Romeo Saganash to drop out of NDP leadership race

OTTAWA – Romeo Saganash is bowing out of the NDP leadership race.

Saganash is to formally announce his withdrawal from the contest Friday morning in Val d’Or, Que.

Sources said Thursday the Cree leader and northern Quebec MP decided to call it quits partly because of illness in his family, which has caused him to miss a number of recent all-candidates debates.

Moreover, they acknowledged his low-key campaign has simply failed to catch fire with the more than 100,000 New Democrats who will be eligible to choose a successor to the late Jack Layton on March 24.

A source close to Saganash said he’s unlikely to throw his support to any of the remaining seven contenders in the contest – at least not right away.

The other contenders are Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair, former party president Brian Topp, Toronto MP Peggy Nash, Ottawa MP Paul Dewar, British Columbia MP Nathan Cullen, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and Nova Scotia pharmacist Martin Singh.

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Nova Scotia MP Robert Chisholm, hamstrung by his inability to speak French, bowed out before Christmas.

There has been speculation that Ashton and Singh could also drop out, but in recent interviews both insisted they are in the race for the long haul.

“The people who are supporting my campaign are keen to see it to victory,” said Ashton.

“I’m running to win,” said Singh. “So you can’t quit early if you’re running to win.”

Still, it makes strategic sense for candidates who know they’re trailing to drop out well before the March 24 vote. The vast majority of New Democrats will vote before then by preferential mail-in or online ballots. They can begin casting their ballots on March 1.

Dropping out now gives a candidate a chance to throw his or her support behind someone else and potentially influence the outcome. Waiting to be forced off the ballot on the convention floor, when most members will have long since cast their ballots and indicated their second, third and lower choices, would be far less influential, not to mention potentially humiliating.

Party officials had hoped Saganash’s candidacy would help the NDP make inroads into aboriginal communities, which have a notoriously low voter turnout rate. And many New Democrats found his personal story, as a survivor of a residential school who was born in the bush in northern Quebec, to be inspiring.

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But insiders say that simply didn’t translate into hard support among existing members or enough organizers to recruit thousands of new members. With the Feb. 18 cut-off for signing up new members fast approaching, and his energy diverted by family crises, sources said Saganash simply decided there’s no point in continuing with “this torture,” as one put it.

In a written statement late Thursday, Saganash cited “several competing demands” on his time for his decision to withdraw.

“My mother, sisters and brothers and my children all need more attention than I have been able to provide,” he said. “I am unable to to devote enough time to them, my constituents or my party and run the kind of campaign I would like to run.”

Saganash also said he realized that, despite “a warm reception” from New Democrats, “it is impossible to run a winning campaign as the favourite second choice. People send you good wishes but they don’t send their money.”

He did not specifically endorse any other candidate, saying he intends to “endorse whichever candidate can best move” his vision for the party forward.

Mulcair called Saganash’s candidacy “ground-breaking.”

“For years to come, tens of thousands of aboriginal children will be inspired by having watched him in this race, knowing he was a credible candidate for the leadership of the official Opposition,” he said in a statement.

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In an email to The Canadian Press, Cullen said it’s “sad” to see Saganash bow out.

“His personal story of triumph over adversity was inspiring to many and me in particular. He did himself and his nation proud,” Cullen said.

Dewar called Saganash “a caring and strong leader within our party and our country.”

“Everything he does, well, he does it with courage.”

Nash said she’s “definitely going to miss Romeo on the campaign trail.”

“He brought a great deal of experience and knowledge to the race but, more importantly, he inspired so many Canadians to join our party and get involved. I’m looking forward to continuing our work together in the House of Commons.”