November 23, 2005

Copperbelt wanted to send a message: Kearns (from November 23 issue of the Yukon News)

After learning she had lost, and lost badly, Cynthia Kearns took a long drag from her cigarette and exhaled a plume of frankness for the Yukon Party Monday night.

“The Jenkins issue was big,” she said of deputy Premier Peter Jenkins’s outstanding government loans.

The post-game analysis was delivered without hesitation in a room behind the bar of the Airline Inn.

“I don’t think my popularity was in question, I really don’t. The loans issue hurt us, and that’s unfortunate because it is being dealt with and we’re the party that chose to deal with it.

“I just think the people in Copperbelt wanted to send a message, and they did.”

Indeed, pundits painted Monday’s Copperbelt byelection as a referendum on the Yukon Party government’s performance.

And, at the very least, the results gauge the electorate’s mood in the runup to a territorial election.

Beaten by Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell and New Democrat candidate Maureen Stephens, Kearns accepted the defeat, and then deflected responsibility onto the Yukon Party itself.

“I think maybe the people have spoken a message to the Yukon Party that they made some mistakes,” she said.

“It’s unfortunate. I sincerely hope it’s not indicative of a way the Yukon is feeling about the Yukon Party, because it’s so hugely important to get a second mandate.”

She made the remarks as WWE Smackdown wrestling played on a blurry big-screen TV in the bar’s corner. The two Budweiser dartboards and a Miami Vice pinball machine sat empty and unused in the other.

At lacquered wood tables — arranged in a ring on the bar’s stained carpet — a who’s-who of Yukon Party stalwarts gathered to support Kearns, including MLAs Patrick Rouble, Brad Cathers, Glenn Hart, Archie Lang and Ted Staffen, as well as party intelligentsia Peter Carr, Gordon Steele and Albert Petersen.

As the results came in, Kearns’s campaign manager, Carel Alexander, clutched her cellphone and scribbled numbers from Copperbelt’s five polling districts onto a wrinkled piece of paper.

Kearns lost, brutally, taking only 181 votes, about 19 per cent of ballots cast, to Stephens’s 285 and Mitchell’s 459.
It was the party’s worst showing in the riding in more than 12 years.

By comparison, in 2002 the Yukon Party’s now-disgraced Haakon Artnzen won 374 votes in Copperbelt, taking about 39 per cent of the popular vote.

In 2000, Elaine Taylor lost in the precursor to Copperbelt, Whitehorse West, with 425 votes, or 27 per cent.

In 1996, carrying the party flag for John Ostashek’s unpopular government, Shelda Hutton took 253 votes, or 25 per cent of the vote.

This time, once the numbers were in there was no big announcement. No speech.

Instead, Kearns took a moment to absorb the loss and then hugged Alexander, away from the gathered throng.

The smile never left her face as she walked forward to announce the news.

“We came third,” she yelled, raising her arms.

A few brief hugs followed, as did a round of For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow.

There was no apparent shock.

Instead, cellphones were raised to the ears of many MLAs and political analysts in the room.

Standing at the bar’s window overlooking the Alaska Highway, Steele’s mobile phone didn’t leave his ear for more than 10 minutes.

“So it looks like we’ve got a challenge ahead of us,” he said into the receiver.

The normally subdued Hart was even more, well, melancholic.

But Kearns remained stoic, even upbeat.

Before the results, Alexander had predicted Kearns would be strong in polling station three, Granger, and weakest in four, Hillcrest.

She was right.

“I think it’s going to be a low turnout,” said Alexander, though it wasn’t clear who that helped.

“It could favour us, but it’s hard to say,” she said. “It depends on whose voters are not coming out.”

Again, Alexander’s predictions were correct; the byelection saw only 58 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots.

Before the results rolled in, Cathers played down any possible byelection fallout.

The idea it is a referendum on the government is “overrated,” he said.

“Byelections, and any election, tend to reflect the belief of voters.

“Demographics, in terms of party support, is going to be the first big factor; second is confidence in the candidates; and there are other considerations that enter after that,” he said.

A party leader, like Mitchell, can have an advantage because “some voters will vote for a leader of any party,” said Cathers.

“They figure they’ll have more representation.”

So, what message will the Yukon Party pull from the byelection?

“It’ll certainly be a positive sign if Cynthia wins,” said Cathers.

“All of the parties will be analyzing the results for weeks and weeks,” pondering voter turnout and votes by area.

“A year’s a long time in politics,” he added.

Smoking her cigarette, but keeping her smile, Kearns remained optimistic about her future.

“I’m still alive and well and want to represent Copperbelt,” she said.

“I will be back in the next general election.

“It was a hard fight. Good for Maureen — she fought a good battle. And good for Arthur as well.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we won. This was a victory for me personally.”

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