Manitoba Liberal leadership race ends with some bitterness

The Manitoba Liberal party appears to have some healing to do in the aftermath of a leadership campaign that has left some members rethinking their future in the party.
Rana Bokhari won the Manitoba Liberal leadership race over the weekend. (CBC)

The Manitoba Liberal party appears to have some healing to do in the aftermath of a leadership campaign that has left some members rethinking their future in the party.

Soon after Rana Bokhari was elected on the first ballot of Saturday's convention, some supporters of the other two candidates — Bob Axworthy and Dougald Lamont — made their feelings known.

"MB Liberals lost their soul today," read a Facebook post from the account of Jamie Michie-Bowles, Axworthy's campaign manager, shortly after the results were announced.

"Disappointing day for provincial Liberals. Think a few ... memberships will be cancelled," read another post from the same account.

Michie-Bowles declined an interview request Monday.

Also Monday, Lamont's campaign manager Jim Kane, a longtime Liberal who has served on previous election campaigns, said he was mulling over his future.

"I am still a member at this time. What role I may take in the future will require some reflection," Kane said.

The three-way race was occasionally acrimonious. Bokhari, 36, was seen by some as an outsider. She was a political newcomer and won the party's one-member, one-vote race largely by selling the most new memberships — about 620.

Her opponents were longtime Liberal workers. Lamont had worked on provincial and federal campaigns and had run for office. Axworthy had also run for office, finishing a strong second in a 2012 provincial byelection, and had served as an adviser to former leader Jon Gerrard.

Bokhari, a first-generation Canadian with strong ties to the South Asian community, out-hustled her opponents in getting her supporters to the polls. She was also the youngest of the candidates.

"I face the fact that one specific demographic voted today," reads a Facebook posting from Michie-Bowles's account. The comment was quickly criticized.

"Did you even look at the stage full of Rana's volunteers," David Koroma, a Bokhari campaign manager, responded. "One demographic? That's just offensive and ridiculous."

Don Woodstock, an Axworthy supporter, said he was disappointed in the outcome. But he said the party will unite.

"People are going to be upset the day after and a week later. But as soon as Rana and the board meet and put an agenda forward ... and start getting out there in the press and the media, all of that bickering is going to go away," Woodstock said.

The Liberals, who hold one seat in the legislature, are trying to rebuild after a disastrous 2011 election campaign. Bokhari, a lawyer with a successful, track record in non-profit fundraising, has promised to focus on rebuilding the party's membership and coffers.

Her opponents expressed no bitterness Monday. Axworthy and Lamont said they expected to continue to be involved in Liberal politics, and were taking time to focus on business and personal matters that had been pushed aside during the leadership race.

"I'm taking a rest. I'm spending time with my kids, and I'm getting work done because I haven't been doing any work," said Lamont, who runs a small marketing company.

There is another possible consequence of the leadership vote. As leader, Gerrard received funding for two full-time staff, in addition to other staff funding he received as a legislature member.

Now that Bokhari, who does not have a seat, is leader, the funding for two staff is up in the air. It is on the agenda for an upcoming meeting of the legislative assembly management commission, made up of all three parties.

"The date ... has not yet been set but a meeting will likely take place in the near future. The budget for the current fiscal year, and how Dr. Gerrard's change of position will affect it, will be part of the discussion," Sally Housser, press secretary to NDP government house leader Andrew Swan, wrote in an email.