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Bowman: The tough nice guy

Candidate says he's not afraid to do the heavy lifting when it comes to getting things done

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/10/2014 (1490 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was over coffee one evening more than a year ago, in the living room of the Bowmans' Charleswood bungalow, that Brian Bowman dropped a bomb on longtime friend Jana Thorsteinson. He was thinking about running for mayor. I'm in, she replied.

"He said, 'Don't you want to wait a bit, maybe see who else is in the race, think about it?' " recalled Thorsteinson, a veteran campaign organizer. "Nope. Uh, uh. I'm in."

Thorsteinson, who first met Bowman when they were young Tories, became good friends with him years later, when she was a senior staffer at the University of Manitoba Alumni Association and Bowman was president, an enthusiastic and focused one. Now, she's among the Bowman true believers, volunteers who are even more boosterish than front-runner Judy Wasylycia-Leis's partisan supporters and who have helped the lawyer run the slickest, most modern and well-branded campaign, the only one that can boast genuine momentum.

His detractors question whether he's all sizzle and no substance, a little too manufactured. In his bid to be everything to everyone, he's nothing in particular, they say. His campaign has indeed been marked by slightly nebulous corporate-speak buzzwords -- leadership, innovation, change-oriented. And most voters are still a little unclear exactly who Bowman is -- the pickup truck driver who wants to build all of rapid transit right now? The pro-downtown urbanist who lives in Charleswood? The suit-wearing Ken doll who is actually Métis and really enjoys a good smudge at Thunderbird House? The diehard Bomber fan who also name drops hipster joints such as Little Sister Coffee and the Hunter and Gunn barber shop. And what exactly does a social-media lawyer do, anyway?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/10/2014 (1490 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was over coffee one evening more than a year ago, in the living room of the Bowmans' Charleswood bungalow, that Brian Bowman dropped a bomb on longtime friend Jana Thorsteinson. He was thinking about running for mayor. I'm in, she replied.

"He said, 'Don't you want to wait a bit, maybe see who else is in the race, think about it?' " recalled Thorsteinson, a veteran campaign organizer. "Nope. Uh, uh. I'm in."

Thorsteinson, who first met Bowman when they were young Tories, became good friends with him years later, when she was a senior staffer at the University of Manitoba Alumni Association and Bowman was president, an enthusiastic and focused one. Now, she's among the Bowman true believers, volunteers who are even more boosterish than front-runner Judy Wasylycia-Leis's partisan supporters and who have helped the lawyer run the slickest, most modern and well-branded campaign, the only one that can boast genuine momentum.

His detractors question whether he's all sizzle and no substance, a little too manufactured. In his bid to be everything to everyone, he's nothing in particular, they say. His campaign has indeed been marked by slightly nebulous corporate-speak buzzwords — leadership, innovation, change-oriented. And most voters are still a little unclear exactly who Bowman is — the pickup truck driver who wants to build all of rapid transit right now? The pro-downtown urbanist who lives in Charleswood? The suit-wearing Ken doll who is actually Métis and really enjoys a good smudge at Thunderbird House? The diehard Bomber fan who also name drops hipster joints such as Little Sister Coffee and the Hunter and Gunn barber shop. And what exactly does a social-media lawyer do, anyway?

But friends, board members, political backroomers and even Bowman's wife, Tracy, say the slightly too-good-to-be-true version of Bowman is for real; that he has an authentic passion for Winnipeg, a vision for the city that transcends ideology and the ability to get people working together.

Winnipeg Art Gallery director Stephen Borys said Bowman was particularly helpful in guiding the WAG through the first phase of the planned Inuit art centre, helping with the design process, raising funds, keeping the board focused. Even though Bowman quotes Adam Sandler movies (the dramas) and loves Van Halen, Borys said he did fine with the arty types.

"He was comfortable in any situation we threw him in," said Borys. "He was good counsel for me. I could throw anything at him, a difficult image, something off the beaten path."

Leslie Spillett, head of the aboriginal healing and outreach agency Ka Ni Kanichihk, said Bowman was a "bridge-builder" during his two years on her board, helping the agency get better access to the corporate community, new funders and a reach beyond the inner-city bubble.

"He wasn't that guy who knew everything," she said "He listened really respectfully."

One of the things Bowman says rankles him is the perception he's "silver spoon" — a reasonable judgment to make about a graduate of the country's most prestigious law school, a former chamber of commerce chairman and partner at the city's big-business law firm.

In fact, Bowman says he comes from modest means. His dad was a carpenter and machinist at Molson Breweries. His mom is a real estate agent. They never took winter holidays to Mexico. They had chickens in their backyard. He graduated from the University of Toronto law school with $50,000 in student loans.

