The provincial byelection in Charlottetown-Parkdale could become a campaign reflecting more on civic than provincial issues. Instead of health care or the economy – and passing judgment on the government of Premier Wade MacLauchlan - voters might be more interested in issues closer to home.
The byelection could become a referendum on Peter Kelly, the embattled Charlottetown CAO, and key figure in a fiery civic debate over the past year and a half, as voters instead pass judgment on Mayor Clifford Lee.
No matter who wins the byelection, it won’t affect the provincial Liberal majority, so voters might be inclined to discuss civic issues during the next three weeks. Provincial leaders – at least two for sure - certainly hope not. They want to keep voters’ attention and interest on the bigger, provincial picture.
For anyone outside Charlottetown, a Liberal win would suggest voter satisfaction with the strong P.E.I. economy under Premier MacLauchlan.
A Tory win would signal that new leader James Aylward has maintained momentum from his successful convention and that change is in the air.
A Green Party win would suggest that leader Peter Bevan-Baker’s victory in 2015 wasn’t an isolated blip on the political radar.
An NDP win would give leader Michael Redmond a much-needed seat inside the rail where the party could re-assert itself.
But voters in Charlottetown-Parkdale may have other ideas, and where the verdict could have a much different meaning.
A civic election is just a year away and a burning question for many city residents is whether Mayor Lee will re-offer, and if the mayor’s unwavering support for Mr. Kelly will finally shatter his coalition.
The byelection offers voters a clear choice. Two of the leading candidates are members of city council and their differences could not be more acute.
Liberal Bob Doiron has been outspoken in his criticism of the CAO – from the original hiring process, to nagging issues that have plagued Mr. Kelly as mayor in Halifax, to CAO in Alberta and now current staffing concerns at city hall. Mr. Doiron is opposed to a $50 fee to have a technician confirm an infestation diagnosis for bugs or plants.
Progressive Conservative Melissa Hilton is a council veteran and a key supporter of Mayor Lee. She was part of the hiring process for Mr. Kelly and has backed the mayor and CAO through many tense council meetings. Her husband is in the pest control business and she had to recuse herself whenever the pesticide bylaw or levy came up.
A Doiron win would signal the mayor that public opinion has shifted against him on the Kelly and levy issues, and it might be time to step down. A Hilton win tells the mayor that people support his leadership and Mr. Kelly. Mayor Lee might then commit to re-offering.
The other two parties are hoping this scenario won't play out. They might become marginalized and pushed aside over a civic hot potato not of their own making.
Careers, history and political fortune have been decided on less.