October 18, 2017

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Political resurrection or ugly footnote?

The path that Wab Kinew is walking just became incredibly steep.

That’s an odd thing to say about a man who just won a landslide victory to become the new leader of the Manitoba New Democratic Party. But thanks to a flurry of recent revelations about Kinew’s troubled life before he became a politician, this is no ordinary political narrative.

During the leadership campaign, added revelations about Kinew’s life came pouring into the public consciousness. He had admitted to many transgressions — alcoholism, assaults, offensive lyrics in his work as a rapper — in his best-selling book, The Reason You Walk. However, the arrival of allegations of theft and domestic assault has raised serious questions about his future.

The new allegations have come in waves. First, it was revealed early in the campaign that Kinew had admitted things to the party during its vetting process that he had not included in the book, including the fact he had been accused of domestic assault. The charges from 2003 were stayed and the court file contains no documentation of the allegation or the reason why the Crown put the case into abeyance.

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The path that Wab Kinew is walking just became incredibly steep.

That’s an odd thing to say about a man who just won a landslide victory to become the new leader of the Manitoba New Democratic Party. But thanks to a flurry of recent revelations about Kinew’s troubled life before he became a politician, this is no ordinary political narrative.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The Manitoba NDP’s new leader, Wab Kinew, defeated Steve Ashton in a landslide. Questions about Kinew’s past could harm his party.</p></p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Manitoba NDP’s new leader, Wab Kinew, defeated Steve Ashton in a landslide. Questions about Kinew’s past could harm his party.

During the leadership campaign, added revelations about Kinew’s life came pouring into the public consciousness. He had admitted to many transgressions — alcoholism, assaults, offensive lyrics in his work as a rapper — in his best-selling book, The Reason You Walk. However, the arrival of allegations of theft and domestic assault has raised serious questions about his future.

The new allegations have come in waves. First, it was revealed early in the campaign that Kinew had admitted things to the party during its vetting process that he had not included in the book, including the fact he had been accused of domestic assault. The charges from 2003 were stayed and the court file contains no documentation of the allegation or the reason why the Crown put the case into abeyance.

Then, late in the campaign, the woman involved in the case came forward. In an interview with The Canadian Press, she detailed an argument with Kinew that became violent. Tara Hart said Kinew grabbed her and threw her across a room, skidding on her knees across a rug. The rug burns, she said, were so bad she couldn’t bend her knees the next day.

When the domestic assault case had first become public, Kinew insisted the allegation was baseless. When Hart spoke publicly, he continued to deny it.

And then, on the morning after his leadership victory, Free Press columnist Gordon Sinclair Jr. published interviews with Hart’s mother, Wendy Bird, and sister, Melanie Hart. In these interviews, a second domestic assault was detailed, this time involving an allegation that Kinew dragged Hart by the hair down a hallway, threatening to throw her off a balcony.

The spectre of a second domestic assault had lingered throughout the leadership campaign, in large part because the court file showed two separate charges. However, in her interview, Tara Hart had said she could only recall one assault and did not know why there were two charges.

Kinew’s supporters have remained steadfast in their belief that even with the new allegations, he is a powerful symbol of redemption, a good man who did bad things but then changed. However, even some of his closest allies acknowledge there is no more capacity to absorb new revelations.

Kinew’s leadership win will have many implications, both for the NDP and its rivals.

It is sure to revive a somewhat bruised and battered Progressive Conservative base. Premier Brian Pallister’s first 18 months in government have been, at times, a hot, sloppy mess. His relentless drive to eliminate the budget deficit primarily through spending cuts has been painful and politically awkward.

The MLAs in the Tory caucus, particularly those who won close races in ridings formerly held by the NDP, worry about razor-thin margins becoming even thinner. Poll results show Pallister’s Tories are slipping, particularly in seat-rich Winnipeg, and that most of the loss in support has been going to the NDP.

Kinew’s mere presence, and his increasingly complicated back story, will boost the spirits of those beleaguered Tory MLAs.

For Manitoba Liberals, there will be optimism as well. If Kinew sets the NDP cause back, then voters who would never cast a ballot for the Tories will likely be taking a long look at Grit options in the next election. The Liberals will select a new leader in late October and the winner may find that voters are desperate for an option other than the NDP and Tories.

After the infighting and dysfunction that culminated in the 2016 election loss, the NDP needed to make a positive step forward in this leadership campaign.

Few New Democrats thought the next election was winnable, but they certainly thought it was possible to claw back some of the seats they lost to the Tories. All that is further out of reach now.

In many ways, the Kinew storyline represents a lost opportunity for the province. Manitoba has not done a good job at encouraging and electing people of colour. In particular, it has been tough to create opportunities for Indigenous people to rise to the upper levels of party politics.

Kinew’s leadership was a chance to stress-test the Manitoba electorate, to see whether it would accept an Indigenous man as a serious contender to be premier. It seems increasingly unlikely that voters will be able to look beyond his troubled past — and in particular, the allegations of domestic abuse — to judge him objectively as a political leader.

In getting elected to the legislature and winning the NDP leadership, Kinew has already defied the odds; the allegations that have dogged him would have left most other politicians in ruin.

New Democrats will not have to wait long to assess the effect of Kinew’s leadership. Fundraising, an effective barometer of political fortunes, normally surges after a new leader is elected.

The Free Press, among others, will also be publishing poll results that will show whether Kinew has helped or hurt the party’s overall standing. If the trendline on both of these start pointing downward, there will be few questions about the net Kinew effect.

Normally, every new leader gets one election to prove his or her worth. This is not a normal situation and Kinew’s ability to sustain his leadership long enough to fight the 2020 election is, at present, uncertain.

Right now, there are really only two likely storylines.

Kinew will either author one of the greatest political comebacks in this province’s political history.

Or, he will become an ugly footnote to one of the ugliest eras ever for the NDP.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Dan Lett.

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Updated on Monday, September 18, 2017 at 6:43 AM CDT: Adds photo

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