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Frank who? Newfoundland and Labrador premier-to-be gets harsh intro to politics

Frank Coleman is pictured in St. John's, N.L. on Thurs. May 8, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

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Frank Coleman is pictured in St. John's, N.L. on Thurs. May 8, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - It would be hard enough for an untested and unknown political novice to take over the premier's office in any province.

Frank Coleman, a mild-mannered 60-year-old grandfather and successful businessman with zero electoral experience, is trying to do it in Newfoundland and Labrador.

He'll take the Progressive Conservative helm in July and will be sworn in as premier soon after. Provincial law requires an election within a year after that as the lagging Tories, in majority power since 2003, try to win back support.

But since Coleman emerged as the sole leadership contender earlier this spring, he has endured a trial by fire that even party members and supporters say caught his team off guard.

Newfoundlander Tim Powers, an Ottawa lobbyist and Conservative commentator, describes public life in the province this way:

"Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador is like a brawl every night, every day, every hour of the day," he said. "When you come into it cold as Mr. Coleman did, you're going to have some growing pains.

"It has not been a gentle job interview so far."

That harsh initiation started Good Friday when Coleman's wife Yvonne and other members of his Corner Brook-based family joined a pro-life march as they have for years.

Questions swirled in the media about whether he would limit access to abortion once in power.

"I have five girls and two boys and a bunch of grandchildren," Coleman said in a recent interview during which he affirmed his pro-life views. But he stressed he has no plans to impose those convictions in legislation.

Coleman took the same stance when asked if he supports gay rights.

"I am not out to judge any individual as to how they see themselves and how they feel, what their nature is. I am absolutely respectful of how people exercise their free will.

"I'm not in any way showing them any less affection or any less warmth than somebody else."

Coleman has also been on the defensive over the province's cancellation without penalty of a Labrador highway contract with Humber Valley Paving. He had previously led the company but has said he sold his shares last winter and resigned from the board of directors just before entering the leadership race in March.

Coleman has repeatedly denied that he personally gained from the contract cancellation negotiated at around the same time by his son. For its part, the provincial government says it saved taxpayers money by not calling in related bonds before retendering the work that was slowed by Labrador forest fires.

The provincial auditor general is now reviewing the deal at the government's request.

Coleman's track record as head of the Coleman Group of Companies including food, clothing and furniture retail, saw him named Atlantic Canada's CEO of the year by Atlantic Business Magazine in 2010. His past jobs include chief economist at Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro and as a private consultant before the eldest of eight children returned to the family business founded in 1934.

"I did not expect certainly the scrutiny on my private life or the scrutiny on what I consider to be a very good, privately run company," Coleman said of Humber Valley Paving.

He still chafes at such intrusions. For example, he declined through a spokeswoman to provide his exact date of birth due to privacy concerns.

Nor did Coleman expect to become the only Tory leadership candidate when fisheries magnate Bill Barry quit in April, suggesting the race was stacked against him. The only other challenger, retired naval officer Wayne Bennett, was expelled for discriminatory tweets and breaching party principles.

Still, Coleman said he has no plans to quit.

"I'm not dropping out of this race, certainly for no reasons that I can foresee or have experienced to date."

Powers said a failure to grasp the level of voter frustration facing the Tories didn't help the incoming premier.

"The understanding of the climate isn't as sophisticated as it should be for those who are working with Mr. Coleman on the strategic side."

Paul Oram, a party organizer and former Tory cabinet minister, agreed.

"I don't think anybody ever dreamed in a million years that Frank would take the heat that he has taken over the past few months since he decided to run," he said. "I think he'll get better and more on top of his game as time goes on.

"But I'm really glad he's sticking by it and, knowing him the way I do, he's not going to just fall by the wayside."

Follow @suebailey on Twitter.

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