Constituency Profile: Kirkfield Park on track to be a tight race again?
Incumbent NDP Sharon Blady fights against 2-term city councillor Scott Fielding
A former two-term Winnipeg city councillor and Manitoba's health minister are duking it out over Kirkfield Park, which was the tightest constituency race in the last provincial election and may turn out to be a bit of a nail-biter this time around, too.
New Democrat Sharon Blady won the 2011 election with only 21 votes after a judicial recount.
Unlike then-Tory candidate Kelly de Groot, current PC candidate Scott Fielding brings with him a history of electoral success and name recognition as the city councillor for St. James-Brooklands.
"This should be easy pickings for [Progressive] Conservatives," said Raymond Hébert, professor emeritus at l'Université de Saint-Boniface.
"I would think by the way this would be low-hanging fruit for them, this particular constituency."
The political analyst has a warning for the Progressive Conservatives: "If they don't win Kirkfield Park, I think they're in trouble in Winnipeg generally," Hébert said.
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Some recent polling in Manitoba suggests a three-way race between the PCs, NDP and emerging Liberals could be possible, but Hébert doesn't think that's the story this time around for this constituency.
"Not in Kirkfield Park. I think it's a two-person race there," Hebert said, counting out the relatively unknown Liberal candidate, Kelly Nord.
During the 1980s and 1990s and through to the 2003 election, the constituency was firmly held by the Progressive Conservatives, sometimes with margins of a couple of thousand votes or more.
In 2007, Blady, an academic and political rookie at the time, ran for the NDP. Unexpectedly she won with just more than 1,000 votes.
She repeated the victory in 2011, but with the smallest margin in the province, just 21 votes.
"It tends to be conservative over time but that has changed, of course, in recent elections. That's why I say maybe the people there will revert back to their natural instincts and vote PC," said Hébert.
Generally the NDP has had a rough couple of years rebounding from an unpopular decision in 2013 that caught Manitobans by surprise — an increase of one percentage point to the provincial sales tax. That was followed by a nasty caucus revolt against NDP Leader Greg Selinger.
Hébert said that may cost Blady votes in April.
"It has to have an effect. Now, how much of an effect in her constituency specifically will it have, that's very difficult to say, but certainly if there's a Tory wave I think her constituency is in jeopardy, definitely," Hébert said.
Candidates show off Kirkfield Park 'hidden gem'
The candidates from the three major parties vying for the west Winnipeg seat were asked to take CBC News to a "hidden gem" in their neighbourhood.
Blady chose her friend's restaurant, Steve's Bistro, Fielding picked a place to grab a cup of Joe, Daily Grind Coffee, and Nord took CBC for a stroll through the historic Westhaven Park.
During a sit-down interview, Blady said she was prepared for "all the outcomes," including getting booted from office, and said she never anticipated she would be a politician in the first place.
"I'd love to keep doing it … but at the same time, elections are elections and you live with the consequences," Blady said.
"I'm not somebody who sought out elected office. I got a phone call from [former NDP premier] Gary Doer's chief of staff, inviting me to come down for a meeting, and I honestly thought somebody was pulling my leg."
Blady was one of Selinger's firmest allies throughout the rebellion against him. She was rewarded with a promotion. After five NDP ministers quit Selinger's cabinet in November 2014, Blady went from the minister of healthy living to the minister of health.
Blady said her life experience as a cancer survivor and a domestic violence survivor helped shape her political career and motivations.
"I appreciate the value of a protection order because I spent my first three years in office with a protection order," she said. "I was assaulted on a Thursday and diagnosed with cancer on a Monday, so I was not in a really good place at that time. But so much has transformed."
During her time as health minister, the community hospital in her constituency, the Grace, ranked among the worst in the country in terms of emergency room wait times.
In 2011, the NDP ran on a promise to build a new ER at the Grace Hospital, but construction still hasn't started.
Blady said other steps along the way, such as the completion of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) capabilities, needed to be done first.
"It's about doing something in a well-thought-out strategic, forward-thinking kind of way as opposed to just reactionary," she said.
Both she and main competitor, Fielding, each come with a fair amount of name recognition, but Blady said Fielding's role in former mayor Sam Katz's administration will hurt his campaign.
"He comes in with his associations to Sam Katz so while he does have some positive things, I think he comes in with his own baggage as well," Blady said.
Sipping a cup of coffee at Daily Grind Coffee, Fielding was unfazed as his connection to Winnipeg's former mayor was dragged out before him.
Fielding reminded voters that as a councillor, he called for an ethics and accountability office at city hall and eventually quit the mayor's inner circle, citing financial mismanagement.
"To be frank with you, I think there should be more people like that, [who] take a principled position on these things," Fielding said, blasting back at the NDP for promising in 2011 not to raise the provincial sales tax and then raising it in 2013.
Fielding said he supports a public inquiry into the series of allegations over the construction of Winnipeg's new police headquarters building.
Provincial political parties have so far largely steered clear of saying a provincial inquiry was needed, until the RCMP investigation is concluded. Not Fielding.
"I supported them referring it to the RCMP for further investigation. That was something that I supported at the time," Fielding said. "I think if people want to get to the bottom, I think it makes sense to do something like that."
The father of three was the third PC candidate nominated for the 2016 election, way back in September 2014.
The PC central campaign is eyeing Kirkfield Park for a win as they try to block the NDP from an unprecedented fifth term in office, Fielding said.
"It's obviously one that all the parties are interested in," he said. "We're obviously working hard. We think we've got a pretty good foothold."
Neither Fielding nor Blady currently live in the constituency. Blady lives in the same general area of the city, while Fielding now lives in Lindenwoods.
Still, Fielding said he grew up in the area and is more than capable of representing it.
"I represented the area for eight years on city council. I know every street, every back lane, every nook and cranny that is there," Fielding said. "So I think I'm probably not a stranger to anyone in this area."
In an odd twist, the only candidate of the three who does currently live in the constituency wasn't born here — not even in Manitoba.
As CBC News strolled through Westhaven Park with Liberal candidate Kelly Nord, the British Columbia-born man said he's been in the area since the '70s and he's more than prepared to represent Kirkfield Park.
"With my son going to the school that I graduated [from] and having classmates in the school system — as a matter of fact, one of my classmates is his principal — our roots are deeper," Nord said.
Nord said he decided to get in the race when the NDP raised the PST, however he now supports Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari's position to keep the PST increase until 2023 — the length of time the NDP promised — 10 years from 2013.
"Now that we have it, let's make sure the money does go into repairs and make sure we get our roads fixed," Nord said.
Lisa Omand, who is running for the Green Party of Manitoba in Kirkfield Park, declined to be interviewed for this profile.