Who’s Tory now?

So there are now three Tories — one official, two unofficial — running in next week’s provincial byelection in Cape Breton’s Northside-Westmount riding. Could this entire mess have been avoided if the PC brain-trust had not reacted in its usual over-reaction way to its first would-be candidate’s supposedly controversial social media posts?

Tim Houston and once-but-now not Tory candidate Mike Laffin in happier times (Facebook).

Quick now. Who’s the real Tory candidate in the Cape Breton Northside-Westmount provincial byelection? Yes, it is a trick question. And, yes, the answer is complicated. Best to start chronologically.

Earlier this year, the Progressive Conservative Party recruited Sydney Mines musician Andrew Doyle to seek its nomination in the traditionally Tory riding for the next electoral go-round. But then, sometime before the actual nomination meeting was about to take place, the party un-recruited him. Something about his some of his old social media posts. These days, it seems, there’s always something about someone’s social media posts.

So Doyle is now running as an independent in the Sept. 3 bye-election to replace former Tory MLA Eddie Orrell, who has resigned to run in this fall’s federal election.

Meanwhile, back at the Tory brain-trust ranch, enter The Chosen, Take 2. Which is to say Danny Laffin, a provincial highways maintenance supervisor, a lifelong Tory, a failed former Tory candidate and — almost certainly, this being Cape Breton — a relative of the late and legendary Mike Laffin, the local Conservative MLA and cabinet minister who represented the area in the legislature back in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

Laffin, the Elder and Successful Tory, is perhaps best remembered for a 1973 incident in which he bolted out of his MLA’s seat, strode down the floor of the legislature and punched Cape Breton NDP MLA Paul McEwan in the face… But I digress.

Laffin, the Younger and Not Yet Successful, announced earlier this summer he would seek his party’s nomination in the byelection. On July 30, the party faithful duly acclaimed him after another would-be contender, accountant Murray Ryan, withdrew because of what he said were personal concerns about the health of his 100-year-old father.

So Mike Laffin was now the official Tory candidate.

Not so fast, my friend, not so fast.

Two weeks later, on August 14, just three hours before the official deadline to file his nomination with Elections Nova Scotia, Tory leader Tim Houston unilaterally announced Laffin was no longer the party’s chosen candidate for the riding after all.

In fact, if you’d then attempted to search the Tory website for the official party announcement about Laffin’s selection from just two weeks before, you’d have been greeted with this message: “Oops! That page can’t be found.” Neither could Danny Laffin, who had already been written out of party history.

Why? Something about what a party press release called a “failure to comply with the disclosure process.” Explained Houston without explaining much of anything more: “The initial vetting was completed, and we’ve determined that the information that was provided to us in the way of candidate disclosures wasn’t fully complied with.”

You can find more — but not much more — about what sort-of might-have happened in this CBC report.

Concluded Houston in hopeful conclusion: “This is not a situation that anyone envisioned. It’s not a situation that anyone is happy about, but we’re just going to move forward.”

So — wait for it — Murray Ryan, the would-be candidate who’d withdrawn because of his father’s health, was now back in. His father, he told the CBC, was “out of hospital and he seems to be improving, so when I received a phone call this morning asking me if I’d revisit my original decision… it was an opportunity that I just wanted to embrace.”

OK, we must be done here now. Right?

Not by a long shot.

For complicating starters, Danny Laffin instantly announced he would now run as an independent to “fight for you with every ounce of Cape Breton blood that I have in me.”

Which meant there were now three — count ’em — Tories, one official, and two unofficial, fighting each other to win the seat.

But it gets worse — and messier. Truly.

Laffin’s mother, who was the president of the riding association when Danny was nominated, is not only still the president but is also actively campaigning for her son rather than Ryan. The riding executive, which is dominated by Laffin supporters, may — or may not have — funneled funds to Laffin’s campaign after he was turfed. Houston told the subscription business website allnovascotia.com he had sent a cease-and-desist letter to the executive the day Laffin was removed but had no way of knowing if the association did as it was told and stopped funneling funds his way.

As for Laffin himself? He’s now papering the constituency with his new-old Tory-blue signs — bought with Tory funds, and with only the Tory affiliation removed.

All of which has flummoxed Elections Nova Scotia, which had inexplicably begun advance polling even before nominations officially closed. That preliminary ballot had spaces for voters to choose one of the province’s five registered parties with an additional space to write in a name “if your candidate is independent or you do not know your candidate’s party.”

After much dancing on the pointy end of this peculiar electoral pin, Elections Nova Scotia announced its decision Thursday. If a voter actually wrote in Laffin’s name, he would get that vote even if the voter also checked PC. But if the voter simply checked Progressive Conservative, then the ballot would count for Ryan, the not-then-but-now official party candidate.

But what about those Laffin supporters who’d checked only Progressive Conservative, assuming him to be their party’s candidate, which he was at the time? Why would they have seen any need to write in his name separately?

If it turns out to be a close race, one can already contemplate the confusion, controversy and court challenges.

Could this whole messy mess have been avoided?

Let’s circle all the way back to Andrew Doyle, the candidate the Tories first courted, then cast aside for his supposedly problematic social media posts.

What did he say that was so awful he was unfit to be the party’s candidate in a party with lots of problematic candidates?

Doyle didn’t respond to my own request for details about his two posts in question, but his description of them to allnovascotia.com make them seem not merely benign but, in one case, views we’d hope any would-be politician would express.

Offending Post #1: This post was actually a direct quote from a comedy sketch featuring popular black American stand-up comedian and writer Dave Chappelle. (As I write this, Chappelle’s name is running across the headline crawl on my television screen because he will host an August 25 benefit concert in Dayton, OH, to honour the victims of the recent mass shooting there.) Doyle, who said he’d been binge-watching the show with his band, transcribed part of one sketch he found particularly funny and posted it to a friend. The sketch included the “n”-word, the letters of which, Doyle says, he mostly replaced with musical symbols in his transcribing.

So that was Offending Post #1.

Offending post #2, according to Doyle, had to do with some “foul language” he directed at the government of Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Doyle remains — as he should — unapologetic. “We should not be pandering to foreign cultures that think it’s all right to throw gay people off of buildings, that a woman’s vote is only worth half and that they can arrest reporters, dismember them inside their own consulate and the tell the world to mind their own business.”

That’s it? Really?

If that’s true, the Conservative party might have saved us all a lot of electoral grief by letting the nominating process run its course from the beginning.

But then we wouldn’t have had anything much to enliven a bunch of boring summer provincial by-elections.

So thanks for the column, Tim.

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner August 26, 2019.

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