounting anger from hers. “You can’t be serious,” she continued finally. “I mean you have to wait, at least until after the election—”

“It’s done,” he said flatly. “The deal’s only on offer if I’m willing to . . .” His voice trailed off. “The announcement is going to be made tomorrow and they’re going to call the election Saturday.”

Finally, Alexa McDonough, whose relentlessness and persuasiveness in discussions had become legendary, faced reality. “It’s a done deal,” she thought to herself. “There’s no point. It’s over. It’s just gonna be a hell of an election.” It would.

They hung up with the most perfunctory of goodbyes.

Thirty years later, the wounds were still raw, the scabs unhealed. “Once in a while,” Alexa said, “someone will ask me, ‘What’s the worst thing that ever happened in all your years of politics?” Her unequivocal answer: the personal and political “devastation” of Bob Levy’s phone call that morning. Alexa still saw it as a betrayal of everything they’d stood together for, fought against, schemed and dreamed about, even imagined would one day could happen.

Bob Levy, unsurprisingly, saw it differently.

None of that mattered. The end result was that, after their conversation ended that morning—fully resolved, and yet not resolved at all—the two former political soulmates would not speak another word to one another for more than twenty-five years. And then, even when they met by chance, their conversation would be perfunctory, elliptical, never quite getting to the questions both of them so desperately wanted answered.[1]

***

If you’re going to understand the importance of that pivotal phone call to each of them, to their party, and to politics in Nova Scotia, you need to rewind, understand what went before between them and how they each got to the point of that July 1988 phone call.

They’d worked together in the NDP trenches for more than a decade. As with Alexa, politics coursed through Bob Levy’s veins. His father, Clifford, had been a Tory MLA and cabinet minister in the Stanfield era. Growing up, Bob learned the peculiar ways of Nova Scotia’s electoral politics on gravel backroads, handing out pints of rum from the trunk of his father’s car on election day to those who promised to vote the right way. In 1970, while still in law school, he ran as a Progressive Conservative candidate in Lunenburg West, but was swept into the electoral sea by the Liberal tide that brought Gerald Regan to power.

It was a law-school summer job the next year, as a counsellor at the Shelburne School for Boys, a youth detention centre, that “knocked me off my Conservative pins. Those kids had so many strikes against them.” He began to see the province’s ubiquitous patronage system as part of the problem. By the time he graduated, Levy had given up on electoral politics. At about the time Alexa was abandoning her brief flirtation with the Liberals, Levy had moved to Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley and gone to work for Nova Scotia Legal Aid. He soon realized his own political thinking most closely aligned with the New Democratic Party. He began attending local meetings. People could see he was smart, articulate, witty. By 1978, he’d been elected provincial president and, while Alexa was busy winning their party’s leadership, Levy had helped guide the membership through the divisive Paul MacEwan debacle and laid the ground for the party’s slow rebuilding.

Levy had put himself on the electoral line too. Like Alexa, he’d run in the 1979 and 1980 federal elections, coming third both times. In the 1981 provincial election in which Alexa finally won her seat, Levy placed second in King’s North. He’d run again in the neighbouring King’s South riding in a 1984 by-election, finishing second once more before finally—on his sixth try!—winning a seat in the 1984 general election, “squeaking out a huge majority” of eighteen votes.

With Alexa’s re-election in Halifax and the comfortable victory of John Holm, a junior high school teacher and local activist in Sackville, a middle-class Halifax suburb, the NDP finally had a mainland legislative beachhead, and official status as a party, on which to build.

They had done just that. And then . . .

***

Bob Levy would remember his whirlwind four years as an MLA as “wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, working with Alexa and John.” The three weren’t personally close outside the legislature, “but we worked well together. Alexa led, but not with a heavy hand. If I wanted to go off on a tangent, I was free to do that. We trusted one another.”

The issue of Nova Scotia’s entrenched, intractable political patronage system was less a tangent than a fundamental tenet for both of them. Levy made a point of telling reporters it had been one of the main reasons he’d left the Conservatives. “I think it’s contemptible, I think it’s corrupt. I think it’s base one hundred different ways.”

“He could be so good in flights of rhetoric and on such a high, really charged up and enthusiastic and energizing for other people,” Alexa would reflect years later. “He was very effective, and a much better speaker than I was. In particular,” she added meaningfully after a moment, “he was a very well-informed, articulate spokesperson and devastating critic of patronage appointments and in particular, patronage appointments of judges.”

Opposition to patronage was one of the key ways in which Levy had established and defined his politics, but only one. He, McDonough and Holm each had to cover off half a dozen different critics’ assignments, with Levy trying to keep up with the disparate goings on in such disparate portfolios as fisheries, the justice department, lands and forests. They were inevitably “stretched thin,” trying to make voters imagine there were far more of them than was the case. When they weren’t in the House, they were on the road, speaking to small crowds of party supporters in far-flung constituencies, touting their legislature good fights, pressing the flesh, stirring the partisan pot for next time.

Bob Levy fully assumed he would be part of that next time. And the one after that. But then it all came tumbling down.

The year before he’d won his seat in the legislature, Levy had quit his Nova Scotia Legal Aid job to launch a modest one-person practice, hoping to make a better living while continuing to do good. “It was a struggle to get it off the ground,” he recalled, made only more difficult because he continued representing many of his couldn’t-afford-him-anymore legal aid clients. “That wasn’t a help.” Once he became an MLA, he had even less time to devote to finding a paying clientele. “I was juggling the last of my mother’s inheritance just to keep it solvent.”

