St. Norbert MLA Marilyn Brick is, by all accounts, one of the great NDP success stories. After losing once in 1999, she ran and won the seat in 2003 and then held on to it despite mammoth Tory efforts to win it back. It was one of the key ridings that helped former premier Gary Doer and the NDP continue their majority government run.
But Brick is calling it quits this year, and her retirement is the cause of great speculation within the party.
In an interview, Brick said after eight years in the Manitoba Legislature she decided it was time to move on. Adding to the decision was the fact that boundary redistribution made retaining St. Norbert in this fall's provincial election a much tougher job. Two-thirds of her old riding is gone, and the territory she inherited includes polls from neighbouring Tory seats that have never been all that fond of the NDP. Brick has a reputation as a relentless constituency politician, and that would no doubt have offset the reconfiguration of her riding, but it would not have made her a sure thing.
"This was a decision that was made jointly with my husband," said Brick. "We have decided to pursue other things. Whatever happens in the St. Norbert constituency is now up to the St. Norbert constituents."
However, there is an alternate theory wafting through NDP circles.
Brick was one of a handful of key NDP MLAs who were facing unexpected nomination challenges from within their own ranks. In Brick's case, the threat came from her riding association president, Gurmail Mangat, president of Unicity Taxi and a leader in south Winnipeg's growing Indo-Canadian community. Although it is hardly unprecedented for sitting MLAs of all parties to face the occasional nomination challenge, it is rare for a riding association president to challenge a sitting MLA. Senior NDP officials are convinced there are not only more of these challenges occurring now, but also that it might be part of a concerted effort to dish out a little revenge from the 2009 leadership campaign. Many of the challengers have direct ties to second-place finisher Infrastructure Minister Steve Ashton, who is widely thought to be maintaining a skeleton leadership team in the event the NDP stumbles this fall.
Why all the concern? Nomination challenges to incumbents, although completely within the bounds of fair democratic play, are frowned upon because they create dissension and confusion. Bitter nomination battles can draw the attention of other parties, convincing them to move resources to unsettled ridings during elections. Internal battles also have the potential to so distract a party that it loses its electoral edge. (See the federal Liberals in the Paul Martin era for proof.)
Brick would not comment on the nomination challenge, but senior party sources said Mangat's bid was the last straw that convinced her to step aside. Brick announced Friday she will not run in the Oct. 4 provincial election. As a result, it is widely expected former city council candidate Louise May will challenge Mangat for the nomination.
In a separate interview, Mangat confirmed he filed papers to challenge Brick but said his interest in the nomination had nothing to do with leadership politics. He said there is an interest in the Indo-Canadian community to see more of its own people elected to the Manitoba legislature. "There has been a lot of pressure from people I know to run," Mangat said. "I have no firm plans but I think everyone has a right to run in a democracy."
The nomination challenge controversy is definitely a hangover from the 2009 leadership campaign, when forces loyal to Premier Greg Selinger accused Ashton of using hastily recruited Indo-Canadians to swarm delegate selection meetings. Selinger's campaign was concerned many of the new party members signed up by Ashton could not speak English and seemed to have little idea of the issues involved in the leadership. Ashton countered by accusing Selinger of trying to keep new Canadians out so the "old guard" could retain control of the leadership.
Ashton said he has definitely heard all the rumours, but denies any involvement in a campaign to challenge sitting MLAs. "Sometimes I think people say these things because they need to feed their own paranoid ideas," Ashton said. "We've always had contested nominations in our party. And my view is that when it comes to nominations, it's a democratic process. We drew in a lot of new members and many of them are Indo-Canadian members. We shouldn't be surprised we're starting to see more Indo-Canadian candidates."
This is all standard fare in party politics, especially in large urban centres where certain politicians and parties cultivate an affinity among one ethnocultural group. And so, it's hardly surprising that many within the party see these nomination challenges as part of a lingering struggle between the Ashton and Selinger camps.
Concern first arose last year when slates of party members identified with Ashton's campaign began aggressively challenging riding association executive elections. With boundary redistribution, each new riding was required to hold a founding meeting and re-elect an executive. Many of the slates that had pursued delegates for Ashton suddenly found themselves in control of key riding associations.
In addition to St. Norbert, senior NDP officials are watching closely the nomination races in Tyndall Park, The Maples and Concordia. Two of those ridings are held by incumbents: Mohinder Saran in The Maples, and Matt Wiebe in Concordia, who was elected less than a year ago in a byelection to replace former premier Gary Doer. Tyndall Park, which contains large portions of what was formerly Inkster, has no incumbent after longtime Liberal MLA Kevin Lamoureux was elected to the House of Commons. It is now a top-priority riding for the NDP. Both are facing challenges from candidates who were part of Ashton leadership slates and both are, right now, considered longshots to retain their nominations.
And there could have been more challenges. Senior NDP election planners issued a directive last fall for certain key ridings to expedite their nomination meetings to avoid challenges to sitting MLAs. Two of the most important were Rossmere (MLA Erna Braun) and Kildonan (Innovation, Energy and Mines Minister Dave Chomiak), neither of whom were challenged but expected challenges if the meetings had been left to the new year. Riding associations are not allowed to sell new memberships once a nomination meeting has been called. Both Rossmere and Kildonan called snap meetings last fall in a move election planners believed halted the work of challengers. Sources said the same strategy was at work in the newly configured riding of Fort Rouge-Riverview. Veteran MLA and cabinet minister Diane McGifford publicly announced her retirement on Feb. 4. The nomination meeting, which confirmed James Allum as the new candidate, took place on Feb. 7.
Of course, there could be innocent explanations for the unusually high number of nomination challenges, which would mean the anxiety now gripping the highest levels of the party could be nothing more than the "paranoid ideas" that Ashton identified. However, the NDP is frequently reminded that Ashton remains a lone wolf in the NDP caucus who has shown no signs he has abandoned his leadership aspirations.
Last May, Ashton upstaged one of his cabinet colleagues, Flor Marcelino, at a Sikh cultural festival. Despite the fact Marcelino was sent to bring greetings as Selinger's representative, Ashton was the one who took the stage, failing to mention either the NDP government or Selinger in his address. And Ashton's recent involvement in a dispute between the Taxicab Board and Winnipeg's largest taxi companies was widely viewed in NDP circles as evidence Ashton was cultivating favour in the Indo-Canadian community for another leadership bid. It is true that despite being the minister who oversees the Taxicab Board, he makes no effort to defend it. In fact, he is extremely critical of the work of the board, a posture that gives him superhero status among Winnipeg's Indo-Canadians.
If all of this manoeuvring and plotting is evidence Ashton hasn't given up his dream of leading the NDP, he is hiding it behind a legitimate veil. It may be inconvenient, even embarrassing, to have sitting MLAs and cabinet ministers challenged at nomination time, and it may have even given opposition parties encouragement to compete in ridings that should be safe for the NDP. But in most respects, it's all well within the party's own rules and the principles of democracy. And therein lies the dilemma for the NDP.
At a time when it is facing its most significant electoral threat in more than a decade, it is facing an equally strong challenge from within.