Bowman was president of the law students association, an election he says was nearly as tough as the civic race, thanks to the Type A personalities and big egos common in law school. His first real brush with government wasn't in Canada, but in the office of Mexico's foreign minister, where he had an internship in the summer of 1997. He briefed the minister on the cross-border flow of professionals under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 1997 federal election and even the rise of the Reform party.

President Ernesto Zedillo's Mexico was a turbulent place. Two weeks before he returned to Canada and to law school, Bowman and a buddy were on their way back to Mexico City from a weekend trip to the surfing town of Puerto Escondido when their bus was attacked by paramilitary gunman, some seen hanging from trees. The two were sleeping, their heads leaning away from each other when a bullet whizzed between them. Windows were smashed by automatic weapon fire, a woman behind Bowman had her kneecap blown out by a bullet, and the passengers waited for two hours for another attack that never came.

"Maybe once or twice a year I'll wake up, heart pounding, thinking about it," said Bowman.

Brian Bowman may have attended the countrys most prestigious law school, but he says he grew up in modest surroundings. His dad worked at Molson Breweries. His mom is a real estate agent.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Brian Bowman may have attended the countrys most prestigious law school, but he says he grew up in modest surroundings. His dad worked at Molson Breweries. His mom is a real estate agent.

After finishing his law degree, Bowman and now-wife Tracy returned to Winnipeg, even though articling jobs in Toronto were much more lucrative.

"I always knew I would come home," said Bowman. "The only condition when (Tracy) agreed to move home was she wanted season tickets to the Bombers forever."

After starting at Aikins, Bowman then followed a friend to the business-focused Pitblado, where he began to create the technology and privacy practice that has made him a frequent media pundit and savvy user of social media.

"When I started, I had people saying 'This is too niche, just do business law, just do corporate, just grind out annual returns,' " recalled Bowman. "And I'm like, that's really uninspiring. I'll lose my mind."

As a lawyer, Bowman deals with health-privacy issues and consumer-protection laws and looking under the hood of corporate websites to ensure they comply with privacy standards. He works mostly for companies based in Toronto and Calgary, but also does work for victims of cyberbullying. Working with a team of techies and other lawyers, Bowman says he is frequently on the phone with Google, Twitter, Facebook and Internet service providers such as MTS, trying to get defamatory or harassing images or messages removed. His most recent clients include a young man who has attempted suicide three times thanks to online harassment, and Bowman says he knows the families of high-profile cyberbullying victims Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons.

About a third of his practice is filing access-to-information requests for companies too fearful to file them themselves, worried about being blacklisted by government.

He said he conceived his practice by imagining where the economy and the law would be a decade out, the same thing he is trying to do in the campaign — imagining what Winnipeg could look like with a million people.

"The campaign is a reflection of who I am. There's a value-for-dollar element, a business growth aspect and a compassionate side to our policies as well," he said. "I'm just trying to be myself."

Bowman is a Tory, but a red one. He forged many friendships as a young Tory, and he worked Joe Clark's tour when Clark made a comeback as Progressive Conservative leader in the late 1990s. Bowman says he hasn't been active in last decade, though, not even a party member. He's attended the odd dinner and door-knocked for friend and rookie MLA Shannon Martin, but that's about it.

"I like the leadership style of (former premier) Gary Filmon," said Bowman. "I know that's controversial in Manitoba, but I always thought he handled himself with a lot of class."

How Bowman would handle himself as mayor has been the subject of speculation. He's seen by some as a too-pleasant guy who might not be able to get his dukes up the way a veteran street-fighter like Judy Wasylycia-Leis has done her whole career.

When he's tried to get a little aggressive and go after others in debates, it hasn't always seemed natural, partly because this is his first rodeo and partly because it feels like a step beyond his nature.

Bowman bristles at that suggestion, which is fun to watch.

"Just because I'm generally a happy guy doesn't mean I don't do the heavy lifting," he said. "On a day-to-day basis, I get my elbows up in practice, when I'm negotiating around a board table, going toe to toe with opposing counsel, who is, in many cases, highly paid, highly fired up."

He said he's had to argue and cajole to get things done as chairman of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and building a national practice out of Winnipeg wasn't easy. But, he concedes he's heard the "you're too nice" argument his entire life.

"I've found that's been a tremendous strength because quite often I've been underestimated," he said.

maryagnes.welch @freepress.mb.ca

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History

Updated on Friday, October 17, 2014 at 6:37 AM CDT: Replaces photo, adds videos, changes headline

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