HALIFAX - The man who rebuilt the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservatives from a bruised and battered third-place party into a strong official opposition is stepping down.
Jamie Baillie, who became party leader in 2010 shortly after the Tories were ousted from power, said Wednesday the party is in "terrific shape" for the future.
"It is strong, it is debt free, and it has the world's best caucus in the house of assembly," he said during an emotional news conference at Province House in Halifax. "We have built a modern, dynamic, truly progressive party that will be a real alternative government for the people of Nova Scotia."
Baillie said he will remain at the party's helm until a replacement is selected.
"I will do all I can to keep the party in a strong and stable position until the party makes that important decision about who will lead us in the next election," he said.
Baillie pointed to the 16 MLAs that stood behind him during his announcement as his biggest accomplishment.
The chartered accountant has steadily grown the party over the last seven years despite "strong head winds" from "federal Conservative branding" that rubbed off on the provincial party and the "rise of Trudeaumania," he said.
"There are 35,000 more voters that voted for the PC Party in this election than the one before I started," he said. "That's an 11 per cent increase in votes."
Baillie managed the increase despite an overall drop in voter turnout, which hit a low of 53 per cent in the provincial election last May.
Amid multiple standing ovations, the Tory leader held back tears as he thanked his caucus colleagues for their support over the last seven years.
Although Baillie said it was a difficult decision to step down, he said his family is "very excited about the prospects of returning to private life."
He also said the party needs a "fresh face" when the next election rolls around.
While he will continue on as the MLA for Cumberland South, Baillie hinted that he has "another job or something left in me" for the future.
Party president Tara Miller said the party executive will meet in the coming weeks to discuss the process and details for selecting a new leader, as laid out in the party's constitution.
"The calibre of leadership demonstrated by Jamie ... I hope to see that kind of leadership moving forward because based on what he's done for us, we've made significant strides," she said. "He's been a champion of mental health, we have five female MLAs, that's a direct result of his hard work and leadership."
No one has come forward to officially express an interest in the job, but among those seen as possible candidates are Pictou East MLA Tim Houston and Cecil Clarke, a former Tory cabinet minister who is now mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.
Rob Batherson, a former party president, has also been a name at the centre of speculation in the past.
"When I became president, it was right after (former premier) Rodney MacDonald had been defeated. It was very difficult time for the party," Batherson said. "But we now have a strong foundation in the party to build on thanks to the leadership of Jamie Baillie."
When asked directly if he would seek the party leadership, Batherson said "it's too early."
Meanwhile, party leaders from across the aisle declared their respect for Baillie.
"Leading a party is both a privilege and a challenge, requiring a staunch commitment to the people of Nova Scotia," Premier Stephen McNeil said in a statement. "Baillie has demonstrated that commitment for the last seven years.
"As leader, he has been a passionate advocate on a wide range of issues, including mental health and veterans services," he said. "I have no doubt his dedication to important issues facing the province will continue when he leaves the leader's office."
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said Baillie is a person of "way above average intellect" with a formidable grasp of the issues that are before him.
"He brings a lot of character to the work," he said. "There is no kind of bland political blah about him."