Election win in Cumberland North top news story of 2009
Cumberland North MLA Brian Skabar topped the Amherst Daily News' newsmakers for 2009, having won the seat for the NDP for the first time. Skabar garnered 40 per cent of the votes cast, with just over 1,000 more votes than Independent Ernie Fage. File photo
AMHERST - When Brian Skabar announced his candidacy for the NDP last spring he commented that he faced an uphill battle because people knew his children more than him.
It didn't take long for the voters of Cumberland North to warm up to the former federal civil servant as he became the first New Democrat to win the riding, ending a longtime Tory hold on Cumberland North.
For this stunning election win, Skabar has been named the Amherst Daily News' newsmaker of the year.
"It's been a tremendous experience and a heck of a trip," Skabar said Tuesday. "I've enjoyed every moment of it. It has been very rewarding."
Skabar picked up 3,170 votes to take 40.16 per cent of the popular vote defeating longtime MLA Ernest Fage, who was running as an Independent after being ejected from the Conservative caucus following his conviction for leaving the scene of a Halifax traffic accident in November 2006.
Fage polled 2,164 votes while Progressive Conservative candidate Keith Hunter picked up 1,359 votes to finish in third place, ending a string of elections in which the Conservatives won the riding.
"I've always been a glass half full kind of guy. Whenever I buy a lottery ticket I think I'm going to win regardless of the odds," said Skabar. "If you concentrated on all the things you didn't have compared to others it's a recipe for failure."
Looking back at his election win, the 57-year-old Winnipeg native said a perfect storm combined to propel him to victory with an unpopular Tory government in Halifax and a division in the Progressive Conservatives locally with the Tories splitting their allegiances behind the former cabinet minister Fage and the new candidate Hunter.
"It seemed that every time Rodney (MacDonald) came to Amherst he threw Keith an anchor and that pretty much summed it up," Skabar said. "Ernie had done a lot for the riding during his term. Some things happened in his personal life and people didn't like how he addressed that. More than that, though, it was time for change."
While he was confident of his chances going into the election, Skabar said it was a few weeks into the campaign that he started to believe he had a strong opportunity to be the first NDP MLA in Cumberland North.
"My daughter told me with just a week to go in the campaign that she was recognized as my daughter instead of the other way around with me being known as her father. That had never happened before. It was around then that I realized I could win it," said Skabar, who spent 31 years working in the federal civil service with Indian and Northern Affairs and Health Canada.
Although he didn't follow his election win with an appointment to the first cabinet of NDP Premier Darrell Dexter, Skabar was appointed the ministerial assistant to the Office of Aboriginal Affairs.
Since the election win, Skabar has been forced to deal with several issues that have been tough for the riding. Most significantly was his government's decision to build one new jail in northern Nova Scotia instead of two, moving the Cumberland County Correctional Centre out of Amherst and the county.
"The jail thing has been no picnic, but I'm still working on that issue," said Skabar. "I don't buy into the view that the jail is something people will forget about in four years when it's time for another election. The assessment centre moved 20 years ago and people still remember that decision. The best I can do is to work to offset the loss of the jail with other economic opportunities."
Skabar said he supports the government decision to build one jail because of the savings it represents to the province, although he is concerned with the financial impact of its loss on Cumberland County and how it's going to affect jail employees and their families.
Also garnering consideration as the story of the year was the retirement in the spring of veteran MP Bill Casey and the election of his friend and former campaign chair Scott Armstrong as the Conservative MP for Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley in early November.
Honourable mention also went to last March's ice storm that paralyzed Cumberland County for several days, the controversy over the decision not to replace West Highlands Elementary with a new school and the subsequent reversal with a government commitment to build a new school by 2012.
Other big stories in 2009 included the YMCA's financial struggles and the community response that led to the facility's pool being reopened, Amherst winning a nationwide vote to host a live broadcast of TSN SportCentre and the province's decision to relocate the Cumberland County Correctional Centre.