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An 'emotional roller-coaster' for new Liberal leader

Winnipeg lawyer youngest ever to lead the provincial party

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A Winnipeg lawyer and political neophyte will lead the Manitoba Liberal Party into the next general election, expected in the spring of 2016.

Rana Bokhari stunned some observers Saturday with a first-ballot victory over businessman and author Dougald Lamont and longtime party insider and consultant Bob Axworthy. She succeeds Jon Gerrard, who had led the party for the past 15 years.

Bokhari, a first-generation Canadian who grew up on a farm near Anola, received support from 431 Liberals in the first round of balloting -- a razor-thin margin of victory as organizers had declared 430 votes were needed to win.

Lamont came in second with 285 votes, while Axworthy, brother of former federal Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy, received just 131 votes.

"Yes! What an emotional roller-coaster! Wow!" Bokhari exclaimed as she took the podium late Saturday afternoon, surrounded by supporters and family members, at the party's leadership convention at the Fort Garry Hotel.

The victory makes Bokhari the youngest person ever to lead the Manitoba Liberals -- and the first Manitoban of South Asian descent to lead a political party in the province.

The new leader immediately declared her first priority is to build the party's membership and its war chest.

She already has a successful track record in raising money for charitable causes. She will now put that experience to work in strengthening the Liberal party, which lacked the cash to mount a serious challenge to the NDP and Tories in the 2011 election.

"There's a lot of work to be done, but I'm up for the challenge," said Bokhari, who turned 36 on Wednesday.

"My focus is to get a strong foundation in place for the party so we can be in some kind of fighting form in the next election."

Gerrard is the lone Liberal in the 57-seat Manitoba legislature.

He announced his intention to step down as leader shortly after the 2011 election debacle for the Liberals -- one that saw the party's share of the popular vote fall to less than eight per cent.

Gerrard has said he will complete his term as MLA for River Heights.

And he has not ruled out seeking re-election in the well-to-do Winnipeg constituency in 2016. He vowed Saturday to assist the new leader in any way he could and to work to heal any rifts in the party the leadership campaign may have produced.

"(Bokhari) and her team ran a very strong campaign," he said. "She's charismatic and she's already stimulated a lot of interest in the Liberal party. And I think that things are going to be very positive moving forward."

Bokhari's next opportunity to be in the political spotlight will be Nov. 12, when the Manitoba legislature resumes sitting with a speech from the throne.

Some 2,146 Manitoba Liberals were eligible to cast their votes in the leadership campaign. Members had to have belonged to the party at least 30 days prior to the convention.

The bulk of those who voted cast their ballots in an advance poll at the party's headquarters this past Wednesday.

There were also a few dozen mail-in votes. Only about 300 Liberals were registered for the convention itself.

Bokhari managed to sell more than 600 party memberships in about two months -- well more than either of her two competitors.

In a speech to members, she declared: "This is growing season for our party. This is growing season for our province."

Before Saturday's result was announced, there was a brief tribute to the outgoing leader. Former Manitoba Liberal leader Paul Edwards called Gerrard "the best premier Manitoba never had."

A tribute dinner in honour of Gerrard will be held at the Fort Garry Hotel on Nov. 14. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien will speak at the event.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2013 A3

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