A well-known grocer might just become the next premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Frank Coleman, president of the Colemans grocery chain, based in Corner Brook, says he will seek the leadership of the province’s Progressive Conservative party.
The Tories currently hold power in Newfoundland so if Coleman wins, he will become premier as well.
Coleman oversees his family’s 12-store grocery chain, which employs some 800 people.
“I am very excited about this new challenge in my life and I look forward to earning the confidence of the people of this great province,” Coleman said in a press statement.
Coleman faces two other candidates for the leadership now: Bill Barry CEO of Corner Brook-based Barry Group, a fishery company; and Wayne Bennett, a town councillor from western Newfoundland and former head of the Newfoundland and Labrador First party.
A leadership convention is set for July in St. John’s.
Tom Marshall is currently serving as premier and interim leader of the party after Kathy Dunderdale quit in January.
Marshall has said he won’t be running for the leadership.
Dunderdale became the uncontested leader after former premier Danny Williams left politics in 2010.
She led the Tories to a third straight majority government in October 2011 but took the brunt of public wrath as overspending and a drop in offshore oil earnings ran up deficits and led to 1,200 government job cuts last spring.
That was before a culmination of weather and equipment malfunctions caused province-wide power failures in January that left up to 190,000 customers in the dark.
Under provincial law, Dunderdale’s resignation triggers an election within a year of the new full-time party leader becoming premier.
Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Kent, who opted at the last minute not to run, says Coleman is the man for the job.
He says many party supporters believe the Tories need a fresh face to lead them into an election.
“I’ve been hearing people suggest that we need somebody from the outside to help government reposition itself as we move into the next election,” Kent said. “He [Coleman] has lots of energy and enthusiasm. He’s a well-respected person in his community and in the business world.”
The grandson of the Colemans founders, Coleman grew up working in the family grocery business before heading off to university. He later became the chief economist for Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro and ran his own consulting business, Atlantic Consulting Economists.
Coleman returned to the grocery business in 1986 as president of Colemans.
He was named Top CEO in Atlantic Canada by Atlantic Business magazine in 2010. The next year he received the grocery industry’s highest award, the Golden Pencil for lifetime achievement.
Coleman does not yet have a seat in Newfoundland’s house of assembly.
Still he stands a good shot of winning the leadership. On Friday after he entered the race, his two rivals for the top job wondered whether the race would be more of a coronation– and not for them.
“I know the fix is in for Frank Coleman,” Bennett said Friday from his home in Howley, near Deer Lake in western Newfoundland.
“I had a real hard time here in the Corner Brook area getting signatures on my nomination papers,” he said of the 50 names of recognized party supporters required along with a $10,000 deposit.
“I know Frank is Danny’s boy.”
That was a reference to Williams, the former premier. Though it’s been more than three years since he quit politics to resume his business interests, Williams is still revered by many in and outside Tory circles.
Williams has made no public comment about Coleman, but he has dismissed fishery magnate Barry as a contender.
“He doesn’t stand for anything that I support,” Williams said last month. It was in part a reaction to a recent letter Barry wrote to caucus members urging debate on more private enterprise in energy, health care and education.
Barry prides himself on being frank and outspoken. He said Friday he just wants a democratic and fair shot at the leadership.
“The hope for me is that delegates will be able to come to a convention and have a free, open opportunity to engage with the candidates and ultimately decide which of us they’d like to choose as leader,” he said in an interview.
“Danny is a man of significant influence and he has certainly made it very clear to the Tories that I’m not the type of character that’s palatable to him.”
Barry said he has been friends with Coleman, who is godfather to one of Barry’s daughters, since they were in high school in Corner Brook. The two corporate heavyweights have often swapped political and economic theories, Barry said.
“We’ve had these debates in his kitchen and mine for 40 years.
“Frank’s a great guy and a good candidate. If I have any objection to the process, my objection is a fix being in to create the end of the race at the beginning.”
Several cabinet ministers who considered running for the top job ultimately counted themselves out, fuelling speculation that caucus and party backing has already coalesced around Coleman.
Kelly Blidook, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said it’s surprising that not one person from inside the government chose to run.
“It looks like former premier Danny Williams may have a lot of say and a lot of people are backing one person so there won’t be much of a race,” Blidook said. The party’s old-guard influence could hurt as much as it helps, he added.
“I think most people, average voters, would like to think we kind of move on and there’s actually competition–not that one person continues to run things.”