After Jack Layton died, everyone knew that whoever replaced him as federal leader of the NDP would have giant shoes to fill.
Layton’s talent for uniting the party and reaching out to people across the country made him a sort of folk legend, even before cancer stole him too soon at age 61.
Newly selected NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, the 57-year-old Quebecer who helped Layton transform the party from a virtual non-entity in that province to a substantial force, taking 58 of 75 seats in last year’s election, is clearly a leader of some repute.
What is also clear is he doesn’t have the charisma Layton had, and developed, as the Orange crush flattened the Liberal red machine to become the official Opposition to Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority in May 2011.
Mulcair, who was not the first choice as leader for Capital Region MPs Denise Savoie (Victoria) and Randall Garrison (Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca) until the final ballot at the recent convention, has been a virtual unknown on the West Coast – unlike Layton – for all except diehard politics watchers.
But does a leader known for being prickly have to be the second coming of Layton to win the hearts and minds of people west of Thunder Bay? Harper has shown that a leader can come across to many as cold and calculating, yet still win a majority in parliament.
Let’s remember that even under Layton, the NDP won just 15 of 77 seats in the western provinces, including 12 in B.C.
To win over non-NDP voters, it’ll take more than criss-crossing the country connecting with people, as Layton famously did – he visited Victoria more often than we might have expected for a Toronto MP.
Mulcair will be put under the microscope about everything from his policies to his personality, by his supporters and critics alike, in the three years leading to the next election.
In that time, he must prove he is his own person, a leader who stands on his own feet. And he must avoid handlers who would try to make him a kindler, gentler version of himself.