NDP’s only northern minister passes on leadership bid citing timelines, “unhinged” toxicity in politics

Written By Rob Shaw

Premier John Horgan’s abrupt decision to retire left many New Democrats scrambling to figure out what to do next, and whether they were interested in his job. Chief among them, Smithers’ Nathan Cullen, who said the tight deadline and pressure made him pass on taking a run for the premiership.

“It was very fast,” Cullen told Northern Beat in an interview. “I can make lots of spontaneous decisions, but big ones, I need time… there was not a lot of time here to let me do a tour of friends and family and talk to all the people.”

Cullen announced July 12 he was passing on the race, saying he wanted to focus on his twin 12-year-old boys while they are still young, as well as on his riding of Stikine.

With only days to put a team together, and only weeks to launch a campaign, Cullen said it was too much.

Although the 50-year-old had been rumoured to have ambitions for the BC NDP leadership since quitting as an MP to run in the 2020 B.C. election, Cullen said that was never really the case and he hadn’t been planning for such an eventuality when Horgan resigned.

As a result, with potentially only days to make a decision to put a team together, and only weeks to launch a leadership campaign before a likely fall vote, Cullen said it was too much.

“It might sound strange, but unless you know 100 per cent that this is my plan and I’ve been planning it for years, if the question is truly open, then the conversations are not short, and there’s quite a few of them,” he said. “It’s such a big commitment.

“A week or two (to consider a run) wasn’t going to do it for me.”

Northern candidate unlikely

The decision means B.C.’s North is unlikely to have a candidate in the race, because (next to North Coast’s Jennifer Rice) Cullen is the NDP’s only MLA from the area.

That lack of representation bothers Cullen, who is also B.C.’s municipal affairs minister. He said he hopes whoever does run – at this point, David Eby appears the frontrunner, but has not officially launched – tries to reach out to the North, Interior and rural regions, and not just Metro Vancouver.

“That’s something I want to bring to the conversation with the candidates that do step forward,” he said. “There’s a real opening… and I was getting these calls from people who would represent smaller communities.”

In part, that’s why Cullen is so disappointed Horgan isn’t running again. 

“(Horgan) could walk into a bar in the North and a hipster coffee joint in the East End be at home in both.”

Nathan Cullen

“Frankly that’s one of the things I always supported premier Horgan on was I watched him in Kitimat and Dease Lake and places outside of big population centres and his ability to relate and openness to hearing people who never imagined themselves ever voting NDP,” said Cullen.

That was his magic “curbside appeal.”

“He could walk into a bar in the North and a hipster coffee joint in the East End be at home in both,” said Cullen.

“To me it really makes you a better politician and government, because again you aren’t coming at it from purely ideological terms. You are able to see why small town mayor ‘x’ has a fantastic idea and needs the space to be listened to because they have thought of this differently than a progressive from Nanaimo or West Vancouver.”

“Unhinged” toxicity in politics

Another factor that discouraged him from running was the rising toxicity in politics, through social media, disruptive protests and threats of violence against politicians — particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cullen called it the “unhinged nature of our discourse” where partisanship has turned toxic.

“I think it has an effect, it affects me,” he said. “I don’t read the comments and I’m pretty disciplined. But boy is it a thing. People have got to check themselves.”

That, in turn, is making it harder to recruit young people — and especially women or equity-seeking diverse candidates — to enter politics. The problem extends across partisan lines; BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon has said he too is finding it difficult to recruit new politicians within the toxic atmosphere, and Jobs Minsiter Ravi Kahlon cited the effect it would have on his family as part of the reason not to seek the premiership as well.

“It’s absolutely difficult,” said Cullen. “When I’m recruiting women in particular, and under-rerpesented groups, it’s a question I get. And I’m always straight with people: You have to find ways to shield people and those you love.

“They get sucked along in the wake whether they want to or not. How do you protect them?”

Nathan Cullen

“People going after my family — it is a thing. You think about it, they didn’t run for office. I did. I’m going to potentially choose this more exposed path (as premier), with higher profile, and they get sucked along in the wake whether they want to or not. How do you protect them?”

That, combined with the young age of his sons, the accelerated timeline of the race, the lack of meaningful discussion with his family and friends, and the overall pressure of the decision, Cullen said he simply couldn’t proceed.

He hopes for an actual race amongst candidates for the party, once people start declaring.

“Whoever gets picked, a really good, challenging race is helpful,” he said.

The BC NDP is expected to release the full rules, financial requirements and timeline of the race the week of July 18.