04/15/2013 09:13 EDT | Updated 06/15/2013 05:12 EDT

New Brunswick Liberals maintain hold on Kent riding with byelection win

REXTON, N.B. - For the first time in 46 years, the eastern New Brunswick riding of Kent isn't held by a member of the Graham family.

Liberal party Leader Brian Gallant captured the riding in a byelection Monday, securing himself a seat in the provincial legislature.

"I feel great," Gallant told a crowd of a few hundred supporters who packed the curling club in Rexton.

"I'm looking forward to getting to the legislature and try to keep this government accountable."

Gallant won the party leadership last October, but without a seat, he could not assume the role of Opposition leader.

The 30-year-old lawyer easily defeated Progressive Conservative candidate Jimmy Bourque and Susan Levi-Peters, who was running for the New Democrats. He won about 59 per cent of the ballots cast in the riding, a longtime Liberal stronghold.

"Thank you so much for sending a strong message," he said, adding that he believes there is strong support for the Liberals across the province.

The byelection was called when former Liberal premier Shawn Graham quit politics after he was found to be in a conflict of interest over a $50-million loan guarantee his government gave to a construction firm in 2009.

The province's conflict of interest commissioner said Graham should have removed himself from cabinet discussions about the loan guarantee to Atcon because it had ties to his father, Alan.

The elder Graham had also represented the Kent riding since he was first elected in 1967. He held the seat until 1998 when he retired from politics and his son was elected.

When the byelection was called, Premier David Alward characterized the vote as a chance for voters to send a message to the Liberals for their handling of the Atcon case. Despite millions of dollars in government assistance, the company went bankrupt.

Employment Insurance reform and shale gas exploration were among the main issues during the campaign, which was a low-key affair.

This was Gallant's second attempt to win a seat in the legislature. In 2006, he made an unsuccessful bid to unseat Tory Bernard Lord, who was premier at the time, in the riding of Moncton East. But he garnered almost 41 per cent of the vote.

Gallant's victory gives the Liberals 13 seats in the 55-seat legislature while the governing Tories have 41. There is also one Independent.

The next provincial election is set for Sept. 22, 2014.