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Liberal leader going slow, steady

Raising funds, signing members marks first days

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Rana Bokhari believes in the old adage that slow and steady wins the race.

The 36-year-old Winnipeg lawyer has been quietly raising funds, signing members and shaking hands throughout the city and across much of the province since winning a stunning first-ballot victory in the Manitoba Liberal leadership race last October.

Bokhari has made no major policy pronouncements and called no news conferences to berate the government. Instead, she's set up a new "functioning" voter database, installed a small call centre inside the party headquarters in West Broadway and sought the opinions of experts and individual Manitobans alike.

"I don't think anyone could have expected anyone to... swoop in and magically fix everything," she said in an interview this week as she marked 100 days as Liberal boss. "We have a long road ahead and no one can pretend that this is going to be an easy job."

The Liberals hold only one seat in the Manitoba legislature -- Jon Gerrard in River Heights -- and received just 7.5 per cent of the popular vote in the 2011 general election.

Bokhari won the job last fall after collecting a mere 431 votes -- including mail-in ballots -- at a sparsely attended convention in downtown Winnipeg. With three leadership candidates selling memberships in the months before the vote, there were only 2,146 Liberals eligible to cast ballots. (The party now has about 2,500 members.)

'This party will be a viable party, absolutely. It will grow if we do it right this time'

-- Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari

Bokhari took some political observers aback when she immediately declared raising money and building up the party's membership base would be her priorities ahead of policy formation.

And she hasn't strayed from that position.

"We have to build a strong foundation. This party will be a viable party, absolutely. It will grow if we do it right this time," she said.

That means building up constituency organizations and finding strong local candidates in all 57 ridings instead of rounding out the party's election roster with parachute candidates. It also means raising enough money to mount a serious election effort -- although Bokhari balks at publicly announcing a campaign finance goal.

The new leader, who grew up on a farm near Anola, has yet to choose where she will run in the next general election, expected in the spring of 2016.

She said she's narrowed her decision to five Winnipeg constituencies. River Heights, the Liberals' one city stronghold, would be a logical choice if Gerrard decides not to seek re-election.

'I want members to really believe in the party. I don't want them to just sign up just because I'm asking them'

-- Bokhari

Bokhari was buoyed by the party's showing in two recent rural byelections, in which the Liberals sharply increased their percentage of the popular vote. In Arthur-Virden, Liberal Floyd Buhler finished second to the Conservatives' Doyle Piwniuk, as voters there abandoned the NDP for the Grits.

For the Liberals, the timing of the byelections was fortuitous, Bokhari said, as it gave them an opportunity to try out some new ideas and strategies. They were able to raise enough funds to run "two very professionally successful campaigns," she said, which were geared to local concerns.

"It's very encouraging," she said of the results. "I feel confident that we're on the right track. Slow and steady, but confident."

The provincial Liberals will hold their first annual general membership meeting since Bokhari took the party's reins in early May in Winnipeg.

That meeting will contain policy-setting sessions, she said, and more policy forums will be organized in the future. She said by later in the year, she will be in a better position to make policy pronouncements. For now, she is still consulting with members and experts and doing her homework.

"I want members to really believe in the party. I don't want them to just sign up just because I'm asking them," she said.

"I want to give them something to believe in."

Asked for her opinion on the ouster of Riel MLA Christine Melnick from the NDP caucus, she said Premier Greg Selinger needs to accept "some level of accountability" for the mess.

She said whether Selinger's senior staffers or Melnick gave the orders to an assistant deputy minister to issue public invitations for a legislative debate "doesn't even matter at this point."

What was significant, she said, is a civil servant found himself carrying out a political task.

"It shakes the trust of the public. It brings up the fear of civil servants working for the governing party instead of all Manitobans," Bokhari said.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2014 B1

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