Leef knocks out Bagnell

Ryan Leef is Yukon's Member of Parliament. The 37-year-old Conservative greenhorn narrowly defeated Liberal incumbent Larry Bagnell during Monday's federal election. It came down to 132 votes. Leef garnered 5,422 votes. Bagnell received 5,290. It's a historic occasion. Over the past half-century, Yukoners have only once unseated an elected MP, when they turfed Louise Hardy in 2000 in favour of Bagnell.

UPDATED VERSION

Ryan Leef is Yukon’s Member of Parliament.

The 37-year-old Conservative greenhorn narrowly defeated Liberal incumbent Larry Bagnell during Monday’s federal election.

It came down to 132 votes. Leef garnered 5,422 votes. Bagnell received 5,290.

It’s a historic occasion. Over the past half-century, Yukoners have only once unseated an elected MP, when they turfed Louise Hardy in 2000 in favour of Bagnell.

For many of the years to follow, Bagnell was considered unbeatable as a well-liked, hardworking constituent’s MP. But this time was different.

Just one week ago, on April 26, a poll by DataPath Systems predicted that 44 per cent of decided voters would back Bagnell, with Leef trailing far behind, at 24 per cent.

Maybe the poll, which had a sample of just 398 Yukoners, was off by a long shot.

Or maybe, with nearly half of respondents undecided, Bagnell was hurt by vote splitting on the left and Conservative discipline to get out the vote.

Both the NDP and the Green Party fared better in this election compared to in 2008. And their votes probably came at Bagnell’s expense.

Liberal support dissolved across Canada this election. In the Yukon, it was no different.

Throughout the campaign, Conservatives banged away at Bagnell for helping to prop up the long-gun registry. Bagnell opposes the registry, but his party leader forced him to support it.

In a thinly veiled dig against Bagnell, Leef promised to never put his party’s interests ahead of his constituents’. Whether he manages to live up to that promise under the iron-fisted leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper remains to be seen.

Bagnell also had to contend with the unpopularity of his leader, Michael Ignatieff, who failed to connect with many voters after being tarred by Conservatives as an out-of-touch academic.

And Bagnell, 61, looked tired this campaign. He now has a three-year-old daughter, adding to his tall commitment of frequently commuting from Ottawa to Whitehorse. He slept little.

By 11 p.m., shortly before the final polling station’s ballots were counted, Bagnell visited the Conservative’s election party at the Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre’s curling club to concede defeat. He and Leef hugged.

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The two spoke warmly about one another. Leef thanked Bagnell for being a “class act” and said he deserved a rest.

“This is about representing the Yukon, regardless of party lines,” said Leef. “We have some very big shoes to fill.”

Until this election, Leef was best known in the territory as a long-distance runner and mixed-martial-arts fighter. He has worked as a Mountie, a conservation officer, and, until the election, as deputy superintendent of Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

He remained cool and composed as he waited one hour for the last ballot box to be counted. Leef batted aside suggestions that victory was imminent.

“So much happens in the final mile of a race,” he said. “There’s still a lot that could happen.”

But, as the crowd’s cheers began to grow and television lights set upon the candidate, his 11-year-old son, Aaron, and his parents, Leef couldn’t help but be swept up in the moment.

“Wow,” he said. “This is crazy.”

While conducting an on-air CBC interview, Leef’s cellphone appeared to conk out. He cursed Northwestel, only to later discover that his remark had been broadcast across the territory’s radiowaves.

He shrugged and laughed off the gaff.

Leef didn’t have any plans for the following day. “I have a feeling my schedule is about to be set for me.”

Unlike the Conservative’s last federal candidate, Leef was unafraid to speak with reporters and staged frequent news conferences.

He’s quick on his feet. But Leef had a rough ride during the CBC-sponsored debate, when his Conservative talking points were met with boos from the audience. And he raised eyebrows by sidestepping a question about abortion rights.

“I really wasn’t trying to dodge the issue,” said Leef. Instead, he was trying to express agreement with NDP candidate Kevin Barr, he said.

He’ll have to be more careful with his words in the future. “I’ve entered political life,” said Leef. “I can’t crouch under a rock when the going gets tough.”

Approximately 80 Leef supporters gathered at the curling club. The place smelled of pepperoni, roses and Budweiser.

Heather Lang, 29, helped Leef with his Facebook page during the campaign. “He wasn’t too familiar with Facebook before this election,” she said, clutching a smartphone that displayed the latest polling results.

“I’m a very passionate Conservative, and I believe in the party,” she said.

It runs in the family. Her father is Daniel Lang, Yukon’s Conservative senator, who was also in attendance, along with much of the rest of the Yukon’s Conservative establishment.

That includes Yukon Justice Minister, Marian Horne, who helped Leef stump in Teslin and Faro and leaned on First Nation chiefs to vote Conservative.

Campaign manager Michael Lauer and his volunteers tirelessly worked the phones to ensure all their supporters voted. “I got a complaint from one guy, who we called three times in two days.”

Supporters enthused over how Prime Minister Stephen Harper has visited the territory six times. And he’s showered the Yukon with goodies, such as $71 million to help upgrade Mayo’s hydroelectric facilities and connect the territory’s power grids.

Conservatives argue that Yukoners will be inclined to get even more if they vote in a government MP.

“Larry was a great guy for running errands, but as far as having a positive impact on the Yukon, it wasn’t there,” said Al Fedoriak.

Shane Buchanan has known Leef since they met in Grade 10 at FH Collins, 22 years ago.

They’re best friends. So Buchanan was roped into being Leef’s sign manager. That meant frequent drives out from his Lake Laberge home to pick up blown-down banners.

Buchanan wasn’t surprised Leef entered conservative politics. “Ryan’s always been a forward looker, someone who’s not scared of challenge or change. And he’s always been pro-Yukon.”

Bill Barney taught Leef’s art class at FH Collins more than two decades ago. “I taught him where to draw the line,” he said with a chuckle. He remembers Leef as “energetic and striving” then.

“I was a horrible artist,” Leef said later. “I’ve always said I can’t dance, I can’t sing, I can’t paint. All that’s left is running and fighting.”

And, now, politics.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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