Rankin, 37, was chosen on the second ballot of the Liberal Party’s convention Saturday.
The selection of Rankin on Saturday is the culmination of a decision by Premier Stephen McNeil last summer to announce his sudden retirement after 17 years in politics. He has served as premier since 2013.
Rankin thanked both of his opponents as well as his predecessor in a speech after the results were announced.
“Tonight I owe premier McNeil my eternal gratitude,” he said. “I will lead the province through these challenging times.”
He said that job number one is the continued success of Nova Scotia’s approach to dealing with COVID-19, which has kept cases among the lowest of any province in the country.
Rankin said he would look to meet with Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, as soon as possible.
He also signaled that his government will continue the strong fiscal approach taken by McNeil as well as make the environment a priority.
Rankin wins on second ballot
By the time voting closed on Saturday, 7,849 of 8,100 party delegates had cast virtual votes in support of either former forestry minister Rankin, previous labour minister Labi Kousoulis or Randy Delorey, who’s held the province’s health, finance and environment portfolios under McNeil.
Votes had been cast since Monday via ranked ballot.
None of the three candidates were able to earn enough of the vote on the first ballot.
Despite being considered a front runner, Delorey, 42, was eliminated on the first ballot, having received the lowest vote percentage at 23 per cent.
His votes were redistributed to Rankin and Kousoulis, 49, who earned 40 per cent and 36.7 of the first ballot, respectively.
Rankin prevailed on the second ballot, earning 52.41 per cent of the vote and narrowly defeating Kousoulis, who earned 47.59 per cent.
Rankin was the youngest of the three candidates and drew high-profile endorsements during the campaign from the likes of former party leader Vince MacLean and former deputy premier and finance minister Diana Whalen.
The Cape Breton native cited his youth as a political asset and released a platform linking economic pledges with environmental concerns.
He has pledged, for instance, to end the province’s use of coal to generate electricity by 2030 and has set a goal of having 80 per cent of Nova Scotia’s energy coming from renewable sources by that same year
A video package before the votes were announced offered a recap of the years McNeil spent in power, painting a vivid image of what he has considered his highlights: including his push to balance the provincial budget, The inquiry into the Home for Colored Childre, the closure of the Northern Pulp mill.
During his time as premier, McNeil gained a reputation as a fiscal conservative and won back-to-back majority governments in 2013 and 2017.
His government passed five consecutive balanced budgets and McNeil said his style of fiscal management made it possible to invest in areas such as health and education.
However, he was often derided for his battle to rein in public sector wages.
McNeil offered his own thought on his legacy Saturday and he thanked his caucus, the voters in the province, as well as his own family.
“You unconditionally gave me your love,” he said, appearing to hold back tears.
The threat of COVID-19 changed the nature of the leadership campaign which was conducted entirely online.
“A virtual convention is a small price to pay,” McNeil said.
A virtual leadership campaign
Political experts said the move to a digital platform had helped to keep the campaign largely flown under the public radar.
“The candidates who are running are experienced in politics and for some people, they will be household names,” Dalhousie University political scientist Lori Turnbull previously said in an interview. “But there was no campaign, it seems to me, that really captured a narrative that resonated with people.”
The party missed an opportunity to evolve, Turnbull said, noting the slate of leadership hopefuls does not include any women or party newcomers.
“This is a continuation of the current government and there is no breath of fresh air here,” she said.
Observers also said it was difficult to determine a front-runner among the candidates, who have all touted their experience in McNeil’s government among their qualifications for the top job.
McNeil told reporters Friday that until his new successor is sworn in he will continue to assume the premier’s responsibilities.
A swearing-in date for the next premier has not been announced.
The provincial legislature is set to return on March 9 for the speech from the throne
Provincial election to come by spring of 2022
Whoever is chosen leader will then have a short period of time before heading into the next provincial election.
Nova Scotia is the only province without fixed election dates but Elections Nova Scotia says the spring of 2022 is the latest possible period the 41st provincial election can be held.
McNeil said he believes another majority government is possible for the Nova Scotia Liberal Party as long as it stays unified after the selection of a new leader.
“Our actions in the next 48 hours… will shape the next election,” McNeil said.
It was a tone echoed by Rankin on Saturday evening.
“I don’t see any signs of fracturing,” he said.
Rankin said that Kousoulis and Delorey would both be “strong” members of his team going forward and he promised to act as a unifier.
“Although I was chosen by Liberals I will be a premier for all Nova Scotians,” he said.
“Nova Scotia’s next chapter begins now.”
–With files from The Canadian Press