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N.L. Premier Danny Williams to leave politics

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Danny Williams is stepping down next week as Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, saying he doesn’t regret any of the battles he waged and revelling in increased pride in his province.

“Above all ... I am most proud of our renewed pride as a people,” he told reporters and supporters after listing a series of battles won. “We are a have province. Our fiscal house is in order and a model to the rest of the country.”

Williams said that the completion last week of a deal to develop hydroelectric potential on the Lower Churchill was key to his decision to quit a week Friday.

“We fought the critics and ignored those who said we had to go to Quebec,” Williams said.

The agreement to send power through the Maritimes instead helped erase the historical sting of an earlier hydro deal that ended up allowing Quebec to reap billions, a grievance that Williams has long cited as one of the reasons he entered politics.

The scrappy premier, who acknowledged he likes a good fight, had a catch in his voice as he closed his departure speech.

“To the people of Newfoundland and Labrador ... you wanted to be masters of your own destiny, you knew what we were fighting for,” he said. “We have come this far together and the best is yet to come.”

Kathy Dunderdale, currently the deputy premier and a close Williams loyalist, will stand in as leader until a replacement can be chosen. She has not said if she will run but is seen as a credible contender.

Another strong candidate from cabinet is believed to be Health Minister Jerome Kennedy. Possible candidates who have left government during the Williams era include Loyola Sullivan, the federal ambassador for fisheries conservation; former deputy premier Tom Rideout; and former transportation minister Trevor Taylor.

Williams acknowledged the bruising nature of his seven years in office. He said, however, that whenever he felt like quitting, he would be buoyed by a citizen offering support.

“It gave me the strength many days to go on,” he said. “It gave me the will to go on fighting.”

Williams’s decision to step down drew reaction from across the country, at both levels of government.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he admires Williams’ passion, pride and persistence.

“Danny’s pride as a Newfoundlander is only exceeded by his Canadian pride. He has been a resolute champion for a strong Newfoundland and Labrador within a strong Confederation - a position that has strengthened both his province and our country,” McGuinty said in a statement.

“And Danny's persistence is legendary. Whether his cause was poverty reduction or growing a stronger economy, Danny simply did not quit. He has worked hard not only to achieve his own success, but to help all Newfoundlanders find opportunity.”

In Ottawa, Liberal MP Scott Simms called Williams “one of a kind.”

“He just personified something that we wanted for so long. …He was the right guy for the right time,” the MP for Newfoundland and Labrador's Bonavista-Exploits said.

With the Lower Churchill deal signed but subject to several conditions, including aboriginal issues that need to be resolved, one political scientist said that Williams may see this as an opportune time to quit office.

“If there’s a fear that this could fall apart, maybe it’s better to leave now,” said Stephen Tomblin, professor of political science at Memorial University. “It might look better in terms of his legacy if someone else is in charge when it fails. If it does.”

Williams, an independently wealthy man who made millions in the cable business, won the Tory leadership in 2001. He led the party to a resounding victory in 2003 and again in 2007.

He has faced weak and ineffectual political opponents and his de facto opposition has often been organized labour. His popularity was at its lowest early in his career when he was locking horns with public-service workers, said Memorial University assistant professor of political science Alex Marland.

Prof. Marland said that recent controversy with the province’s doctors over pay is not what drove the resignation.

“I think it would be a gross over-statement to say this is the straw that broke things,” he said. “He could’ve got past this if he really wanted to. He’s still phenomenally popular here.”

Williams has been lauded at home for his willingness to take on Ottawa and other provinces when he feels they are mistreating Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Danny’s a strange mix,” said Prof. Tomblin, who compared his political appeal to former prime minister Brian Mulroney in his heyday.

“He can be very aggressive, but he also can be one of the local boys. Those qualities are rare. He’s an elite, for sure. But I don’t think people here see him as an elite; they see him as one of their own.”

An example of that may be the reaction when Williams’ sought heart surgery at a private clinic in the United States. Criticized by some in the rest of Canada as an undermining of universal health care, it was taken in stride in his home province.

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