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(David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)
(David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)

Dispatch

How Carole James got her political fire back – and held the NDP together Add to ...

Carole James’s ambition to become premier ended two years ago when she quit as leader of the B.C. NDP amid the nasty business of a leadership revolt.

She gave up the chance to see her photo hanging in the legislature corridor with the images of the province’s premiers. But Ms. James stands an excellent chance of being second-in-command if the New Democrats under Adrian Dix make an electoral breakthough next spring.

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Convention dictates that she should have quietly disappeared from the political landscape after her party selected a replacement. By rejecting that rule, she has forced the New Democrats to get over the divisions created by the caucus revolt that forced her out.

Once a lightning rod for dissent, she is now a symbol of party unity, quietly assuming a powerbroker position. Watch for her to be named deputy premier if the NDP wins the election in May, 2013.

The knives came out after the 2009 election, in which Ms. James led her party to a second defeat at the hands of Gordon Campbell’s Liberals, by just 4 per cent of the ballots cast. The loss led to questions about Ms. James’s leadership – her style and her team, and policies such as opposition to the carbon tax that cost the NDP support among environmentalists.

When she punished a dissident MLA for speaking out publicly, the conflict escalated rapidly. In December, 2010, Ms. James called a news conference in her legislature office to announce her resignation as leader. She let her anger show that day, calling her critics self-serving bullies.

It was expected that the party would take years to recover from such a poisonous split. Loyalist John Horgan observed that the ouster of Ms. James was so brutal, “it would give anyone who would seek to lead the NDP pause.”

After winning the leadership, Mr. Dix set to work to put the party back together. He rejected calls to punish the dissidents, instead handing them positions of responsibility in caucus. Ms. James kept in the background for months, certain she would drop out of B.C. politics. “I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say there were difficult days to have to come back to the caucus table,” she said in an interview this week.

But as her anger subsided, she came to view her forced departure as a “gift.” After having spent seven years as party leader, she is now a constituency MLA, with time to recall why she got into politics in the first place. Mr. Dix encouraged her, and let her know she was needed.

Ms. James steeled herself to work with the 13 MLAs who forced her out. “I said during all the difficulties that we don’t all have to be friends.” No need to sing Kumbaya together.

The unintended consequence of her decision to stay was that it has forced the New Democrats, who are notorious for allowing such battles to leave deep fractures, to coalesce.

“I said when I resigned, I hope my stepping out would make a difference. Ironically, perhaps my staying in has also made a difference. I have to smile at that.”

A sense of humour helps. Amid the native artwork in her now much-smaller office, Ms. James has a few souvenirs from her leadership battle. One is a plaque given to her by friends that reads: “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

It is a reminder of how much pride she had to swallow to stay on. She announced in June, 2011, that she would seek re-election and has been helping craft the election platform.

The next campaign will be different from the ones she approved as party leader. “Adrian has been very focused on us running a positive campaign. We ran against Gordon Campbell in ’09. We ran ads against Gordon Campbell as an individual,” she said. It didn’t work, and Mr. Dix is gambling on a different approach.

Persuading Ms. James to stick around is also a different approach – few leaders want to share power with a predecessor. But it is why, while Christy Clark and John Cummins struggle with internal strife in their parties, Mr. Dix is able to focus on getting ready for the election.

Follow on Twitter: @justine_hunter

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