Anyone who fears that baby-faced Bernard Lord is too young and green to run the province of New Brunswick had better note one salient fact about his past: he used to sell cars. More than that, he was one of the top salesmen on the Acadia Toyota lot while putting himself through law school at the Université de Moncton during the late 1980s. Back then, Lord cut much the same figure as he did last week when his Tory party scored its stunning political upset - whippet-thin, young but seemingly humourless - and there were undoubtedly a few snickers from full-time salesmen when he tried to reel in that first customer. But Lord never pushed too hard for a sale, never became easily discouraged when a customer refused to bite. And when one sales strategy failed, he simply tried another. "We all learned it was a mistake to underestimate his abilities," remembers Sam Girvan, the owner of Acadia Toyota.
So why do people keep misjudging those choirboy looks? The fluently bilingual lawyer was a dark horse to become leader of the hapless New Brunswick Tory party after Bernard Valcourt was driven out during a fractious leadership review in 1997 - but won on the second ballot. With Tory support at 10 per cent, advisers told him it would be suicide to run in the Moncton East by-election last October, yet he knocked off a star Liberal candidate, former NHLer Charlie Bourgeois, by 718 votes. Expectations for the Conservatives were even lower when Premier Camille Thériault called a June 7 election with his ruling Liberals 25 percentage points ahead in public opinion polls. But the Tories ran a sharp campaign, much of it built around their fresh-faced, energetic leader, with promises of tax cuts and smaller government within the first 200 days in power. And three hours after the polls closed, Lord, just 33, flashed the thumb's up sign from a stage in a sweltering Moncton curling club after his party swept 44 of 55 seats and reduced the Grit dynasty - three successive majorities - to rubble.
It was a stunning victory, even though New Brunswick voters have a tradition of turning viciously against long-reigning governments. Liberal Louis ROBICHAUD, just 34 when he became premier in 1960, ruled until 1970 when the electorate soured on his government. His successor, the flamboyant Tory Richard HATFIELD, had a 17-year run before losing every one of his party's 58 seats to Frank McKENNA's Liberals in 1987. Now, New Brunswickers have again trusted their future to an untested, unknown leader promising miracles.
Lord's performance during the campaign was flawless enough to impress even the most seasoned political pros. New Brunswickers took to a politician who adopted the B-52s' hit Love Shack as his unofficial campaign theme, but who still admits to getting political ideas from such venerable sources as Pierre Trudeau and Sir John A. Macdonald. Lord is a fiscal conservative, but one who earlier worked on a New Democratic party campaign. When asked about the job ahead, the father of two - he and his wife, Diane, 33, have a son, Sebastien, 5, and a daughter, Jasmine, 3 - is confident enough to boast in an interview: "I've met whatever responsibilities have been laid on me before and I will do it again." But then, in the next breath, he will candidly admit that the prospect of sitting down in September with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard and French President Jacques Chirac at the francophone summit in Moncton leaves him feeling "overwhelmed."
Considering how far he has come, and how quickly, that is perfectly understandable. Lord was born in Quebec's Lac-St-Jean region, but his parents moved to Moncton when he was just a baby. Ever since, he has spent his life close to home, to the point where, at 33, he has yet to travel any farther west than Saskatchewan. But in an interview last week, Lord spoke of how his father, an anglophone bush pilot, and his Quebec-born mother instilled their values, discipline and abiding faith in education in the future premier and his three older siblings. One brother, Roger, is a classical concert pianist now touring Asia, while the other, Frank, is a well-regarded local physician; sister Marie-Linda teaches literature and journalism at the Université de Moncton. "I was a serious kid," Lord recalls. "When I was 6 or 7, I'd rather sit around and watch the TV news than follow the Montreal Canadiens."
