03/06/2015 12:33 EST | Updated 05/06/2015 05:59 EDT

Newfoundland and Labrador NDP to pick new leader after messy caucus split

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Mike Goosney doesn't mince words when it comes to the rebuilding job that faces the next head of the Newfoundland and Labrador NDP.

"It was an implosion," he said of a particularly nasty and very public leadership rift that split the five-member caucus in October 2013.

"It was really disheartening how it all went down."

Goosney, 37, is a pipefitter at the Iron Ore Company of Canada mine in Labrador City and one of three men contending for the top NDP job at a leadership convention Saturday.

Former union leader Earle McCurdy, 65, is well known throughout the province for his 20-year career representing fishery workers during his time at FFAW-Unifor. He is the perceived front-runner.

And Chris Bruce, a 26-year-old local coffee shop manager who left the party after the leadership spat, is back in the fold and also running.

Outgoing Leader Lorraine Michael, 71, is a former nun and social worker. She has steered the third-place party since 2006 to its best ever results, winning five seats and almost forming the Official Opposition in 2011.

But that momentum crashed 16 months ago after a letter signed by all four members of her caucus, then leaked to the media, raised questions about her leadership and pushed for a review.

Party supporters later reaffirmed her at the helm by a healthy margin but not before two members left caucus. They went on to sit with the Opposition Liberals who have won seven byelections over the three-term majority Progressive Conservative government since June 2013.

Premier Paul Davis is expected to call an election this fall.

Michael announced in January that she would step down as leader but stay on as a member of the legislature. Dismal byelection results were a big factor, she said in an interview.

"I don't think I was pushed," she said. "I don't necessarily feel the byelections came down to leadership.

"But I think people felt that way and I had to listen."

Kelly Blidook, a political scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said he expects McCurdy to win.

"They just don't have the name recognition," he said of the other two candidates.

Whoever takes over will be battling in the short months before the next election to keep what support the party still has, he added.

"I think it's unlikely they're going to grow significantly."

The impact of tanking crude prices in the oil-dependent province means a cost-cutting climate and a growing $916-million deficit that won't likely help New Democrats attract voters, Blidook said.

"They don't usually relate belt tightening and the NDP," he said of the party's drive for improved social services and programs.

Party president Kathleen Connors painted a brighter picture.

There are more than 1,600 members eligible to vote for the new leader compared to about 800 members last year, she said in an interview.

"It's an invigorating and forward looking time to be a New Democrat."

Connors said the focus is on reorganizing and having a full slate of candidates across the province ready to run this fall.

"What has happened, happened," she said of the NDP's bout of self-inflicted damage.

"But we're moving ahead and putting all of our energy into building rather than stewing about what went on in the past."

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