Greg Selinger has been an influential city councillor. He was very nearly mayor of Winnipeg. And now, after 10 years as finance minister, he has a shot to be the next premier of Manitoba.
How is it then that Selinger often strikes the pose of the reluctant candidate, a man without a burning ambition for power or leadership?
In this day and age of politics, where media saturation has pushed the cult of personality to new heights, it's a remarkable trick to appear humble while acting ambitious. Even now, on the eve of a leadership convention that could elevate him to the highest office in the province, Selinger denies that he had specific aspirations to be premier.
"I've always felt I'd like to be part of a good thing that's happening," Selinger said at a bustling downtown cafe over a decaffeinated latte. "I've always wanted to be part of the action. What I wanted to show people was that I had a grasp of the issues and that I had a plan to deal with them."
Not exactly the stuff of memorable campaign slogans. And yet, it's clear that like his more overtly ambitious opponent, Steve Ashton, Selinger has a very strong and loyal following that is convinced he can do the job.
Selinger's life has always been political, although he did not start out in party politics.
Selinger came to Manitoba from Saskatchewan with his single-parent mother, who operated a small clothing store in St. James. He completed undergraduate degrees at the University of Manitoba and Queen's University, and a PhD from the London School of Economics. However, unlike Ashton, who dined on union and party politics from an early age, Selinger's first political role was as a community activist.
After university, Selinger taught social work at U of M, and was part of many grassroots anti-poverty and social justice campaigns. He fought for higher welfare rates, enhanced social services and was on the front line of battles against the expropriation of homes in the Logan Avenue area.
In the late 1980s, Selinger was part of Winnipeg into the Nineties, a loose affiliation of activists who wanted to see new blood at city hall. In 1989, Selinger accepted an invitation to run as a WIN candidate in St. Boniface against veteran councillor Guy Savoie.
Despite the fact incumbency rules local politics, Selinger parlayed his deep community activism into a convincing victory over Savoie.
At city hall, Selinger became an unlikely ally of veteran mayor Bill Norrie, who appointed Selinger to the powerful executive policy committee and gave him the chair of the finance committee. With Selinger being a card-carrying New Democrat, his appointment was seen as a significant endorsement by Norrie, a small-c conservative who tended to move in right-of-centre circles.
Just three years into a crash course in local politics and civic finances, Selinger was tapped again by the WIN coalition to carry its colours into the 1992 mayoral election. Norrie was stepping down, paving the way for a wildly competitive mayoral race.
Selinger's battle with councillors Dave Brown, Ernie Gilroy and small business owner Susan Thompson did not disappoint. Many observers think his refusal on principle to accept union and corporate donations was a turning point that allowed the better-funded Thompson to win.
Selinger acknowledges that his reticence about accepting large cheques may have cost him the election. Despite that, Selinger says he would do the same thing again. "Even with that decision, we were rising towards the end of the campaign. It was like (former Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback) Ron Lancaster said: 'We didn't lose, we just ran out of time.'"
Has a decade in cabinet made Selinger more pragmatic? Although he admits to a new perspective on government and its ability to fight poverty and social justice issues, party insiders claim Selinger hasn't lost his lust for principle. So much so that he can come across as preachy and pious in debate over policy. "He is principled," said one senior party official. "But it's principled to the point of being self-righteous. He can be difficult."
Still others note that his obstinacy has been a valuable commodity throughout the Gary Doer years, where Selinger often served the role as the only member of cabinet who could say 'no' to the premier and live to tell the tale.
This included, more recently, his decision to hold firm against the refund of photo radar fines that were collected on motorists speeding through construction zones. Selinger said there was a deep divide in cabinet on the issue, but when all was said and done he felt confident that refunding the fines would have undermined the province's ability to enforce the law. It was not popular, in the public or cabinet, but Selinger said it was the right thing to do.
"There have been times I've said no to things, but that's the job of the finance minister," he said "In most instances, I've tried to find other ways of getting things done.
"Everybody has their own style. What I try to do is work with people to accomplish your goals and the goals of the people you're working with."
Education: University of Manitoba (BA social work), Queen's University (MA public administration) and London School of Economics (PhD).
Political experience: Elected city councillor in 1989. Ran unsuccessfully to be mayor of Winnipeg in 1992. Was elected to the Manitoba legislature in 1999. Has served as Manitoba's finance minister since then.