This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 4, 1999
Doer Wins Manitoba Election
They called him "Mr. Smooth." In 1990, Chatelaine magazine plucked Gary Doer from relative obscurity by proclaiming him one of Canada's 12 sexiest men. Doer, then the fledgling leader of Manitoba's third-ranked political party, was suddenly vaulted into the unlikely company of fellow finalists Kurt Browning, Wayne Gretzky and Michael J. Fox. "The new NDP," gushed the magazine, was now led by a "caring, sharing guy" who nevertheless had the fashion sense to campaign in "shadow stripes, white button-down shirt and silk tie." Reminded last week of his earlier claim to fame, Manitoba's premier-designate responded with a laugh. "I was shocked, really," Doer told Maclean's. "I always considered myself average with a good attitude. Not in that league at all."
At age 51, the still debonair Doer may be self-effacing about his looks, but when it comes to politics, he has never hidden his desire to play in the big leagues. Last week, in his fourth trip to the electoral plate, the Winnipeg MLA finally hit a home run, winning the premiership from his long-term Conservative adversary and onetime friend, Gary FILMON. But even before their 11-year competition began, Doer had long had his eye on the main prize. Manitoba Federation of Labour president Rob Hilliard, who first met Doer in the early 1980s when they were both members of the union's executive council, recalls that "it was clear to us back then that Gary was a very ambitious guy, that he would probably enter politics and that he would want to be nothing less than premier." Manitoba Conservative Senator Janis Johnson, who dated Doer for several years in the early 1980s, shares that assessment. "Gary was very hardworking, very hard-driven," she says. "Being premier really was an ambition he had from the time I first met him."
Doer finally realized his dream after waging a five-week election campaign that many political observers considered inspired. As early as last spring, Doer was publicly predicting that Filmon - who led a government that preached fiscal restraint and imposed severe spending cuts on the public sector - would try to entice voters into giving him a fourth term with the promise of a major tax cut. The NDP, said Doer, would respond with a tightly focused platform that included modest spending increases and tax breaks, while attacking the government's record and questioning its ability to deliver on any new promises.
In the end, that is exactly how the campaign unfolded. Filmon unleashed an eye-catching $1-billion pledge. Dubbing it his 50-50 plan, the premier said that, over five years, a re-elected Tory government would increase spending in key areas such as health and education by $500 million while at the same time offering Manitobans $500 million in tax relief. Doer's New Democrats countered with what they called their "five core commitments." These included promises to keep the provincial budget books balanced, lower post-secondary tuition fees, make communities safer and create a new partnership between business and labour. Fifth, and most crucial of all, was a vow to end what Doer kept calling "hallway medicine" within six months by spending a relatively modest $15 million to reopen 100 hospital beds and hire more nurses.
A public opinion poll by Winnipeg-based Probe Research Inc. released during the final week of the campaign, revealed that it was the NDP that had voters' attention. Respondents listed health care, education and honesty in government as higher priorities for them than tax cuts. And while two-thirds of those surveyed thought Filmon's 50-50 plan was a good idea, only 51 per cent believed he could pull it off. University of Manitoba political scientist Paul Thomas says the Tory strategy struck many voters as too clever by half. "The premier and his party had been telling us for years that we had to practise fiscal restraint because we were in financial trouble," notes Thomas. "It just seemed too abrupt of a shift."
The poll also confirmed another Conservative fear. One-third of respondents said their decision would be influenced by the so-called vote-rigging scandal - in which senior Tories recruited and funded independent native candidates in the 1995 provincial election in an attempt to bleed off NDP support in three Manitoba ridings. Of those who felt that way, 63 per cent said they were less likely to vote for the Tories.
While Doer was careful not to overplay the vote-rigging affair, one of his erstwhile political idols, Ed Schreyer, felt no similar constraints. Less than 48 hours before the polling booths were to open, Schreyer - the province's first NDP premier and a former governor general - told party faithful at a campaign meeting in Sainte Anne, Man., that the Tories were up to dirty tricks again by circulating an anonymous fax citing bogus criminal convictions involving an NDP candidate in the riding of Interlake. Schreyer himself had little firm evidence to back up his allegation, which he made in colourful terms. The Filmon government, he said, had been "so devious, deceitful, so full of bullshit, that I couldn't take it anymore."
Across the province, campaign-weary New Democrats cringed. "Nobody expected this to happen, nobody wanted this to happen," says Hilliard, who served on the NDP's election planning committee. "The campaign was unfolding the way we wanted. We did not need a major controversy on the eve of the election."