And then, his marriage to Barb Levy, another prominent NDP activist, fell apart. The breakdown had been coming for some time, Levy admitted, though he had missed the signs. “I wasn’t willfully blind,” he said later. “I was stupidly blind.” They had three sons, two still at home, “and I was not a good father for them. I’d left everything to my wife while I travelled all over the province.” He and his wife had already split once in 1987—“she dated her thesis supervisor”—but then got back together, vowing to try one more time to make their marriage work. It didn’t. In April 1988, she told him their marriage was finished. They could share custody of the boys, but . . .

“I was devastated. I was just a wreck, just stumbling along,” he remembered of the days that followed. He sought professional help. His counsellor said to him: “You’re forty-one years old. If I was to meet you in ten years when you’re fifty-one, what would you want to be able to say to me? That, ‘I’m a successful politician.’ Or that, ’I’m a successful father.’”

That conversation became Bob Levy’s reality slap. He couldn’t save his marriage, he knew that, but perhaps he could become a better parent. He would abandon his political ambitions, spend more time with his sons. Perhaps he could rescue his law practice, or rejoin legal aid, or find a job at one of the larger law firms in the Annapolis Valley. With his legal reputation and track record, he was “supremely confident” he could get a job with one of them. Or, maybe, he thought, he might just find a good, secure government job that would offer him the bonus of more time to spend with his kids. One day, he quietly approached the attorney general, Terry Donahoe. “‘You got any judgeships lying around,’” he joked. “I really was joking. I didn’t expect that to happen. I was just interested in finding a job. And Terry was non-committal.”

He said he told Alexa about his marriage breakdown and that he was considering applying for a government job, but not that he’d broached the idea of a judicial appointment. But he did tell her he wouldn’t re-offer in the upcoming provincial general election. He said he made that clear. On more than one occasion. And in more than one way. On May 25, 1988, the final day of the last spring session of the last legislature before an expected provincial election, Levy spoke eloquently in the House about the Meech Lake Accord. Buchanan’s Conservatives had pushed through a resolution supporting the constitutional deal, more on the strength of their numbers in the legislature than on the strength of their arguments in its support. The Tories, Levy declared, demonstrated “the negotiating style of a schoolyard bully . . . That is, maybe more than anything, a fitting way to end this session of the legislature and, perhaps, this general assembly, Mr. Speaker. This is the way history is written. We are not always favoured to be glorified and, in this instance, we don’t deserve it.”[2]

Levy sat down, turned to Alexa. “That’s it, then,” he declared with finality. “My last speech in the legislature.” Remembered Levy, “she gave me a look. We didn’t talk about it then, and I think maybe she thought she could change my mind.”

For her part, Alexa remembered Levy as mercurial, and not always easy to read. At times, she said, “he’d just be really, really down in the doldrums, just discouraged, kind of defeated feeling, ‘Oh we’re never going to be able to make a real impact.’ [He was] not an easy person, a restless person.” She shrugged. “Sometimes those qualities also go with being an in-your-face New Democrat.”

Levy might have made the same point. “I remember somewhere along the line, Alexa and I were in her office. She was discouraged. Things weren’t going well. And she said something about stepping aside. ‘Why don’t you take over, Bob?’” Levy said he had no interest in the leader’s job. “I had a family to feed and leading the NDP was not the best meal ticket.” McDonough never raised the subject again.

Whatever he’d said about his intentions, whatever he’d intended to convey, he allowed years later, didn’t seem to fully register with Alexa. “She even sent her father to twist my arm,” he said. “Lloyd didn’t seem to get it either. Of course I wanted to run again. I wanted nothing more. But I couldn’t.”

Nothing more happened until mid-July when Donald Cameron, Buchanan’s minister of industry, trade and technology, telephoned Levy. He knew about Levy’s marital problems. “He was full of bromides, ‘the sun will shine again,’ that sort of thing.” Cameron also made the point, which was lost on Levy at the time, that the Conservatives had conducted polling in his King’s South riding and discovered that, if Levy ran, he would win his district again, no matter who the Tories put up against him.

Cameron didn’t make him an actual job offer until later that month when he phoned again to say Buchanan was about to call the election. The government was prepared to name Levy a judge of the family court but only if he would agree to accept the position right away. Becoming a family court judge was a long way from being an MLA, but a lot closer to issues like those faced by the boys at the Shelburne home. And it would leave him more time with his own boys. He accepted the offer. Oh, and by the way, Cameron added, the government had a document it wanted him to sign and fax back. Levy, who was visiting his brother in Toronto, quickly agreed. The document, which he dutifully signed and sent back, declared he had asked for the appointment. The Tories were leaving nothing to chance.

Decision done, deal made, Levy called McDonough to confirm he wasn’t running and explain why. It was perhaps a sign of the disconnect between them that Levy insists he was “blown away” by McDonough’s “furious” reaction. “Up until then, I thought we had a friendship, I thought there was mutual respect. But her reaction was like a grenade landed at my feet. I didn’t intend to do that to Alexa, or anyone else. I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’” He paused. “You know, if I were to live to be a thousand years old, I will never have made a better decision. I didn’t think I was being dishonest at all . . . After that, I was pretty upset with Alexa.” And she with him.


[1] This reconstruction of their conversation is based on interviews with both Alexa McDonough and Bob Levy, as well as the accounts of others who spoke with them in the immediate aftermath.

[2] House of Assembly Debates, May 28, 1988.

***

This excerpt appeared in the Sunday, January 16, 2022, edition of The Macdonald Notebook.

Other excerpts:

From the Prologue

The secret fees…

— From Alexa! Changing the Face of Canadian Politics by Stephen Kimber (Goose Lane Editions, 2021)

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