Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A story of the ages

He's 69, she's 23; senator's romance global fodder after in-flight dispute

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OTTAWA -- He's been a senator for seven years and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Liberal party.

But Manitoba's "ultimate schmoozer" senator was living a life out of the spotlight until a domestic dispute with his wife on an airplane made international headlines.

Rod Zimmer was tossed into a media storm when his wife was arrested Thursday. Maygan Sensenberger allegedly threatened her husband and caused a major disruption on board an Air Canada flight from Ottawa to Saskatoon. She spent three days in jail before being released on Monday.

The story was picked up by publications in New York, London and Australia. The main draw is the age difference between Zimmer, 69, and Sensenberger, 23. Photos Sensenberger posted publicly on her Facebook page, including bikini shots and of her shooting a gun while Zimmer looks on, added to the story's sensationalism.

They met through friends, according to Sensenberger's grandmother, herself one year Zimmer's junior.

Sensenberger was one of four siblings in a family from Collingwood, Ont. Her father owned a restaurant.

She was a ballet dancer turned aspiring actor and had been taking university classes in Ottawa, Rita Sensenberger said.

The couple had been dating for years prior to their marriage, but waited until Sensenberger was 21 before announcing they were together, she added.

Zimmer was over the moon in love with her and would often profess his happiness. The two were married in Ottawa Aug. 27, 2011 and shot their wedding photos on Parliament Hill.

Former Liberal senator Sharon Carstairs said it was well-known Zimmer's bride was more than four decades his junior but she said fellow senators shrugged it off.

"He's old enough and wise enough to make those decisions on his own," she said.

Not everyone is diplomatic.

"It was really the cause of a great deal of embarrassment to the party," said one Liberal insider of the relationship.

Another said there was a lot of joking about the relationship on Parliament Hill.

It isn't clear how Zimmer's family felt.

There are online reports it had cause a rift on his side. The Globe and Mail quoted Zimmer's brother as saying the first time he met Sensenberger was Monday, when he helped arrange a hotel for her after she was released from jail. It was the couple's first anniversary.

Zimmer was born in 1942 in Saskatchewan and graduated with a bachelor of commerce from the University of Saskatchewan in 1973. His first job was as executive assistant to James Richardson, a cabinet minister under then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

He was vice-president of corporate communications for the CanWest Corporation, director of marketing for the Manitoba Lotteries Foundation, and vice-president of festivals for the Pan Am Games. He also served on the boards of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He's been a longtime Liberal fundraiser.

One source said Zimmer was the "ultimate schmoozer." His home was used for fundraisers and parties.

"He hung around with the rich and beautiful," said the source. "If you're the fundraiser for a political party that's what you do." In 2005, then-prime minister Paul Martin appointed Zimmer to the Senate.

Allen Mills, a professor of politics at the University of Winnipeg and a former neighbour of Zimmer, remembered him as a down-to-earth man who lived modestly. Mills said Zimmer convinced him to hire a young, aboriginal boy to mow his lawn to help the boy "get a leg up."

Some insiders criticized Zimmer's performance as a senator.

"He's been a concern... in terms of pulling his weight for Manitoba," said one.

Most think it is likely his health has kept him from taking off as a senator. Zimmer has battled esophageal cancer for at least eight years.

"This guy is a fighter," said Carstairs.

Former Liberal MP Anita Neville said Zimmer works hard to mentor and assist young Liberals.

"His commitment to the party is unwavering," she said. "I'm sad for him that he's getting all this publicity."

However, no one in the party could name any specific cause or issue Zimmer has championed as a senator.

One source said Zimmer's illness changed him. "He's had a brush with death and I think his judgment is not what it used to be. This is an unfortunate chapter in his life and it's probably not going to end well."

Zimmer divorced Deborah Lamont in 2007.

-- with files from The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2012 A5

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