"I think this party is in a very good place right now."
That was the verdict from Greg Selinger as he faced reporters minutes after becoming leader of the NDP, and premier-designate of Manitoba. According to Selinger, the party is stronger than ever, stocked with new members and more money, and most importantly, it is united.
It is tradition for both the victor and the vanquished in leadership campaigns to preach unity after the result is announced. It is also tradition that almost no one believes it is true.
Leadership races are emotional. They are personal. Anyone who says otherwise is either a fool or lives in a place where political leaders are selected at the end of a gun. In this case, Selinger's victory -- a two-to-one advantage over Steve Ashton -- was convincing, maybe even more convincing than anyone thought. With the endorsement of the vast majority of caucus and the party elite, Selinger was the clear choice.
And yet, Ashton won the support of nearly 700 delegates. Not only is that a significant show of support, those members now form a constituency within the party that Selinger must soothe in some way. Although there have been pledges of unity, neither Ashton nor his true believers are going to take this defeat easily.
Ashton's performance was, in so many respects, truly remarkable. In a two-horse race, he was at a significant disadvantage given his shortage of influential endorsements. And yet, he still managed to pull more than a third of the 2,002 ballots cast.
If there had been three or more candidates in this race, it is quite possible Ashton would have been the first-ballot front-runner; it would still have been tough to win the leadership but he would have been there at the end.
Ashton's supporters will continue to moan about the rules for this leadership race. To be sure, this campaign was a bloody mess. It was too complex, too short and governed by rules that were neither transparent nor intuitive.
The worst feature of the process was a provision that awarded 400 automatic delegates to unions affiliated with the Manitoba Federation of Labour. While it is true that labour was in on the ground floor at the creation of the NDP, giving one constituency within the party an automatic say in leadership campaigns is, quite frankly, outdated and an insult to other party members.
It didn't help when MFL affiliates returned nearly one quarter of those delegates because they couldn't find anyone to fill the spots. (Memo to the MFL: If you want to be kingmakers in a leadership race, you should be able to demonstrate that your people actually want to go to the convention.)
Notwithstanding these problems, the rules were not unfair to any one candidate. Both Ashton and Selinger competed with the same advantages and disadvantages. This may come as a shock to Ashton supporters, who blitzed party offices with complaints and appeals every time a vote did not go their way. Today, Ashton and his people dine on a large bowl of sour grapes.
(How sour were those grapes? On Friday night at the tribute to Gary Doer, daughter Emily Doer announced her own mock candidacy because, "If my father could do it, how hard could it be?" The joke making the rounds that night was that as soon as Emily declared her tongue-in-cheek intentions, Ashton's people filed a protest. Just to be sure.)
If we are to believe Selinger, who believes the party is in a pretty good place, what exactly is it that makes him so optimistic?
First and foremost, Selinger's victory means a minimum of muss and fuss during transition. For the time being, Selinger will likely keep the same team of advisers and strategists that supported Doer. And as a former finance minister, he hardly needs time to study up on major files and challenges headed his way.
In fact, the only task associated with his new job that will seem truly new is taking the helm of a provincial election campaign. Doer was a master at waging electoral war, and it's going to be a challenge for Selinger to match his predecessor's instinct and sophistication.
For now, Selinger is resolute that he will not call an election before the fixed-date election in 2011. That gives him two years to figure out just what it's going to take for the NDP to retain its grip on power with Doer having moved on to a diplomatic post.
Selinger spent a decade as the understudy to one of the shrewdest politicians ever to hold the province's top political job. The NDP may be in a good place right now, but Selinger will need all of the accumulated wisdom of the last 10 years if his party is going to stay there.