Monday, March 04, 2013

#skndpldr Candidate Review - Cam Broten

Apparently nearly 60% of Saskatchewan's NDP members had already voted for a leadership candidate as of Friday, and the remaining candidates are all launching determined efforts to lock in all the support they can before Tuesday's advance voting deadline. As a result, it's a distinct possibility that the result of the leadership race will be all but decided early this week.

That said, there's still plenty of room for maneuvering in how the candidates approach the convention and beyond. So I'll take the opportunity to review how the campaign has reinforced or changed my initial perception of the leadership candidates (including Erin Weir) - and what roles I'll hope to see each candidate playing within the NDP regardless of how the vote turns out.

I'll take the opportunity to note that this exercise has offered a useful reminder as to how strong a field of candidates the NDP enjoys. While I've pointed out relative differences and weaknesses to the extent they're relevant in sorting out the options available to voters, it's not hard to see how a party could succeed with any of the four as leader. And as I'll discuss, each of the candidates offers a complementary set of strengths which should serve the party well in the years to come.

As per usual, let's start with...

Cam Broten

At the start of the campaign, my impression of Broten was that he was likely to place in the mid-to-upper ranks of the leadership candidates by nearly any conceivable measure. But as the campaign has developed, he's shown both one distinct strength and one important weakness which look to me to define his candidacy (and his place within the Saskatchewan NDP).

On the plus side for Broten, he looks to have outdistanced his competitors in terms of developing and executing an overall campaign strategy - starting well before the formal leadership race and continuing throughout.

Broten started off the campaign with an immediate show of readiness, giving himself more leeway than his competitors to treat policy questions as having been dealt with (even if he was largely eclipsed on that front by the holiday break). While Broten has never looked to hold a lead in member support, he's always had enough in reserve to show momentum when it's mattered - particularly as the voting window approached. And even where his campaign has shown signs of weakness, he's been able to offer ready-made explanations (such as an appeal to donate money to the provincial party around the time of his mid-campaign fund-raising lull).

Similarly, he's developed a clear plan within the candidate debates and has mostly succeeded in sticking to it. And as I've pointed out, the "variations on a theme" principle looks to be highly important for the NDP's ongoing strategy in the legislature.

But while Broten has been highly effective in applying the techniques that the opposition needs to use to make a story stick to a government, he hasn't been quite so dependable in choosing his themes in the first place. Instead, he's left the most room for interpretation and doubt as to what goals he'd pursue.

Part of that looks to be the result of Broten's highly specific range of experience. Broten has the best command of the legislative process and media relations out of the contenders, but he's been prone to fixating on those areas of strength rather than broader issues which actually resonate with voters.

More importantly, though, Broten has all too often failed to set a distinctive direction for himself: he's proven his ability to make a case for progressive values and policies when challenged to do so, but has preferred to focus on jokes and platitudes rather than a broad vision when given an open microphone. And while it might be easy for him to speak from experience about process issues while leaving substantive policy to future consultation and review, that combination doesn't figure to motivate the base of volunteers and donors the NDP needs to build over the years to come.

In sum, Broten's managerial skills are at the head of the pack among the Saskatchewan NDP's leadership candidates. And I can see how he might be the first choice for anybody who sees the role of a party leader primarily in terms of organization and discipline.

But those factors shouldn't represent the first order of business for a party which needs to build its base of supporters rather than merely working organizing the base it already holds. And so my best-case scenario would see Broten serving as deputy leader and key strategist - while another leadership candidate with a better record of drawing in new supporters serves as the face of the party.

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