With every election comes change, and not just in the party standings.
Elections serve as natural inflection points for politicians and their parties. Prior to the campaign, some elected officials retire and new candidates take their place. Depending on the results, leaders are often forced to make difficult decisions about whether to continue leading.
And then there are the staff. The post-election period is that time when long-serving staff move on and fresh blood is brought in to guide and counsel the elected officials. Such is the case now with the Manitoba NDP.
The biggest change in the NDP to date is the departure of Liam Martin, the chief of staff to leader Wab Kinew. Martin left a job at the Manitoba Teachers Society in 2017 to work with Kinew, reprising a role he previously filled for former premier Greg Selinger.
Martin's return to provincial politics was not without some bumps. The Tory government had soundly criticized Selinger for firing Martin and a host of other senior staff in 2015 and providing substantial severance payments. Still, militant New Democrats were somewhat relieved the Kinew was getting a steady and experienced hand to help him prepare for his first election as leader.
Early reports implied some sort of rift between Martin and Kinew was behind the departure. For his part, Martin denied that there was any conflict or difference of opinion on strategy. Party sources confirmed that when all was said and done, it was a mutual agreement that that two would part ways.
"There is a lot less to this story than some others would have you believe," Martin said in an interview. "I was pretty clear that I would see Wab through his first election and I've done that. But it's been a rough couple of years with the party rebuild and other stuff that landed on my desk. It was time for me to move on."
Characterizing the last couple of years as rough might be the understatement of the year so far.
In addition to rebuilding the party from the ashes of its 2016 election defeat, Kinew had to fend off a constant attack from the Progressive Conservatives about his past run-ins with the justice system, including charges of domestic assault.
Add to that the scurrilous scandals that involved former NDP MLAs Stan Struthers and Mohinder Saran, the lingering battle with Selinger that ended in 2018 with his abrupt retirement, the subsequent byelection loss of Selinger's St. Boniface riding and an array of other minor conflicts and infighting in caucus.
Guiding a new leader through a critical transformation while also having to carry all that baggage and put out all those fires is enough to wear out even the most steadfast of political staffers. Still, Martin and a whole host of experienced strategists — many of whom cut their teeth with former premiers Selinger and Gary Doer — did come to Kinew's aid. Whether they stay now that he is moving on to a new stage in his career as leader remains to be seen.
The good news for Kinew is that at least one experienced hand is staying on board. Mark Rosner, who takes over from Martin, is well-respected within NDP circles and is thought to be an excellent choice during this delicate time in the party's evolution.
"There is a lot less to this story than some others would have you believe." - Liam Martin, departing chief of staff to NDP leader Wab Kinew
Kinew will also benefit from the fact that his expanded caucus — the NDP won 18 seats, up from 12 seats at dissolution — comes with additional financial resources that will allow the party to hire two additional political staffers. Party sources say the positions have not yet been filled because Kinew wanted to wait to see if there were experienced NDP staff from other provinces looking for work following last month's federal election.
It also appears that for now, Kinew is happy to continue leading the party and will not face any internal pressure to step down.
Party sources confirmed that despite some lingering concern that Kinew's personal baggage will keep him from the premier's office, he has never said or done anything out of public view to create the impression that he will leave before the next election. As well, there appears to no appetite for an organized coup, similar to the effort that tried to take Selinger down in 2015-16.
"Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants another leadership battle," said one longtime party official.
That said, the pressure is on Kinew to ramp up fundraising, which has remained a challenge since the party last held power.
Although the NDP did make gains in September's election, party sources concede that they could have done even better if they had the financial resources to do more intensive polling in ridings such as Dauphin, McPhillips and Riel, where NDP candidates threatened upsets before coming in a close second.
Ultimately, fundraising is a litmus test for the popularity and confidence that a party has in its leader. Kinew will have to show that he can make it rain when it comes to filling the party coffers. If donations continue to be anemic, it will undermine his ability to lead the party into the next election.
As other leaders of other rebuilding parties have proven over and over again, you can keep your job as long as you continue to show progress in raising money and winning seats. If you stall out, or lose ground, you will find yourself among the ranks of those being shed in the post-election period.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Friday, November 1, 2019 at 7:47 PM CDT: Fixes name