Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Glen Murray show roars back to life

Fun ahead for Toronto Centre

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He wasn't back in the game five minutes before a familiar storyline began to unfold.Former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray was acclaimed Wednesday night as the Liberal candidate in a provincial byelection in Toronto Centre, a Liberal stronghold. Almost immediately there was speculation that Murray, characterized as Premier Dalton McGuinty's handpicked star candidate, might have a direct line into cabinet if he wins. Others noted that promoting a rookie like Murray might cause friction in the Liberal caucus among more veteran MPPs.

Where have we heard all that before? Different province, different level of government, same old Glen Murray.

Murray left Winnipeg four years ago after a failed bid to win a seat in the House of Commons as a handpicked star candidate of former prime minister Paul Martin. The federal Grits moved heaven and earth, and one veteran MP (John Harvard), to create an opening for Murray in Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia. And there was a widely held and reasonably accurate belief Murray had already reached a deal with Martin to go directly to cabinet. This was hotly debated among Grits, who feared Murray's ascension might upset a Liberal caucus already ravaged by the ruthless internal battle that dispatched Jean Chrétien and installed Martin as leader. However, a funny thing happened on the road to destiny. Murray was beaten, narrowly, by Tory Steven Fletcher.

Opinions vary on how and why Murray lost. He was extremely well known, as you would expect a mayor to be, and despite the fact the west end of the city has deep Tory roots, Murray had always polled well in those neighbourhoods in civic elections. The Liberals dedicated senior campaign strategists to help him. Early on, it looked good.

But Murray, never short on self-confidence, drove those experienced hands from the campaign and installed his own people. They were energetic, loyal, hard working and, truth be told, a bit overmatched. Murray didn't help matters by putting in a less than robust performance; the first weekend of the campaign, he flew to Toronto to deliver a speech instead of knocking on doors.

Of course, Murray was more experienced in mayoral campaigns, where mass advertising trumps door knocking. A constituency campaign is a relentless ground war, where handshakes and face time are the weapons. Fletcher whipped Murray at street level, and the former mayor became living proof that nobody wins an election just by showing up.

We know that was then, but is it now? We must assume Murray, at 52, has matured to a point where he realizes that he is not a shoo-in in any election. And even four years out of the game, he has a lot going for him as a politician. He is full of ideas and driven to seek change, even if his city hall "to-do" list was much longer than his "accomplished" list.

In Winnipeg, he pursued a progressive agenda, with a focus on social policy, education and poverty issues that are absent from the agenda of the current mayor. He built a spectacularly controversial bridge, and helped lead a national campaign to generate new revenue for cash-starved cities.

The bottom line? Murray left Manitoba with a reputation as a dynamic visionary with a slight attention deficit problem and an aversion to political grunt work. It combined to make him a truly compelling figure.

There was always suspicion by some, and fear by others, that he would return to Winnipeg to take another run at a federal seat. But as a Liberal, it seemed more logical that Murray, a man who has never aspired to opposition, would seek his fortunes in a province run by a Liberal government, in a city that is an island of federal Grit red in a growing sea of Tory blue.

And to his credit, Murray has kept an uncommonly high profile in Toronto when you consider that he has not held public office in four years, and never in Ontario. He kept making speeches, made himself available to the media on urban issues. Not surprisingly, his name kept popping up whenever there was a political job that needed filling.

When Toronto Mayor David Miller announced last fall he would not run for re-election, Murray's name was floated as a candidate. Floated by Murray, of course, but that's his style. So, strap in tight, Toronto Centre -- the Glen Murray show is headed your way. And while it may not be transformative, it won't be dull.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 8, 2010 A8

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