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N.S. Liberals choose Iain Rankin for next leader, premier

Rankin garnered just over 52 per cent of the vote after the three-person race went to a second ballot
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HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's Liberals named a youthful former cabinet minister and self-described agent of generational change to take the helm as they voted Saturday for Iain Rankin to become party leader and the province's next premier.

Rankin, 37, edged out two of his fellow former cabinet ministers in the three-man race to succeed Premier Stephen McNeil, whose retirement announcement last summer triggered the leadership contest that played out virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Rankin, who once served as McNeil's lands and forestry minister, garnered just over 52 per cent of the vote after a second ballot. He defeated former labour minister Labi Kousoulis and Randy Delorey, who held the province's health, finance and environment portfolios under McNeil.

Rankin, who ran on a platform of linking environmental and economic concerns, vowed during his acceptance speech to be a collaborative leader when he succeeds McNeil as premier on a yet unnamed date. 

He also said his election signals the Liberal Party accepted his focus on climate issues during the campaign.

"This is about what people want to see next. They want to see action on climate change. They want to see us continuing down the path of righting historic wrongs," he said during a news conference after his win.

"The party, by and large, wants to see action in those areas."

Rankin, who entered the leadership race on Oct. 5, was the youngest of the three candidates vying for the top job and will be among the youngest premiers in the province's history.

He secured endorsements from high-profile party members such as ex-party leader Vince MacLean and former deputy premier and finance minister Diana Whalen.

Born in Cape Breton, he was raised in Timberlea, N.S., where he developed interests in sports and music. He currently represents the Halifax-area riding of Timberlea-Prospect.

Rankin said he's only a distant cousin to the musical recording artists from Mabou with the same surname, but has delved into his Gaelic ancestry and culture, studied at the Gaelic College in St. Ann's, N.S, and has learned to play the bagpipes.

He went on to become a member of the Dartmouth Pipes and Drum Band.

He also studied at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax while helping to run the family gas station in Beechville, N.S.  Rankin moved on to work in small business before entering politics.

One of his campaign pledges involved a promise to end the province's use of coal to generate electricity by 2030, as well as a goal of having 80 per cent of Nova Scotia's energy coming from renewable sources by that same year.

While reaffirming the environmental commitments on Saturday, Rankin said his first priority is to maintain the province's successful efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rankin also described the fiscally conservative McNeil as a "mentor," and said that he doesn't intend to deviate significantly from the premier's record of keeping a lid on public sector wage increases.

"He's shown more political courage than any premier in our history...I've learned from the premier. He stood up to special interest groups and looked out for the interests of all Nova Scotians. That will continue under my watch," he said. 

About 8,100 party delegates cast virtual votes over the past week in support of the three candidates, all of whom held cabinet roles in McNeil's government.

Delorey was considered by some pundits to be a front-runner in the contest, but was dropped from the race after the first-ballot results of the ranked vote.

During his departure speech, an emotional McNeil urged the party to move quickly behind whoever was chosen as the new leader.

Rankin said he will be calling Delorey, Kousoulis and other senior Liberals in the days to come "to determine their role."

"They've run a good campaign and I look forward to working with them," he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was quick to congratulate the new premier-designate, issuing a statement hours after his win. 

“I look forward to working closely with Mr. Rankin to continue to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to protect and support Nova Scotians and all Canadians during this challenging time," it read. 

The legislature is set to return on March 9 for the speech from the throne, and a provincial election must be called in the province by spring 2022.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2021.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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