No one in the convention hall at the Queensbury Convention Centre was more surprised than Ryan Meili.
It was June 6, 2009 and the Saskatchewan NDP were choosing their new leader from among four candidates. After Deb Higgins had been dropped off after the first ballot and Yens Pedersen had conceded, Meili knew there was a chance to win the Saskatchewan NDP leadership but it was an extremely slim one. Almost all of the second-ballot support from both of those other candidates would have to break for him rather than the more experienced, more connected, better known Dwain Lingenfelter.
But apparently something in Meili’s campaign had connected with NDP members across the province. Maybe it was the professional quality YouTube videos that had been viewed and shared by hundreds of people across the province on Facebook, Twitter and various other social networking sites and message boards. Maybe his team had underestimated the power of the “Anybody But Link” sentiment within the party. Maybe it simply came down to the original form of social networking – people talking to people about the potential of this new face to renew a party desperately in need of renewal.
Ryan Meili had just been announced by the new leader of the Saskatchewan New Democrats by the slimmest of margins. And the first thought to come to his mind was “This could really play havoc with my wedding plans!”
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The victory didn’t ruin Meili’s wedding arrangements in the weeks following the NDP’s convention but it did introduce an unexpected wrinkle to his plan for a quiet, family ceremony. Although not on the level of a royal wedding (or even a short-term celebrity wedding), the people of Saskatchewan who hadn’t followed the NDP Leadership race seemed to take a sudden interest in just *who exactly was* this young unknown who’d come from nowhere to lead the party of Douglas, Blakeney and Romanow?
And that’s when the SaskParty made their first mistake. They quickly began running attack ads on the inexperience of the new NDP leader and the public just as quickly expressed their distaste for the tactic of attacking the telegenic young couple who hadn’t even yet had their honeymoon. It was a small mistake in the grand scheme of things but it hinted at the trouble the SaskParty would have trying to define the NDP’s new leader who was anything but a traditional politician.
After his honeymoon, Meili’s most immediate concern was securing a seat in the Legislature. It was no secret that Pat Atkinson in Saskatoon-Nutana had been contemplating retirement and this provided an ideal opportunity for her to do so. Meili ran in the by-election and was easily elected in a riding that was a perfect match for Meili with its youthful, environmentally-conscious demographic. (Meili wasn’t the only leadership candidate to secure a seat in a by-election. Harry Van Mulligen also retired in Regina-Douglas Park around this time and his seat was won by Yens Pedersen.)
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The next year was a blur of activity. The NDP developed a new policy document called “A Rooted & Growing Vision” which was seen as a bold statement of what it meant to be a modern, progressive, social democratic party in the 21st century. Meili gained experience and more importantly, widespread attention for his positive approach in the Legislature, an approach that focused on quiet, fact-based discussion rather than yelling or scoring cheap points.
Meili had his mis-steps of course. He struggled to define a clear position with regards to the complex potash issue and the Sask Party did score points with some voters by raising the spectre of Meili’s youthful arrest at a Quebec City protest during the Summit of the Americas. “Saskatchewan’s First Criminal Premier?” asked their attack ads although the light touch of the NDP’s response “Better one criminal Premier who stands up for his values than a whole Cabinet that only values themselves!” with a shot of the Devine-era cabinet ministers was an effective counter-punch.
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With a fixed election date having being set for early November 2011 by the Saskatchewan Party, the NDP spent much of 2010 and all of 2011 laying the groundwork for their fall 2011 campaign. They developed a strong slate of candidates, heavy on young, diverse faces. They began developing their campaign platform based on the progressive yet pragmatic tone Meili had set for the party. And they came up with their slogan.
Tied to the “Rooted and Growing Vision” policy document, the slogan of “Embrace the Past <-> Engage the Future” provided a clear reminder, in the face of a hugely popular SaskParty government, of the NDP’s role as Saskatchewan’s natural governing party. Commercials were produced that showed a number of young Saskatchewan people talking about how their grandparents had voted for and been active in the creation of the CCF and what that had meant to Saskatchewan. Other commercials connected to the campaign theme by explaining how much of Saskatchewan’s current boom can be traced to the work done by previous NDP governments – first, by the Romanow government in cleaning up the mess left by Grant Devine and then by Lorne Calvert in creating a tax and regulatory environment which ensured boom conditions. A central plank in the NDP’s latest platform was Dr. Meili’s idea for SaskPharm, a new Crown that would focus on the development and production of pharmaceuticals. This proposal drew praise from a number of corners – business, agriculture, medicine, post-secondary institutions, seniors’ organizations and more.
With issues like rising cost of living and potash being dominant in news coverage, it was perhaps surprising that polls showed healthcare was still the number one issue for people. The NDP was able to capitalize on this issue with a specific ad campaign which again, showed how they were embracing the past to engage the future, by reminding voters of the direct lineage from Tommy Douglas and the founding of Medicare on through Roy Romanow and his work on health policy at the federal level to Dr. Meili’s experience as a doctor in locations across Saskatchewan and around the world and how that inspired his SaskPharm idea.
In the week before election day, polls showed the Sask Party with a healthy but not insurmountable lead. And then Ryan Meili got the most unexpected endorsement of the campaign (and perhaps of any campaign…ever.) Almost by accident, during a broadcast focusing on the election campaign, right-wing talk show host, John Gormley, paid Dr. Meili (who’d earlier appeared on the show for a very spirited discussion) a huge, if somewhat backhanded compliment – “If I weren’t so against the NDP as a party, I’d vote for Dr. Meili as a person in a second. I don’t agree with a lot of what he believes but he’s just a genuinely good guy who I think will make a great Premier someday.”
Within hours, a South Park-style viral video of an animated John Gormley standing in a burning hell that was slowly being engulfed in ice as his words “Ryan Meili…will make a great Premier someday” played on screen was viewed by thousands of people across the province.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. On Election Day, the Sask Party took 55% of the popular vote to 45% for the NDP led by Dr. Meili, The Sask Party ended with 43 seats to the NDP’s 15, an overall loss of 5 for the NDP. But many of the bright new candidates for the NDP managed to squeak out victories in close races across the province and although the NDP lost seats, they also picked up a couple that surprised people.
This even included one in rural Saskatchewan which showed the NDP was finally starting to show a potential to re-connect with its rural roots (well, that plus a huge scandal featuring a racist comment to planted supporters at a fowl supper in the constituency which led to the SaskParty candidate withdrawing may have also played a part in turning that race as well!)
After the election, the NDP was battered but not broken and definitely well-positioned to be a strong opposition that would be making a big push in 2015 to regain government.
[It goes without saying that this post is a work of speculative fiction contemplating an alternate history where Ryan Meili had been selected as NDP leader instead of Dwain Lingenfelter. Of course, there's also an equally probable alternate reality where, had Meili won, the NDP might have still faced as big of a blow-out as happened last night or worse. But that wouldn't have been nearly as fun to write now, would it? At any rate, for some analysis back in the real world, I suggest a post that I saw on Twitter this morning entitled: "How to Fix the Sask NDP"]
Edit: And speaking of seeing the future, how prescient were Ryan’s words in this video: “We need to stop letting the party die every twenty years only to have to be resuscitated.”