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Civic Election 2014

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Steeves' transition a calculated gamble

Ex-Liberal insists he's comfortable on the right

Posted: 08/21/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 08/21/2014 1:43 PM | Updates


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When Gord Steeves first went on the record about his desire to run for mayor, it sounded like he was preparing to run on a social-justice platform.

Now, the lawyer and former city councillor is campaigning from the opposite side of the political spectrum. He's carved out a niche as the most right-wing candidate in a field that includes two other well-known Conservative-affiliated candidates.

The transformation of Gord Steeves is nothing short of remarkable, but the guiding principle is simple pragmatism. There's a method behind Steeves' apparent recent madness and it may have nothing to do with his beliefs, which have proven fluid since the spring of 2013, when he first mused publicly about running for mayor.

At the time, Steeves sounded like he cared deeply about social inequality.

"Winnipeg seems to be two cities, almost. I see people who are doing very, very well and I love that. But I also see large parts of the city going in the exact opposite direction," Steeves said in an interview on May 31, 2013.

The concern for the have-nots wasn't out of character. Steeves is a former Liberal who tended toward moderate positions during 11 years as St. Vital's councillor.

He served as a close supporter of Mayor Sam Katz for the latter seven of those years, partly to retain a seat on executive policy committee. When he resigned from council in 2011 and switched colours to Tory blue from Liberal red, the guiding principle appeared to be pragmatism again.

Manitoba Liberals, led by Jon Gerrard, weren't poised to make gains in that fall's election. The Progressive Conservatives, then led by Hugh McFadyen, had a much better chance of forming a government.

After getting trounced by NDP cabinet minister Theresa Oswald, Steeves resumed working as a lawyer and began planning to run for mayor. Despite his early hints about bridging the social gap, there was no trace of a policy direction when he prematurely held a campaign launch in October.

Steeves remained all but silent throughout the early part of 2014. He disappeared outright for two months after his disastrously unattended campaign-policy launch in May -- a debacle followed by the defection of campaign manager Derek Rolstone.

Then, while pundits were pondering his departure from the mayoral race, Steeves resurfaced in July as a hard right, suburban-friendly populist. First, he pledged to sell city assets. Then he promised to freeze taxes in near-perpetuity, round up downtown drunks and allied himself with anti-photo-radar advocates.

Why the rightward shift? Part of it involves Steeves' new campaign team, which includes Conservative organizer John Tropak as a lead adviser.

Tropak has run campaigns for senior Manitoba MP Shelly Glover. He was also appointed to Manitoba's federal judicial advisory committee -- along with fellow Tories Jonathan Lyon and Marni Larkin -- before the judicial appointment of former senior Manitoba MP Vic Toews.

Keith Borkowsky, a former member of Opposition Leader Brian Pallister's communications team, is serving as Steeves' campaign manager.

But the presence of Tories on a campaign team doesn't necessarily ensure conservative policy. The tough stuff may be coming now simply because Steeves hopes Brian Bowman or Paula Havixbeck will drop out of the race.

All year, conventional election wisdom has held that the union-supported, NDP-affiliated Judy Wasylycia-Leis will clean up on Oct. 22 if multiple right-of-centre candidates battle each other.

Bowman, however, has presented himself as a centrist, despite his Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce backing. Havixbeck also isn't hugging the right. Steeves may be trying to play arch-Conservative until nominations close on Sept. 16 and then veer closer to the centre once the campaign ballot is set, ideally -- for him -- with fewer opponents.

Bowman, who has a large campaign organization, is highly unlikely to bow out. Havixbeck appears to have fewer volunteers, but has painted herself into a corner by repeatedly insisting she won't run in Charleswood-Tuxedo again.

If both remain in the race, there won't be room for Steeves to remake himself as a centrist. He'll be forced to campaign from the right -- where he insists his heart lies, anyway.

Whether his head is there, as well, is anybody's guess.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2014 B4


Updated on Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 8:53 AM CDT: Replaces photo

1:43 PM: Corrects typo

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