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A new, blue Steeves emerges

Former city councillor shows his colours in battle to be mayor

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As recently as July, the Gord Steeves campaign resembled the rotting carcass of a roadside raccoon. It wasn't moving, and all the parts were mangled so gruesomely, even the world's most talented taxidermist could never reassemble them.

Against most expectations, the lawyer and former city councillor is not just back from the campaign brink, but running Winnipeg's most flamboyant and aggressive mayoral campaign.

After 11 years as the middle-of-the-road, Liberal-affiliated councillor for St. Vital, Steeves is swaggering about this race like a more coherent and presentable version of right-wing Toronto populist Rob Ford.

Gone is the careful, cautious Steeves who tried to straddle the centre so closely during his time on city council, it was often tough to discern a strong inclination toward any political pole.

In his place is a candidate unafraid to lift his leg and virtually piddle all over front-runner Judy Wasylycia-Leis's Portage Avenue campaign headquarters on Tuesday, when he decried her close connections to the perpetually-in-power provincial New Democratic Party.

Steeves is now an avowed conservative who will freeze taxes for four years, sell off city golf courses, reduce malathion-free buffer zones, cancel bus rapid transit and rid the city of downtown drunks, panhandlers or any other undesirable element, save for Saskatchewan Roughriders fans.

The big question, especially for people who observed Gord Steeves version 1.0, is whether this new edition is for real.

"Every idea I've advanced during the campaign is my own. I wrote every one of my own speeches, start to finish," Steeves said Wednesday in an interview at the Portage Avenue office of his official agent, chartered accountant Ken Lee.

"What I've tried to do is show people, through policy announcements, who I am as a candidate, recognizing on every issue there's going to be people who agree or disagree."

There's no question what Steeves is campaigning to be this fall. He's presenting himself as the sole right-of-centre alternative to Wasylycia-Leis. By standing outside her campaign headquarters, Steeves completely bypassed fellow mayoral candidate Brian Bowman in an effort to portray this race as a binary choice between conservative Steeves and leftie Wasylycia-Leis.

Steeves hasn't always gone to sleep wearing deep-blue underwear. For most of his adult life, he was a Liberal party member, entranced during the early 1990s by the fiscal conservatism of former prime minister Jean Chrétien's first federal mandate.

"Everyone's personal philosophies evolve over time," explained Steeves, surmising he isn't sure whether he changed or the Liberal party changed over the ensuing two decades.

'I've done a lot of things that would be characterized as higher risk'

-- mayoral candidate Gord Steeves

What is certain, he says, is he grew wary of the NDP, a party he now describes as behaving counter to the interest of Manitobans.

In the summer of 2011, Steeves left the Liberals to run as a provincial Progressive Conservative candidate in Seine River. "I saw them as the best opportunity to defeat the New Democratic Party," he said comfortably and firmly.

More so than the Liberals under Jon Gerrard?

"Yes," he said more softly, with the reluctance of a testifying courtroom witness.

According to Liberal party activist Paul Hesse, Steeves made a play to replace Gerrard as Manitoba's Liberal leader before choosing to join the provincial Tories.

Hesse claims Steeves asked him and two other Liberals -- Georgina Sabesky, who works as Coun. John Orlikow's executive assistant, and Sachit Mehra, a St. Norbert council candidate this year -- to approach Gerrard about resigning as leader in 2011.

"Only in that case was Gord interested," claimed Hesse, a Bowman colleague and supporter. "I cautiously supported the idea... when Jon didn't resign, (Gord) didn't do that."

Steeves declined to comment on Hesse's allegation, except to say he expects private conversations to be kept in confidence.

"I've had numerous conversations about numerous political parties and numerous political positions over the years," Steeves said. "I've done a lot of things that would be characterized as higher risk."

Steeves also denied Bowman's allegation he attempted to convince his mayoral rival to bow out of the race. On Friday, Steeves said he had no idea Bowman was interested in running when the two met at Hy's lounge in October 2013.

Derek Rolstone, Steeves' former campaign manager, insists Steeves left that meeting discouraged about the prospects of convincing Bowman to bow out.

"Why lie about the small stuff? It's a bit Nixonian," said Rolstone, who's now a Bowman volunteer. "We weren't doing anything wrong. We didn't want two right-wing candidates running against Judy."

Steeves said he would not dignify an allegation made by Rolstone, a man he describes as betraying the confidence of his entire campaign team.

That team, Steeves said, is following his direction, not party marching orders. "It's a mayoralty campaign. There are no political parties. It's (about) ideas and they're my ideas," he said. "I don't feel like I've changed at all."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2014 A3

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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