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Marquee matchup: Liberal- turned-Tory Steeves takes on NDP star Oswald

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After 15 years as a teacher and school administrator, Theresa Oswald made her maiden run for political office a memorable one in 2003.

The witty and vivacious Oswald was supposedly the sacrificial lamb in this riding, a seat the NDP had never won. Her own party referred to it euphemistically as a 'developing riding," which means its deep thinkers saw it as a long shot at best.

But Oswald stunned observers and her own party, defeating three-term Conservative incumbent Louise Dacquay by 732 votes. And in 2007, she increased her plurality to more than 2,500 votes.

Oswald's triumph was a key take-away by the New Democrats -- one of several steals in south Winnipeg over the past few elections that have helped solidify their hold on power.

Enter Gord Steeves, an affable lawyer with seven years experience as a school trustee and 11 as a Winnipeg city councillor. The one-time University of Manitoba football team captain, drafted by the Edmonton Eskimos in 1990, was a member of the inner circle of both the Glen Murray and Sam Katz civic administrations. His mission is to re-establish a blue foothold in south Winnipeg by taking back Seine River for the Tories.

In June, only eight months after his re-election to city council, Steeves announced he would resign his civic seat to help his good friend, Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen, try to unseat the NDP. In taking on Oswald, the province's health minister since 2006, he has set up a marquee matchup, a clash of two charming, experienced and highly visible politicians hell-bent on winning what could be the bellwether constituency of the Oct. 4 election.

In interviews at their campaign offices this week, the two candidates acknowledged the importance of the constituency to their respective parties but played down their own importance in winning the seat.

Oswald, who by the 2007 election was confident enough to help colleagues with their campaigns, is spending all her time at home this time.

"Tactically, it's not a bad move on the part of the Opposition (to have Steeves run against her). I commend them for that -- and curse them," she said with a laugh.

Apart from meeting occasionally with fellow area PC candidates to talk strategy, Steeves has also concentrated on his own riding, underscoring the tightness of the race.

Seine River extends to the city limits in the south, the Red River to the west and the river that bears its name to the east. Steeves' St. Vital ward in city politics took in three provincial constituencies (St. Vital, Riel, Seine River) and a bit of another (Southdale). All are currently held by the NDP.

"It's eerily small," Steeves said with a chuckle of the provincial territory to which he's seeking to lay claim.

"I feel like I know all of these people personally now."

The middle-class suburban neighbourhood, which had one of the highest voter turnouts in 2007, is flush with signs from both candidates. Oswald has about 220 volunteers working part- or full-time, while Steeves would only say his battle force is "in the hundreds."

Oswald cited health care and supports for middle-class people caring for young children and aging parents as the prime issues in the constituency. Steeves listed health care, "nuisance-level crime," education, government fiscal responsibility and the controversial Bipole III hydro transmission route as area concerns.

While they both bring a lot to the table as candidates, they said their leaders and their party platforms will probably be the main deciding factors as to who gives the victory speech on the evening of Oct. 4. (The Liberal candidate in Seine River is Troy Osiname, who lives on Cathedral Avenue in north Winnipeg.)

Christopher Adams, a Winnipeg political scientist, said Seine River and other south Winnipeg seats are key to whether the Tories merely narrow the gap between themselves and the NDP or form government.

"One of the things McFadyen has to do is to convince middle-class women that he's their friend," Adams said. "That might be one advantage for Theresa Oswald over Gord Steeves in that she's a powerful woman candidate."

On the other hand, Steeves, who in a different era might have been labelled a red Tory, will appeal to both Liberal and Conservative voters in the area, Adams said.

And he will likely receive help from the Big Blue Machine that helped the federal Tories capture seats in south and east Winnipeg in the May federal election, he said.


Theresa Oswald

-- Raised in St. Vital

-- Worked 15 years as a teacher and vice-principal

-- First elected MLA for Seine River in 2003

-- Named to cabinet in 2004; has been minister of health since 2006

Personal: Married with one son. Lives in the constituency.

Hobbies: Playing volleyball, going to theatre, reading, singing, watching CFL and NFL ("I married a Cheesehead") football

What's one thing that few people know about you? "This might sound like the height of nerd land but I'm a very active and avid member of a book club."

Gord Steeves

-- Raised in St. Vital

-- Lawyer with the firm Tacium Vincent Orlikow

-- Ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal for provincial office in Riel in 1995, losing to Conservative David Newman

-- A former school trustee, he was elected to city council in 2000, serving until August, when he resigned to seek provincial office.

-- Served as member of city's executive policy committee under both Glen Murray and Sam Katz.

Personal: Married with two daughters and a son. Lives in the constituency.

Hobbies: Competitive running (5 km, 10 km), plays rec hockey, gardening.

What's one thing that few people know about you? "I try to meditate on a regular basis. I think it's good for me, but I have a tough time sticking with it."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 24, 2011 A8

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