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Jim Bradley got caught in political tide

This column originally appeared in Niagara This Week on June 9, 2018

A political tide is a powerful force, and quite often there is little that can be done to combat it.

Such is the fate of Jim Bradley, the long-serving and much-accomplished former MPP of St. Catharines.

In many ways, Bradley’s defeat on Thursday night is tragic. Obviously not in a life-or-death kind of way, but he was on the cusp of history.

He fell just two days short of reaching 41 years at Queen’s Park — first elected on June 9, 1977, and holding the seat until his defeat on June 7, 2018, winning 11 straight elections.

Come next summer, Bradley would have surpassed Harry Nixon to become Ontario’s longest-serving MPP.

He will have to settle for second place, but that will not be Bradley’s legacy. Not at all. His legacy will be that of an avid local sports fan and unabashed booster of St. Catharines, a tireless environment minister and a hound dog on the opposition benches. He will be remembered as a community- and consensus-builder.

As for the latter, when you have been around as long as Bradley, you have no choice but to be so. Consider that he served under seven different Liberal Party leaders (and even served a stint himself as interim leader between David Peterson and Lyn McLeod), six St. Catharines MPs and six St. Catharines mayors.

Think about how many ribbon-cutting photos that is, all with a rotating cast of characters standing around Bradley, and about how many high school graduations, anniversary parties and 100th-birthday parties he has attended.

With such a track record, it is worth considering what happened in St. Catharines Thursday night that brought Bradley his first electoral loss since 1971. In a word, it comes down to momentum. Across the province, the PCs and NDP had it, and the Liberals did not.

Bradley had withstood such tides before, particularly the 1990 campaign that saw the NDP sweep to power. But never had the party around him been so reviled by the electorate. The force this time was just too much, his party reduced to a historic-low seven seats.

It had long been accepted in local political circles that a good chunk of Bradley supporters voted for him because he was Bradley, not because he was a Liberal. This time, apparently, they couldn’t get past the colour of his lawn signs.

Consider that from the 2014 election to this one, Bradley’s vote count dropped by nearly 6,400; the 12,671 ballots counted for Bradley was his lowest total since he narrowly won the 1990 election. Conversely, incoming NDP MPP Jennie Stevens upped her vote count by more than 7,500 over her 2014 result. She took what Bradley lost, and then some.

Interestingly, the PC tally also went up by some 3,500 votes. It is safe to assume there was a motivated Conservative base in the city that sensed Bradley was vulnerable, but that small surge was not enough to overcome the progressives who took up camp with the NDP.

This election also engaged more St. Catharines voters than we have seen in recent history, with 59 per cent of eligible voters turning out to vote. There were 51,650 ballots cast in the city on Thursday night, an 11-per-cent increase over the turnout four years ago and well more than in any previous Bradley election (the previous high being 47,059 who voted in 1999).

Higher voter turnout and a collapsing Liberal vote was a trend that carried across the Niagara Peninsula — with a relatively healthy 58 per cent voter turnout — just without the shocking defeat of a political heavyweight as a casualty.

In the four Niagara ridings, the total Liberal vote dropped by 22,385 tallies. In part, the redrawn riding boundaries had a role to play. Niagara West Liberal Joe Kanee only won 4,933 votes, a drop of more than 10,000 over 2014. But in 2014 Niagara West also had the Glanbrook area of Hamilton attached to it, and it provided much of the Liberal vote in that election.

Nevertheless, the Liberals lost significant votes and finished in third in every Niagara riding, where the NDP and PCs increased their vote total. There is an interesting aside here in Niagara Centre, nicely illustrating how much of an NDP stronghold the riding is.

Jeff Burch successfully kept the seat orange, winning 292 more votes than his predecessor Cindy Forster did in 2014. The PC vote in the riding surged by 5,400, but candidate April Jeffs still finished nearly 3,300 voted behind Burch.

With Bradley gone, Niagara’s political landscape is quite different. The four-and-a-half years NDP Wayne Gates has served as MPP in Niagara Falls now makes him the dean of the Niagara caucus, and young PC Sam Oosterhoff — all 20 years of him — is the second-longest serving.

And for St. Catharines Liberals, they are suddenly thrust onto a job they haven’t had to do in a couple of generations — looking for a candidate.

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