With apologies to newspapering's eminent sage, H.L. Mencken, Todd Doherty has some large horseshoes to fill when it comes to replacing the Conservative for Cariboo-Prince George, Dick Harris.
Mencken once described U.S. president Warren G. Harding as 'a third-rate political wheel-horse.' While it would be uncharitable to apply that label holus-bolus to the career of Dick Harris, it does capture something of the plodding partisan nature of the perennial backbench Tory's approach to politics. Now into the harness steps Doherty, Harris's handpicked successor and the winner of last weekend's chippyish nomination race for the Cariboo-Prince George riding.
Few in Canadian politics have held power like Harris. Like a latter day Vicar of Bray, Harris has endured 22 years of languishing in Opposition, the redrawing of his riding, a particularly vicious nomination battle with Williams Lake dentist Elmer Thiessen, minority government, the Harper regime and countless iterations of right-wing dogma from Manning to Day to the now prime minister.
The proverbial fifth-line grinder, Harris survived with sharp elbows, hands of stone, the instincts of an iguana, the imagination of an armadillo and the loyaties of a stray dog. A former party whip to the aforementioned Stockwell Day, he`s a staunch social conservative but not aggressively enough to make large numbers of anyone care enough to vote against him. He's good for a partisan quip (he once dismissed protesters opposed to the Tories`omnibus budget bill by saying his supporters were ``busy working and earning a living and raising their families``). He's best known for a singularly helpful constituency office, his pride in porkbarrelling - the Citizen reported in 2011 he boasted his party had invested $1 billion in Prince George since they formed government in 2006 - and, perhaps a virtue, perhaps to a fault, not much else; he's apparently so far from Cabinet material he can't hold a cup and a plate at the same time.
He`s also taken a bottle of bitter pills from the party - he challenged Preston Manning over merging the then Reform Party with the Conservatives; he backed Stockwell Day to the bitter end; and steamed over the double rejection of the New Prosperity mine near Williams Lake by Harper. He may well be the perfect Harper Tory MP - dogmatic, resilient and emblematic of a government that grooms the electorate to want little and expect less.
And it appears that`s what voters in this riding want. Harris has turned Cariboo-Prince George (formerly Prince George-Bulkley Valley) into a Tory stronghold since winning his seat from NDP MP Brian Gardiner in 1993 as one of Manning`s Reform soldiers. In that time, on the federal level Nathan Cullen took Skeena-Bulkley Valley for the NDP from Reform MP Andy Burton in 2004 and on the provincial level, Prince George has seen the then Prince George-Mount Robson riding shift from the NDP`s Lois Boone to the Liberal`s Shirley Bond and Prince George North shift from the NDP`s Paul Ramsey to the Liberal`s Pat Bell in 2001.
Throughout that time, voters have been satisfied with Harris, to the point it is unlikely either the federal Liberals or NDP will ever devote serious amounts of blood or treasure contesting the seat.
Yet during the campaign to replace him, a candidate for the nomination and former Prince George mayor Shari Green said ``I think that people are looking for something more and they don`t want more of the same.`` Last weekend, however, the Tory faithful followed Harris - and ineligible hopeful T.J. Grewal, who had signed up numerous party members - in backing Doherty. It would seem that party members in the riding didn`t want something more - they want another wheel-horse who can stay in line and pull without too much complaining.
Perhaps that`s the only kind of politician that can truly thrive in Ottawa - parochial, partisan, policy-light. While there`s little doubt Doherty will succeed in replacing Harris as this riding`s next MP, it will be interesting to see if the former carries on the latter`s inclinaton to shy away from the cabinet table and practice a lowest-common-denominator, social conservative, business-at-all-costs approach to the nation and this region`s affairs.
It would be a shame but unsurprising if Doherty does hoe the same row as Harris. In the meantime, good luck to Mr. Doherty matching his predecessor`s hoofprints - and better luck to whoever mounts a charge to defeat him.