August 1, 2015


Dan Lett

Columnists

Duck-and-run strategy is far from mayoral

As Gord Steeves left Bonnycastle Park on Tuesday, an aboriginal man in a smart grey business suit approached him and asked for a chance to talk.

The man, Kevin Hart, chairman of the Circle of Life Thunderbird House, had been watching Steeves respond to the controversy over Steeves' wife Lorrie's angry Facebook rant against "drunken native guys."

After his media conference Monday, Gord Steeves (left) walked away from  Kevin Hart (centre), who wanted to discuss the homeless situation with Steeves.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

After his media conference Monday, Gord Steeves (left) walked away from Kevin Hart (centre), who wanted to discuss the homeless situation with Steeves. Photo Store

Hart stood close to Steeves the entire time he tried to explain the two incidents involving aggressive panhandlers that prompted his wife to post the rant.

When the news conference was over, Hart calmly circled around the throng of media to intercept Steeves on his way to his car. When approached, Steeves declined to speak to him. Without breaking stride, he headed to his car.

Although it would be wrong to deduce too much from one vignette, the symbolism was hard to ignore. Gord Steeves wants this controversy to go away. He doesn't want to talk about it to anyone -- even to someone who may feel affected and offended by what was posted.

And no matter how you cut it, that is not mayoral behaviour.

On the whole, the news conference was a bizarre affair: Steeves' decision to wait four days to comment; the weird efforts to conceal the time and location of the event; his effort to make a mundane campaign pledge prior to commenting on the controversy.

When he finally did address the main issue at hand, you could see he was shaken. Head bowed, eyes often closed, he calmly reiterated his wife's apology, and declared her Facebook post to be "wrong" and "a mistake."

He patiently faced questions from the media. He kept his calm when he was heckled. Through all this, it seemed he would not, could not, face up to those most affected by his wife's comments.

All in all, a rather unusual approach to political crisis management.

When embroiled in a controversy in the midst of a campaign, smart candidates take immediate action to quash it, so it does not dog them through to election day. This is especially true if the candidate believes the controversy, and the people most offended by it, represent a threat to the success of the campaign.

Ignoring a controversy that has the potential to derail your campaign will almost always do just that.

Remarkably, Steeves has not shown much interest in either quashing the original controversy or addressing those people most deeply concerned by what his wife posted on Facebook.

Steeves has not made any attempt to reach out to aboriginal leaders or anti-poverty/homelessness activists, many of whom condemned the post in local media over the weekend. Rather than reaching out to the people most affected, he has played duck and run.

Why would he put so much effort into distancing himself from these folks? There are two possibilities.

First, he is stuck in campaign paralysis, unsure how to react and hoping against hope if he keeps a low profile, it will all just blow over. We'll call that the hyper-naïve approach.

Or second, Steeves and his team have calculated he was never going to get votes from aboriginal people or anti-poverty activists, and there is a strong possibility he will get rebound support from Winnipeggers who believe he has been unfairly attacked. We'll call that the hyper-cynical approach.

It's not hard to see where he would get the idea that he has more to gain from ignoring the people most affected. In most of the early, visible public debate on this story, Steeves and his wife are getting tons of support.

In the comments section of this newspaper and websites of other media outlets, the gross majority of commenters believe this is a non-story. And Steeves is the victim of biased journalists interested in undermining Steeves to help other candidates.

It would be wrong for Steeves to take too much comfort from those comments. Most of those who believe this is a non-story are not the segment of society most affected by Lorrie Steeves' post.

Those most impacted by the Facebook post -- aboriginal people, the homeless and those who advocate for the poor -- believe it is a very big deal.

Those comments were directed at the poor, the indigent and the aboriginal. Given the fact a mayor has to represent all of the citizens of this city, any aspiring mayor should be expected to respect and respond to all concerns.

The campaign is far from over, and Steeves' advisers have said "all options are on the table" as far as making amends is concerned.

Perhaps before October, Steeves will realize small, direct gestures are, at this stage, very important.

Stopping to talk to someone who was hurt by that Facebook post only takes a few seconds. But it has the potential to provide years of goodwill.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2014 B1

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