Seven prominent Manitoba business leaders, including the owner of the Winnipeg Jets, have endorsed Heather Stefanson in the Progressive Conservative leadership race out of concerns anti-vaccine attitudes could overtake the party.
Sandy Riley, who chaired the Manitoba Hydro board until he resigned in a 2018 dispute with Brian Pallister, was in the group throwing support Stefanson's way.
"We just didn't want to have this selection decided by default, because we didn't get ourselves organized," Riley told the Free Press.
He noted that controversial candidate Ken Lee signed up many PC members and got support from the federal People's Party before the provincial PC party's board opted not to let him run for leadership.
"Ken Lee has sold a number of memberships, and I suspect that a lot of those members have a very strong view on what the government should be doing with respect to vaccinations that runs counter to the view of most Manitobans," Riley said.
The letter endorsing Stefanson's leadership bid was signed by: Mark Chipman, chair of True North Sports and Entertainment; Polly Craik, the former chair of Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries; Gregg Hanson, the former head of Wawanesa Mutual; Elmer Hildebrand, who has been head of Golden West Broadcasting; Steve Kroft, head of the Conviron Group of Companies and former vice-chair of Manitoba Hydro; Nick Logan, former vice-chair of Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries and current principal of Logan Point Investments; and Riley, head of Richardson Financial Group and chair of the North West Company.
“Ken Lee has sold a number of memberships, and I suspect that a lot of those members have a very strong view on what the government should be doing with respect to vaccinations that runs counter to the view of most Manitobans." — Sandy Riley
"Historically, there are all kinds of situations where ethnic groups, church groups (and) community groups in smaller-denomination situations have banded together because they want to support a particular candidate," Riley said.
The endorsement doesn't refer by name to former MP Shelly Glover, Stefanson's only opponent in the Oct. 30 leadership vote. Instead, the group argues Stefanson will attract support "in the middle" of the political spectrum and pull people together.
"This isn't about Shelly; it's about Heather. We think she's the best person. You can read into what you want," Riley said.
Yet political scientist Royce Koop said it’s clear the Stefanson campaign is concerned Glover will get support from members Lee recruited, given there are just two candidates on the ballot.
"A real wild card in this race are all these memberships (Lee) sold," said Koop, a University of Manitoba professor.
"There might be some concern that Shelly is going to be coming on strong, and that's not unwarranted."
Both candidates declined an interview Friday.
On Sept. 10, Glover spoke against "mandated vaccines," while Stefanson said she supports the current policy of compelling public servants to either get vaccinated or have frequent rapid tests.
On Friday, Glover announced she is fine with the current policy, because it offers the exemption for people who get regularly tested.
“There might be some concern that Shelly is going to be coming on strong, and that's not unwarranted.” — Political scientist Royce Koop
The letter from Riley and his contemporaries criticizes "the damage done by COVID 19 and, sadly, by the missteps of our former premier," but does not mention that Stefanson was health minister during the disastrous third wave and most of the period between January until August.
"That's her big weakness here, and it's just really hard for her to address," Koop said.
The letter blames Pallister for having "deeply alienated" Ottawa, municipalities and front-line workers through his "attitudes and actions," adding that on his watch, reconciliation has been "deeply challenged."
It also argues Crown corporations and the education system "are in legislative limbo, waiting for a clear post-COVID path to be articulated."
Riley argued Stefanson could best provide that guidance.
"The problems we're going to have coming out of COVID are not going to be solved by government; government will have to play a very important role, but we have to have the whole community engaged, and that requires a leader who listens," he said.
The letter also urges people to sign up for a PC membership, which must be done by next Thursday in order to participate in the leadership race.
Koop said the letter is unlikely to actually recruit new members, given that many business owners already have PC memberships.
Stefanson has been seen as the likely front-runner, but the Tuxedo MLA might lack sufficient party support, he said.
“This sends a message that something is happening and this is a real race, because a lot of people might believe it's not (and) Heather has got this in the bag.” — Royce Koop
"The actual makeup of the people that are going to be voting is very different than in a Manitoba election. They're going to be more rural and less diverse through the roof, and it's easy to skew that electorate to people who are concerned about vaccines," he said.
"This sends a message that something is happening and this is a real race, because a lot of people might believe it's not (and) Heather has got this in the bag."
Koop added that both candidates have to be careful with pronouncements on vaccine mandates; it won't take much to alienate people party members who support the measures or those who don't.
Glover's campaign has argued the party needs to change from a top-down structure to operating from the grassroots, in an effort to draw a contrast with Stefanson, who is a career politician.
"I have faced real life challenges in my career as a police officer, a brief time on the front lines of health care and my many volunteer efforts," reads a statement attributed to Glover.
"These real life efforts help me understand the need for collaboration and communication, not only with our elected officials but as importantly with all our party members and indeed with all Manitobans."
Stefanson's campaign wrote that she was "humbled" by the support expressed in the letter.
"I am honoured to have received the endorsement of such incredible community leaders that give their time, energy, and passion to our province," reads a statement attributed to her.