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B.C. NDP leadership contest has been a race of false starts

Forward BC NDP activist Sage Aaron says the group’s focus is on renewing the party, not contesting the leadership.

B.C. New Democrats have yet to cast a single ballot for a new leader, yet the options are dwindling to a likely menu of provincial caucus members.

It seems at odds with calls in the party for a fresh approach to politics ahead of the 2017 election, but candidates and observers say they hope the party can get an outside-the-box approach from an inside-the-box leader.

"It doesn't seem to me that you would need to be from one camp or the other – inside [caucus] or outside to bring new ideas and a change of direction. I think that's something that's probably inherent in a candidate," said Sage Aaron, a member of a group called Forward BC NDP that has been calling for an agenda of change in the party.

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She said it's going to be a long race so there is plenty of time for candidates to enter. "I am hopeful that there's going to be a leader that comes forward that talks about new ideas and a new direction for the NDP."

MLA Mike Farnworth, a former cabinet minister who came second in the 2011 leadership race and plans to announce within a month whether he will run in 2014, said he could bring change although he has been an MLA in stints over three decades.

"The members will choose the leader and there's no reason, whether that leader is from inside caucus or outside caucus, that they cannot bring the change needed for us to win the next election."

So far, the race to succeed Adrian Dix has been more notable for candidates who talked about running then dropped out ahead of the starting line than those who actually declared they are running.

Six months after Mr. Dix said he would leave when a successor was chosen, there isn't a single declared candidate in the race toward the selection of a new leader on Sept. 28.

Over 24 hours last week, Burnaby MP Kennedy Stewart and rookie MLA George Heyman, a former leader of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union and former executive director of the Sierra Club B.C., both ruled out bids after months of being in the maybe-they-will-run spotlight.

In exiting, Mr. Stewart noted his canvassing of party members left him with the impression that New Democrats would prefer a caucus member as leader.

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Mr. Stewart and Mr. Heyman follow a series of MPs, including Nathan Cullen, Peter Julian and Fin Donnelly, and MLAs such as house leader John Horgan and Judy Darcy who have ruled out runs. Mr. Horgan, however, is again thinking of running.

Prominent candidates still openly considering leadership bids are Mr. Farnworth, rookie MLA David Eby in Vancouver-Point Grey and Victoria-Swan Lake MLA Rob Fleming. At this point, there's no female candidate in the shadow race though there's a Facebook campaign to encourage Saanich-South MLA Lana Popham, a member since 2005, to run. She has reportedly said she's not interested.

As New Democrats consider questions of leadership, NDP campaign director Brian Topp said that, beyond policy, leaders truly need to connect with voters.

"It's not wrong that at the end of the day, the public just looks at [a leader] and votes with their gut. That's a reality of politics. They just look at leaders and go, 'I like you or I don't,'" he told a recent UBC forum.

Mr. Farnworth said he agreed. "If you can't connect with people, you can't connect with voters, you're not going to win," he said, adding he can do that.

Follow me on Twitter: @ianabailey

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