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One in a million

Doer's combination of winning attributes made him a unique success

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On the last Friday he served as premier, Gary Doer scanned his to-do list, a cardboard index card with scribblings from a black marker.

He went to see Daniel Man, his barber of more than 30 years, for one last cut and style. He met with his favourite haberdashers, the fellows from Hanford Drewitt, for a keepsake photograph. Some of the folks from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, including principle dancer Tara Birtwhistle and senior ballet master Johnny Chan, gave him a framed poster from their latest production of Moulin Rouge.

And he cleaned out his office. Packed into the back of his Ford SUV were many of the framed photographs, commemorative posters and souvenirs from his 21-year career in politics.

Of all the items in his collection, the gem was found in the far corner of a drawer in his massive antique desk: two long-forgotten and unused tickets from the March 9, 1988, hockey game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Calgary Flames at the arena in Polo Park.

It was a barnburner of a game, a 6-6 overtime tie that unfortunately came at the beginning of a relentless 10-game winless streak for the Jets.

The tickets went unused not because Doer doesn't like professional hockey; Doer is one of the biggest sports fans around. Unfortunately, other events overtook the hockey game.

The previous night, March 8, the NDP government of Premier Howard Pawley was defeated when NDP backbencher Jim Walding voted against his own party. That event triggered an election, Pawley's resignation, and a leadership race that made the 40-year-old Doer NDP leader.

Doer's first election didn't end well. The NDP went from a majority to just 11 seats and third-party status. It was the start of 11 years in opposition.

Why would Doer keep something that reminds him of that frantic time? As has often been said, if you don't know where you come from, it's hard to know where you're going.

"ö "ö "ö

What is the measure of political leadership? As Doer lives out his last days as premier of Manitoba, it is the question on everyone's mind.

There are those who will lean on his record as a politician -- three consecutive majority governments. Doer not only won seats in areas of the province that shunned NDP candidates in the past, he forged alliances on both the right and left.

Nationally, he was the deal-maker who moved freely back and forth across the political spectrum, bringing together regions and political forces. He was nothing less than a stabilizing force in the first ministers' club.

However, there are those who will linger on the things that didn't get done.

Manitoba is still among the poorest provinces in the country, with one of the highest crime rates. Income and property taxes are lower, but not low enough for many. More kids are attending university, but high school graduation rates here are very low.

The economy has continued to grow through the recession, but it is still overly dependant on government investment. The health-care system has improved, but quality and timely care are still sometimes lacking.

Then there are the controversies: a cynical pledge from the 1999 election to end hallway medicine that was neither realistic nor practical; the tragic implosion of the Crocus Investment Fund; the revelation of improper election-expense claims from that 1999 vote and the improper collection of photo-radar fines.

Like his accomplishments as a politician, these are fundamental truths that are part of the Doer legacy.

In the final analysis, it is perhaps not the individual accomplishments or incidents that define the Doer years. It is the roles that he played to perfection.

The Strategist

THE day after he won the leadership in 1988, already three weeks into a provincial election campaign, Doer had a briefing in the premier's office. The news was not good: The NDP sat third in opinion polls at six per cent support and was $1 million in debt. After reading the writing on the wall, Doer declined to be sworn in as premier, and went out and took his lumps.

The NDP only won 11 seats in the 1988 election. He would lose the next two elections as well.

What saved him? Doer increased his seat total in each subsequent election. That staved off execution and quieted dissidents, but every election was a near-death experience. "If I had slipped," he said Friday, "and won fewer seats, I would have resigned."

In the lead-up to the 1999 election, there was pressure for the party to build its platform around a plan to return Manitoba Telecom Services to public ownership. Many hard-core NDP supporters still carried scars from the bully tactics the Filmon government used when the phone company was privatized.

Doer believed it would be a losing campaign theme. He argued within the party that the NDP must focus on health care, the top-of-mind issue at that time, and let the Tories struggle with the baggage from the 1995 vote-splitting scandal. Doer insisted the party abandon MTS in favour of a new, middle-of-the-road, big-tent approach. It was a winning philosophy.

