03/14/2014 11:15 EDT | Updated 05/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Newfoundland and Labrador Tory leadership contenders raise concerns fix is in

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Two of three contenders for leader of Newfoundland and Labrador's Progressive Conservative party say they're concerned the race will be more of a coronation — and not for them.

Corner Brook businessmen Frank Coleman and Bill Barry along with Wayne Bennett, a retired naval officer and town councillor in Howley, N.L., all filed nomination papers by the deadline Friday.

All are caucus outsiders, and Coleman and Bennett's documents must still be vetted by the party and certified. A delegated leadership convention is set for July 4-5 in St. John's.

But both Bennett and Barry questioned if it will be much of a contest.

"I know the fix is in for Frank Coleman," Bennett said Friday from his home in Howley, near Deer Lake in western Newfoundland.

"I had a real hard time here in the Corner Brook area getting signatures on my nomination papers," he said of the 50 names of recognized party supporters required along with a $10,000 deposit.

"I know Frank is Danny's boy."

That was a reference to former premier Danny Williams who, more than three years after quitting politics to resume his business interests, is still revered by many in and outside Tory circles.

Williams declined through a spokeswoman Friday to respond. Coleman did not return calls and emails requesting an interview.

Williams has made no public comment about Coleman, whose business interests include a chain of grocery and furniture stores. But he has dismissed fishery magnate Barry as a contender.

"He doesn't stand for anything that I support," Williams said last month. It was in part a reaction to a recent letter Barry wrote to caucus members urging debate on more private enterprise in energy, health care and education.

Barry prides himself on being frank and outspoken. He said Friday he just wants a democratic and fair shot at the leadership.

"The hope for me is that delegates will be able to come to a convention and have a free, open opportunity to engage with the candidates and ultimately decide which of us they'd like to choose as leader," he said in an interview.

"Danny is a man of significant influence and he has certainly made it very clear to the Tories that I'm not the type of character that's palatable to him."

Barry said he has been friends with Coleman, who is godfather to one of Barry's daughters, since they were in high school in Corner Brook. The two corporate heavyweights have often swapped political and economic theories, Barry said.

"We've had these debates in his kitchen and mine for 40 years.

"Frank's a great guy and a good candidate. If I have any objection to the process, my objection is a fix being in to create the end of the race at the beginning."

Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Kent, who opted at the last minute not to run, said Coleman is the man for the job.

"I've been hearing people suggest that we need somebody from the outside to help government reposition itself as we move into the next election," he said. "He has lots of energy and enthusiasm. He's a well-respected person in his community and in the business world."

Asked about the Williams factor, Kent said he has spoken with the former premier in recent weeks.

"Danny Williams is very committed to helping us continue to grow the party and to continue to lead government. And I think having him on our side is a valuable asset."

Several cabinet ministers who considered running for the top job ultimately counted themselves out, fuelling speculation that caucus and party backing has already coalesced around Coleman.

Under provincial law, an election must be called within 12 months of the new Tory leader being sworn in as premier.

Kelly Blidook, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said it's surprising that not one person from inside the government chose to run.

"It looks like former premier Danny Williams may have a lot of say and a lot of people are backing one person so there won't be much of a race," Blidook said. The party's old-guard influence could hurt as much as it helps, he added.

"I think most people, average voters, would like to think we kind of move on and there's actually competition — not that one person continues to run things."