First, credit where credit is due.
Struggling with only one MLA sitting in the legislature, a declining membership base and a very uncertain future, the Manitoba Liberal Party has managed to create a legitimate leadership race.
On Thursday morning, lawyer Rana Bokhari and communications consultant Dougald Lamont unofficially kicked off the race to lead the provincial Liberals with a live forum at the Free Press News Caf©. The candidates will participate in two more officially sanctioned debates before party members vote Oct. 26.
It would be easy to dismiss Bokhari and Lamont, and the Liberal party, for that matter. Neither has any experience as an elected official, let alone a political leader. Neither has a very high profile in their day jobs. And the party continues to cling to the very outside edge of relevance.
However, in this day and age of declining voter turnout and growing cynicism about politics and politicians, actually having more than one candidate vie for a leadership is an accomplishment. The Manitoba Progressive Conservative Party, for example, has had only one contested leadership race in the last 14 years.
That said, there is only limited hope the person who replaces outgoing leader Jon Gerrard -- an oncologist who has run the Manitoba Grits for 15 years -- will bring this perennial third-place party into a new age of competitiveness.
Gerrard has been much criticized for failing to make any significant progress in winning seats. However, even those who criticize Gerrard have to tip their hat to him for keeping the Grits in the game by holding his River Heights seat against steep odds.
It's ironic now that the very thing that made Gerrard so compelling to many Liberals may be his undoing.
He confirmed that although he has already officially stepped down as leader, he would continue to sit in the legislature until at least the next provincial election. Depending on the date of the next federal vote, that could be anywhere from fall 2015 to spring 2016.
Gerrard said he believes a new leader can work effectively away from the legislature to rebuild the Liberal base in Manitoba. He also noted he made a commitment to the people of River Heights to represent them regardless of whether he led the Grits.
"I ran in River Heights and was elected," he said in an interview. "I believe I owe a lot to those people. I want to do whatever I can for the people of River Heights."
Gerrard is not ruling out a run in the next provincial election. And although he has made his own preferences quite clear, the final decision about what happens in his riding will wait until he can deliberate with the new leader.
Gerrard's intentions aside, there is quite a lot of debate in Liberal circles about whether he should stay or retire and allow the new leader to run in a byelection. It's a decision fraught with danger for the party.
The argument for having Gerrard vacate his seat goes something like this: A new leader needs to be in the legislature facing his or her political opponents as soon as possible to establish a public profile. This will create momentum for the party and give it and the new leader the best chance to win additional seats in the next general election.
Others will argue giving up the party's only seat and asking the new leader to win it again in a byelection is a risky strategy. Gerrard has proven to be incredibly resilient, these Grits will point out, and it would be a mistake to think any other candidate, even the new party leader, could win a byelection.
The stakes could not be higher for the Liberals. Although Gerrard has been an afterthought for most voters since the NDP returned to power in 1999, some Grits believe the stars are aligning for them much in the way they did in 1988.
In that election, support for the NDP dropped to low single digits. After losing a vote of confidence, an election was called in which it was expected the Progressive Conservatives under Gary Filmon would win a majority. Sharon Carstairs, then the only Liberal in the legislature, had other ideas.
With centre-left voters desperate for a new option, Carstairs stormed to 20 seats and official Opposition status. Although she could not advance on that success in the 1990 election -- in which Filmon finally won his majority, the Liberal caucus shrank to seven seats and the NDP became the official Opposition again -- she is still celebrated as the greatest Liberal leader of modern Manitoba politics.
Many Liberals see similar conditions now. Support for the NDP government is plunging and Tory support is on the rise. Could a new Liberal leader surprise pundits and overtake the sagging NDP in the next election?
It's far too early to write that narrative. Still, the upcoming Liberal leadership will likely give us an early opportunity to handicap Grit fortunes in the next province-wide vote.
Gerrard has courageously maintained a beachhead that has kept the Liberals alive, if only just. It is proof of the inherent cruelty of politics that even after all that noble service to the cause, he may have to leave politics altogether to allow the party to make another run at glory.