As it turned out, party organizers need not have fretted. The NDP won 32 seats, compared with 24 for the Tories and one for the Liberals. Doer benefited mightily from the collapse of the Liberal popular vote - just 13 per cent last week, compared with 24 per cent in 1995 (the NDP got 45 per cent last week, while the Tories pulled in 41 per cent). And he had finally bested his longtime rival: on election night an emotional Filmon announced he was calling it quits, ending a 16-year run as Conservative leader, including 11 years as premier. "I don't have any more mountains to climb," he said, "or anything else to prove."
Ironically enough, Filmon is passing over power to a man he knows well - and whom he once considered a friend. Filmon and Doer were brought together through Johnson, who remains close friends with Filmon and his wife, Janice. Johnson and Filmon both owned cottages in Gimli and the foursome often double-dated. Later, after Filmon became Tory leader in 1983, he tried to recruit Doer to join the party. "I believe he expected Gary would run as a Conservative," Johnson said in an interview from her Gimli cottage last week. Instead, Doer chose the NDP and first won a seat in the legislature in 1986.
It's not surprising that both parties courted Doer, who was then considered something of a wunderkind. He had dropped out after his first year of university to accept a job counselling troubled juveniles. By 23, Doer was deputy superintendent of the Manitoba Youth Centre - and quickly got a taste of being in the line of fire. "There was an incident in which a bunch of staff were put at risk by some residents and we had to move in," he says. "I walked around a corner and a baseball bat just missed my head. You don't forget something like that."
Through his work at the youth centre, Doer became involved with the Manitoba Government Employees' Association and quickly rose through the ranks, serving as its president from 1979 to 1986. He says now that he never seriously considered running for any party but the NDP - though he admits that he "kept my cards close to my vest" when the Tories came calling because he was in a non-partisan job at the time. In any case, Doer is scarcely a party hardliner. He balks at the label of "socialist," preferring to be called a "social democrat." He notes that his deceased father, a department store manager, was a Liberal who became a Schreyer supporter; his late mother, a homemaker, was more likely to back the Tories. "I'm not one of those people who has been thrice-dipped in the waters of party purity," he says.
After winning a seat in 1986, Doer handled several portfolios under then-premier Howard Pawley. But Pawley abruptly resigned in March, 1988, after losing a non-confidence motion (a maverick backbencher voted against the government) and called a provincial election for April 26 - before a successor had been chosen. Doer sought and won the party leadership in late March, but declined to be sworn in as premier until after the election - and watched the NDP go down in flames at the polls four weeks later, finishing a distant third. Filmon's Tories won, but Doer retained his seat, and began the slow process of rebuilding his shattered party in his own, more moderate, image.
Doer readily acknowledges that during his time as a union boss and in his early years in politics he was a "workaholic, sitting in my office, poring over my briefing books and trying to be the brightest guy on the block." But since his marriage in 1988 to former Pawley aide Virginia Devine and the arrival of their children, Emily, now 9, and four-year-old Kate, Doer says he "got a life." He now takes time to attend Emily's soccer games, get more involved with his community and indulge his love of physical activity - including working out at the gym, windsurfing and cross-country skiing. Longtime friends say they have noticed the change. "I think his marriage and having two young children have tempered all that ambition," says Hilliard. "He has much more of a balanced life than he used to."
Doer contends that his more relaxed attitude has made him a better politician and, as a recovering workaholic, he is now eager to apply the lessons he has learned to his new government. "I'm really going to insist that cabinet ministers don't spend 16 hours a day with bloody briefing books in their legislature offices," he says. "I don't want them to know those books so inside out that they don't know how a living, breathing human being feels outside this building."
Making sure cabinet ministers retain the human touch is just one of the many challenges facing Doer, who will be sworn in as premier on Oct. 5 and who plans to convene the legislature for a fall session in November. Thomas predicts he will face pressure from various interest groups, including teachers, health-care workers and trade unionists, who will expect a better deal now that the NDP is in power. The political scientist also thinks Doer will be hard-pressed to fulfil the expectations he has raised about fixing the province's ailing health-care system. "Ending hallway medicine is a nifty slogan," says Thomas. "But what was good rhetoric for election purposes may come back to haunt you when you govern."
If Doer is at all daunted by such predictions, he wasn't showing it last week. Mostly he seemed, after 11 years, delighted to throw off the shackles of opposition politics. "It's much better to say what you'll do and to have people believe you have a chance of doing it, than simply being critical of someone else," he says. Spoken like the man on the brink of power - enjoying all the exhilarating possibilities before some hard choices must be made.
Maclean's October 4, 1999