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Canada How MPP Jim Bradley’s unexpected 1977 win led to 11 straight terms

Jim Bradley, the Liberal MPP for St. Catharines, is photographed after an all candidates meeting organized by the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Happy Days was on television as well as at Queen’s Park, at least for Jim Bradley.

Jimmy Carter was the American president, Star Wars was the hot movie, Commodore and Apple were flogging early home computers, Elvis was still with us, barely, and the Toronto Blue Jays were baseball’s newest team.

Mr. Bradley was 32 years old in late spring of 1977, and the newly elected MPP from St. Catharines. It was the only new seat added by the Liberals in that election, and just enough to give the party opposition status over Stephen Lewis’s New Democrats. The Progressive Conservatives under Bill Davis were returned to power, albeit as a minority government, for an astonishing 11th straight term.

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Mr. Bradley’s win was unexpected in St. Catharines. Though he was well-known as a sports enthusiast and had sat for several years on city council, the area was regarded as PC territory.

“There were people in my office,” he says, “who had to hide from the media so their parents wouldn’t see that they were supporting a Liberal.”

Graffiti spray-painted on the wall of a building near St. Paul St. in downtown St. Catharines, Ont.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Twice before he had failed in an attempt to win a provincial seat, but this time he won by 723 votes and was off to Queen’s Park.

“I was in awe walking into the legislative assembly,” says the former teacher. “I was told ‘Your seat is in the back.’ I fully understood.”

A much older provincial politician, Jack Spence, a farmer who had held the riding of Kent-Elgin, gave him some sage advice: “There are more people who have talked their way out of this place than into it.” Mr. Bradley took the advice, shut up and listened.

“If Stephen Lewis was going to speak,” he says, “I made sure I was going to be there. I’m sure Stephen made up words, because there couldn’t be words like that that we’d never heard.”

Mr. Bradley would never be called a “silver-tongued orator.” He would practise his speeches by first reciting an old line remembered from a grade-school play – “It’s hard to believe, but still it is true/We are the children who live in the shoe.” And he would communicate well enough to serve in several cabinet posts, most prominently as Minister of the Environment, under premiers David Peterson, Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne.

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Ontario election guide: What you need to know before you vote

He would come to be considered a diligent constituency man, a member of the provincial legislature who took pride in taking “a pretty non-partisan, non-hard-edge approach” to everything. Election after election, the people of St. Catharines would send him back – 1977, 1981, 1985, 1987, 1990, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2014 – at times with more than double the votes of his closest challenger.

“No matter what,” he says, “you always thought you could be gone the next election.”

He says this as the 2018 provincial election enters its final week, with his Liberal Party so down in the polls that his leader, Ms. Wynne, has already conceded defeat. If Mr. Bradley somehow manages to win a 12th election in this pitiful situation, he would then be in a position to become the longest-serving member of the Ontario provincial legislature in history. The standing record, 42 years, is held by Harry Nixon, father of former Liberal leader Bob Nixon. The senior Mr. Nixon came to office in 1919 as a member of the United Farmers of Ontario government, later became a Liberal and very briefly served as premier in 1943, the last Liberal premier before the Progressive Conservatives began what would become a 42-year-long dynasty.

Joshua Gyssels, 23, is photographed busking on James St. in downtown St. Catharines on May 30 2018. Originally from Chatham, Gyssels says St. Catharines was a bigger city but had a small town vibe. He wants to vote in the upcoming provincial election but needs to talk to his friends and get straight answers on politics first.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The latest Liberal dynasty, 15 years under Mr. McGuinty and Ms. Wynne, is clearly toast, but will Mr. Bradley – who survived Bob Rae’s NDP rise and Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution, and who was a lone voice in 1990 telling then-Liberal leader David Peterson not to call a snap election – somehow survive?

Last week here, the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce staged a candidates debate and invited most who are running. One would expect that the people of an industrial city in the heart of Ontario’s suffering “rust belt” would be prone to voter anger, but precious little was in evidence at St. Catharines Collegiate Institute and Vocational School. In fact, precious few showed much interest, with only 70 of the 400-plus seats taken by engaged voters and supporters.

While debates in other ridings have sparked heated confrontations, this was more like a neighbourhood gathering, with Mr. Bradley whispering encouragement to Communist Party candidate Saleh Waziruddin on his right, and Green Party candidate Colin Ryrie on his left. He had happy birthday greetings for NDP candidate Jennie Stevens and a warm welcome to Progressive Conservative candidate Sandie Bellows, an old family friend. Both Ms. Stevens and Ms. Bellows have challenged Mr. Bradley in previous elections, Ms. Bellows coming closest to unseating him in 2014, when she fell 1,705 votes short.

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Public transportation, specifically GO train service, is one service residents in St. Catharines, Ont. would like to see enhanced to lessen their commuting time to Toronto. Currently people need to take a GO bus that picks up passengers outside Fairview Mall, photographed here on May 30, 2018, and drops them off in Burlington where they continue their trip on the train.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

“The interesting thing about this riding is that all of us are friends,” says Mr. Bradley. “It’s not a nasty race here. We’re all allowed to take shots at the leaders – but not at each other.”

The highlight of a rather dull evening was Jim Fannon of the None of the Above party telling voters: “Don’t vote for the same parties that have all had their turn ruining this province.”

That, however, is not going to happen in St. Catharines, no matter how disappointed and disenchanted the electorate. While there is little to no sympathy at this gathering for Ms. Wynne, there is appreciation for Mr. Bradley as he lists various accomplishments, such as provincial funding for a new hospital and downtown performing arts centre. Whether he can win is a fair question, but there is no doubt that the seat will go to one of the main parties.

An empty lot at the corner of James St. and St. Paul St. in downtown St. Catharines, Ont.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

“There wouldn’t be a None of the Above party if they’d just put the choice on the ballot,” Mr. Fannon told the gathering.

Mr. Bradley claims that all his elections have been polite and positive. “I’ve run against a lot of good candidates,” he says. “Just about all of them are close friends … some of them are dead, of course.”

When the 73-year-old Queen’s Park veteran looks back on the rookie who took a back seat in 1977 and listened, he marvels at how much has changed.

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“There’s not the orators today,” he says, thinking of the likes of the NDP’s Mr. Lewis, Sean Conway of the Liberals and the PCs’ Bob Welch. “Today they all read the government or opposition notes. The cut and thrust is not what it was, nor is there the compelling speech there once was. I enjoyed them so much.”

People and places in St. Catharines, Ont. are photographed on May 30 2018. Liberal MPP Jim Bradley is hoping to voters will return him to Queens Park to continue serving the constituency.

Fred Lum

He also despairs at the negativity shown these days toward politicians in general. “I guess politicians bring it on ourselves by being hyper-partisan,” he says. “Social media makes a huge difference. In fact, it prevents people from going into politics. There are a lot of people you can’t recruit because they know what social media will do to them.”

As for the possibility of one day soon becoming the longest-serving member in the provincial government, he says he only thinks about it when people bring it up.

“I have absolutely no feelings about it at all,” he says. “It’s not my goal.

“In fact, I feel a little bit bad about it, because Mr. Nixon’s father was a much more prominent legislator than I will ever be.”

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