(This piece is written from a conversation I had with Dennis in mid-January, before he was elected leader.)
“I think Islanders deserve my courage and my honesty to own up to who I am, and what I say and think.”
Dennis and I are discussing the pro-choice versus pro-life debate – a topic that’s been a festering wound on the backside of Island politics for decades. (Even though, on a national level, it’s been closed and healing since 1988.)
Dennis has been – and still is – forthright about his stance on the matter: he’s pro-choice.
However, he understands not everyone thinks the way he does. About a variety of topics.
“I realize there are a lot of things different people feel differently about. Yet somehow we manage to live together in peace and harmony.”
He throws his hands in the air as if to say, ‘Imagine that.’
“If you can’t disagree on some things and still live in harmony, we’re in big trouble.”
We have to accept our differences, he says. It’s the only way forward.
For him. For all of us.
“It’s important for people to see this side of me and read this stuff about me. Even this stuff you’re writing,” he says, pointing to my notepad as I scribble notes.
“Even if they don’t think or feel the same way I do.”
I agree with him.
“It’s important for people to see that you’re a human being,” I say. “With your own thoughts and feelings and flaws. It shows you’re real."
He doesn’t expect people to believe he’s perfect, he says.
“I’m just me. That’s what I led with from the beginning. ‘If I’m going to do this,’ I said, ‘I gotta be who I am.’”
He tells me “they” – the campaign team, I assume – tried to make him “bend” on certain issues. Tried to present the image of a pristine politician, as most political campaigns have done (read: tried to do) in the past.
He wasn’t having it.
“It feels way too staged. Too politic-y. Too fake,” he says. “And it’s probably exactly what people don’t like about politics.”
As a small town boy from rural P.E.I., he hopes people can relate to him. See him as one of their own. Someone from modest beginnings.
Which isn’t always the case in politics.
“I know and like Wade MacLauchlan. But I think the public perception is that people are just numbers on a stat sheet to him. I don’t think he connects with them on a personal level.”
Dennis is trying to bridge that gap, the disconnect between politicians and everyday Islanders.
It’s why the author turned party leader prefers an “open book” approach.
“When you’re running an election, people need to be able to see you. The real you. And they need to be able to see your changes.”
Change is exactly what happened in the U.S. in 2016, he says.
“If you were voting for change, Donald Trump made it easy to see. Whether you liked it or hated it, if you were looking for that change, all you had to do was turn on the T.V.”
As Canadians – and “as kind and reasonable Islanders,” he says – he knows that’s not the kind of change we want to see.
“They over-corrected in the States. The people who didn’t like Obama, they went too far the other way.”
He hopes to get politics back on track. On P.E.I., at least.
“It’ll be a constant battle to find that balance. But you do the best you can. You try to understand that some people will understand, and want to go with you. And some people won’t.”
But that’s democracy, he says.
Denny knows politics is changing with the world. He knows it has to.
Especially if we’re to continue living in peace and harmony.
“We’re realizing we need to be progressive in our thinking, yet remain conservative in our expectations.”
Change is slow, but inevitable.
We need to evolve, he says. Learn. Grow.
“No looking back now.”
With a spring election only a writ drop away, Dennis hopes Islanders will move forward with him.
“Fourth mandates are elusive on P.E.I. People are going to be looking for change. And that’s the best you can hope for as an opposition party – that people are looking toward change.”
Nothing is guaranteed, though. Maybe some will just go back to what they know, he says.
“But when they start looking for change, it’s time to be that change.”