Growing up in middle-class, west-end Moncton, he was drawn to other studious youngsters. Acquaintances say he never bothered to try out for any school teams, although he was a natural athlete who dominated their playground ball-hockey games. But more often than not, he and his friends used to spend their free time playing board games such as Monopoly and chess and haunting the local video game parlors. "Bernard's best games were Pac-Man and Arkanoid," laughs Yassin Choukri, a friend since Grade 7 who went on to become Lord's law partner. "He was very competitive then - I guess he still is." That streak surfaced in other ways: Lord was one of the mainstays on his high-school Reach for the Top team. And entering university at 18, he promptly won the post of student union president, and was re-elected two more times.
After earning a bachelor of arts (economics) degree he went to law school. He then joined a mid-sized Moncton law firm in 1992 (Choukri, who had also completed a law degree, joined the same firm in 1991). Two years later, they formed their own firm, focusing on criminal and insurance work. Lord, by all accounts, was a promising young litigator who won two cases before the New Brunswick Court of Appeal. Politically, meanwhile, he was feeling his way. He attended a few NDP meetings in the early 1990s, even helping out on a provincial campaign, and the New Democrats asked him to run in the 1995 provincial election. But so did the Conservatives. "The PC party's policies were what drew me," he says, "particularly the belief that everything should not be centralized in the hands of government." Lord won the Conservative nomination in Dieppe/Memramcook, a suburban Moncton riding. But the Tories - himself included - were steamrolled by Premier Frank McKenna's Liberal machine.
In that election, the Tories won just six seats. But Lord had made an impression, and party brass began to envision him as a potential saviour. "He was bright, extremely articulate and fluently bilingual," recalls party executive-director Barbara Winsor, who visited Lord's law office in 1996 and urged him to consider running for the provincial Tory leadership. "Bernard seemed to be just what we were waiting for." The wait was a short one. In April, 1997, Valcourt, a former federal cabinet minister, quit after receiving just 62 per cent of the vote during a party leadership review. Lord stumbled through a weak speech at that October's leadership convention, but won a second-ballot victory by 235 votes.
Lord moved quickly to heal the leadership campaign rifts by appointing his two opponents - Norman Betts and Margaret-Ann Blainey - co-chairs of party policy. Then came McKenna's resignation in late 1997. Thériault, an ambitious, longtime cabinet minister, emerged victorious from the Liberal leadership convention in May, 1998, and moved into the premier's office. By last March, with the Liberals enjoying a strong lead over the Tories, party strategists were confidently talking about another easy waltz to victory.
It was not to be. The Tories shored up their campaign by bringing in longtime party strategists John Laschinger and David McLaughlin (among other things, Laschinger ran Ontario Premier Mike Harris's 1990 party leadership campaign, while McLaughlin worked in the offices of prime ministers Kim Campbell and Brian Mulroney). Their approach was simple: developing a platform that focused on tax cuts, reinvesting in health care and slimming down government to establish the Tories as a credible alternative to the government - then being first off the mark with everything from getting the campaign bus on the road to placing a cost on promises. The key was showcasing Lord - younger and a better communicator than the 44-year-old Thériault - as an agent of change. With the Liberals running a flat campaign built around their job creation record, their lead began to evaporate. "Lord's political instincts were superb," declared Laschinger in an interview from the Toronto offices of Northstar Research Partners, where he is a senior associate. "He never made a misstep."
Until they can find a house in Fredericton, Lord and his wife - who was doing graduate work in education at the Université de Moncton before the campaign began - will continue to live in a spacious, but hardly grand, two-storey house in Dieppe. He drives a Toyota RAV4, a compact sport utility vehicle. Entertaining friends usually means a few beers and a couple of steaks on the barbecue. And although Lord has been known to puff on the occasional Cuban cigar, his only real indulgence is playing golf with his old friends. His 10 handicap is sure to suffer in the days ahead. Within his first 200 days in power, Lord vows he will deliver on all 21 election promises: everything from ordering an audit of the province's finances to cancelling tolls on a controversial highway between Moncton and Fredericton. Last week, he asked for résumés from his 44-member caucus to see who is cabinet material. Only one has been a government member before, and the premier-elect is looking them over carefully. Lord, more than anybody, knows political success stories can have unlikely beginnings.
Maclean's June 21, 1999