There were those who were offended at the ease with which he disposed of traditional NDP policies, but in the best tradition of leadership, he persuaded everyone -- labour leaders, poverty activists, environmentalists -- to buy in.

This strategic accomplishment should not be understated. Doer took a party that had been decimated and rebranded it. It took a decade, but he managed to hang in long enough to see the payoff.

The Firefighter

THERE has never been a politician in Manitoba who was better at extinguishing controversy.

No government is free of controversy. We live in an age where the untimely death of an unattended patient in an emergency room becomes a referendum on the quality of governance.

Doer, however, found a winning formula that he applied consistently throughout his term in office: a sophisticated media-management strategy that did not shy away from bad news; effective oversight of cabinet ministers by Doer's hand-picked political staff; and a swift and overwhelming response in terms of resources and policy.

It angered political opponents that little stuck to Doer during his time in power. They also grudgingly acknowledged that it wasn't luck. He worked hard to make sure nothing stuck.

The Movie Star

THE clothes. The hair. That famous crooked smile.

Doer's charisma and populist charm are undoubtedly among his most potent political tools. Now 61, he has a bit more grey hair and a bit more in the jowl department, but instead of looking over the hill, he is aging more like a 1960s-era Cary Grant.

Doer has been more popular than his party for some time. In fact, for most of his time as premier he was the choice among supporters of other parties as the best man to lead the province.

That is not unique to this NDP. It was "Gary Filmon and the Progressive Conservatives" during the Tory premier's heyday. Leaders not only make most of the decisions, they set the tone for their parties and their campaigns. They are the face and brand of a party.

However, rarely have we seen a political leader who has generated as much grudging respect as Doer. From captains of industry to academics to political animals from faraway lands, Doer has been respected and admired.

In fact, he found most of his closest political allies among the leaders of parties running under different banners. His ability to find common ground across the political spectrum was a cross-border phenomenon. From West Coast populists to tobacco-chewing, squirrel-shooting Prairie Republicans, Doer was everyone's favourite Canadian socialist.

How did he do it? The conventional wisdom attributes it to a mix of folksy charm and potent negotiating skills. However, what is so odd about Doer's charm is that he is somewhat less than stunningly articulate.

Many journalists will tell you that they could record an hour of Doer's political speeches and not find one complete sentence. In large part, this was due to his addiction to unusual and somewhat jumbled political metaphors.

Journalists who spent time around Doer know about the canoe rides on the political rapids that preceded the crossing of the Rubicon with a load of love, trust and pixie dust. Scribes learned to love these metaphors, even if we didn't always know what he meant.

It is perhaps the difference between a good orator and a good communicator. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff are both pretty articulate. As far as diction is concerned, they can both turn a good sentence. But there is no energy when they begin speaking.

Doer has always commanded attention, whether he was playing the big room or engaged in a one-on-one negotiation.

The debate between those who loved him and those who despised him will rage for years. With a bit of luck, perhaps the critics and the loyalists can agree on one thing.

We're never going to see this again.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Words from the tribute

to the outgoing leader

'I used to play for the Washington Redskins... I lived down there for seven years... so really the Canadian ambassador that you're replacing is none other than myself, OK?'

-- Doug Brown, Blue Bomber defensive lineman in a videotaped message.

'You've made a great difference to the lives of thousands of Manitobans'

-- Former NDP national leader Ed Broadbent, via videotape

'He's so comfortable, whether it's a group of businessman or in the pub with the firefighters after work, the guy is completely accessible to everybody'

-- Federal NDP Leader Jack Layton

'Every Manitoban and even Manitobans who have never met you consider you their own'

-- Former Manitoba Federation of Labour president Darlene Dziewit

'We want to thank you for your real, real friendship and contribution to our country'

-- Quebec Premier Jean Charest via video

'Selfless service for the greater good of our province will be my recollection of the premier's 10 years of leadership'

-- Manitoba Moose owner Mark Chipman, chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 17, 2009 A6

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