Low-key campaign for newest PC nominee

First published: September 07, 2006

Don’t expect a big barbeque or contrived press conference for David St. Charles to announce he is a seeking the provincial nomination for the Northumberland-Quinte West Progressive Conservative Party. Instead, anticipate a very different, low-key approach because that is the way he likes it – at least for the moment.

St. Charles is an accomplished international, award-winning entrepreneur who has returned to his hometown of Cobourg after being asked to chair the Council on Innovation for the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. His job is to build corporate/academic partnerships using research done by the professors and students and find workable application in conjunction with the private sector. The particular focus will be in automotive engineering and sustainable forms of energy.

If that is not a huge task, St. Charles decided to step into politics. In his own polite language he says the “representation locally has slipped”.

More importantly, the problems faced by residents in the county need innovative solutions – “outside the box” – if the life we want is going to be sustainable, he explains. Not surprisingly, a centerpiece in this plan is a campus of UOIT. He looks at places like University of Waterloo and its impact on the local economy with 450 high-tech companies it has brought to the region. Then, there is Innovation Place, in Saskatoon, which is one of the fastest growing research parks in Canada, adjacent to the University of Saskatchewan. It has more than 2,200 staff employed by 130 organizations working on research projects ranging from agriculture to information technologies, resources and life sciences, contributing more than $240 million per year to the city and provincial economy.

Bold thinking, as St. Charles puts it. He wants to apply this approach to all areas: health care, environment, and the list goes on. Until now, political leadership was about more traditional approaches – industry-based or tourism or the trickle of grants that sustain or solve problems temporarily but not permanently.

“I have come back to find that people haven’t looked ahead,” he said. “This is part of my frustration. This has gone on for 30 years and I think to myself: ‘What have you (Northumberland politicians) done?’”

He wants the county to have a vision for the next 20 years. And then, go after it.

Rather than an impressive, very public campaign, St. Charles is traveling just below the radar reaching out to supporters at events in people’s homes, personal meetings and word of mouth from those on his team.

This may be the secret of his success. St. Charles is building a bi-partisan alliance outside traditional PC supporters, as a number of Liberals are joining him. These include such high-profile people as Ryan O’Grady, former executive assistant to Liberal MP Paul Macklin and Carolyn Campbell, who ran as the provincial Liberal candidate and was defeated in the last nomination race by the current MPP Lou Rinalid in one of the bloodiest political battles in decades. These former Liberals are being joined by scores of not-so-public faces within the Grit ranks.

This unconventional approach will definitely spice up the nomination race. For one thing, nomination races are usually internal battles between party members. The candidate who can sign up the most supporters and then deliver them to the nomination meeting is the winner. By reaching out to disaffected Liberals, St. Charles sends two important messages.

First, he is signaling the ability to build a coalition, tearing away at the local Liberal base. This will be a vital strategy in a provincial election and an attractive quality for those Tories anxious to win back the riding.

Second, he is making Rinaldi look weak and vulnerable. Rinaldi sailed to victory as part of the anti-Harris sentiment in the last election beating out PC incumbent Doug Galt by around 2,000 votes. While he does not name Rinaldi, it is clear this is the person responsible for the slipping representation for the riding St. Charles likes to reference.

The trick will be the success of his low-key approach. The other candidates, Jan Spragge, Carl Egginmann and Cathy Galt, held public events and launched highly visible campaigns. Spragge and Galt already have web sites beginning to fill with information and photographs and schedules. St. Charles doesn’t. He smiles, when asked why?

“This is about getting out there and talking with people,” he said, adding that a web site will come at the right time, but not as part of the nomination race.

Certainly, this could all be interpreted as very naive and the acts of an inexperienced politico. But don’t be deceived by the relaxed approach.

St. Charles pushes the importance of his campaign to stimulate debate and to see if politics locally can be done in a different way. And, he hopes through his bid, the riding will be better represented and people who were disillusioned by politics might come back into the fold. This altruism is sincere. But so his personal drive and ambition that burns through under the most direct questioning. He is extremely passionate about bringing a university campus to Northumberland. He wants to see serious reform within the education system. And, he has many ideas about how to address the long list of issues facing Northumberland.

He is also a study in contrasts. He wants to reach out and consult with citizens when developing policy, but also is a self-confessed micro-manager who likes to take a hands-on approach. He delegates, but also is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and do a job himself. He is worldly through his international business connections, but has intensely emotional loyal ties to him hometown of Cobourg.

Provincial politics in Northumberland is about to get very interesting.

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