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Steeves stakes claim

Former moderate casts himself as right-wing candidate

Nearly everyone likes Gord Steeves, even the people who hate his politics.

He's had many of the same friends for decades, spanning sports and city hall and his haunts in St. Vital. In law school, he was voted valedictorian, not because his marks were perfect (they weren't, quite) but because he was genuine friends with everyone.

"He'd be the guy who would organize everything, pull everyone together," said longtime friend and fellow lawyer Keith LaBossiere. "He was the captain of every team he was on."

During his decade as St. Vital's councillor, city staff say he was among their favourite politicians to work with -- pragmatic and gentlemanly and fun. Coun. Dan Vandal, friendly with Steeves for years despite their growing political differences, still talks about the kindness and comfort Steeves offered when Vandal's brother was killed a decade ago. Among reporters, Steeves was always accessible, the best at boiling down complicated issues and describing both sides fairly before offering his own views. He fancies himself a team player, and that was exactly his reputation during his years on then-mayor Glen Murray's executive policy committee and in Mayor Sam Katz's inner circle, where he was seen as a moderating influence.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/10/2014 (1099 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Nearly everyone likes Gord Steeves, even the people who hate his politics.

He's had many of the same friends for decades, spanning sports and city hall and his haunts in St. Vital. In law school, he was voted valedictorian, not because his marks were perfect (they weren't, quite) but because he was genuine friends with everyone.

Former city councillor Gord Steeves has long been credited with an ability to make friends with people of all political stripes.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Former city councillor Gord Steeves has long been credited with an ability to make friends with people of all political stripes.

"He'd be the guy who would organize everything, pull everyone together," said longtime friend and fellow lawyer Keith LaBossiere. "He was the captain of every team he was on."

During his decade as St. Vital's councillor, city staff say he was among their favourite politicians to work with — pragmatic and gentlemanly and fun. Coun. Dan Vandal, friendly with Steeves for years despite their growing political differences, still talks about the kindness and comfort Steeves offered when Vandal's brother was killed a decade ago. Among reporters, Steeves was always accessible, the best at boiling down complicated issues and describing both sides fairly before offering his own views. He fancies himself a team player, and that was exactly his reputation during his years on then-mayor Glen Murray's executive policy committee and in Mayor Sam Katz's inner circle, where he was seen as a moderating influence.

At the spate of recent mayoral forums (the ones Steeves attended), his natural charisma softened his arch-conservative message, even when he bluntly told an auditorium full of artists they'd get no new money from him. He's an agile speaker, quick with a teasing joke and the occasional sports-dude noogie. Even lefty rival Judy Wasylycia-Leis, who traded affectionate barbs with him at a recent televised debate, can't help but like him.

"When I'm with a group of people, I develop close relationships," said Steeves. "I'm lucky like that."

That's why, in tone and policy, his mayoral campaign seems so jarringly at odds with Steeves' political and personal reputation, established over nearly two decades in politics.

As the campaign ramped up, Steeves staked out the far right, casting himself as the straight-talking advocate of firm fiscal restraint who will freeze taxes, sell off city assets to pay for roads and cancel the rest of bus rapid transit. He's also dumped on photo radar, poked the urban hipsters in the eye by promising to keep Portage and Main closed to pedestrians and pledged to buy police a drone.

These are all policies hard to square with the old Gord Steeves, the centrist who authored the city's environmental blueprint that called for everything from pesticide limits to taxing urban sprawl, who voted repeatedly for BRT and who, as national president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, inherited Murray's mantle as the warrior for a new deal for cities.

Friends, colleagues and political strategists say Steeves migration to the right is part natural political evolution, part campaign strategy and part principled reaction to genuine fears of a looming fiscal crisis at city hall.

Steeves says he's spent time digging through the budget and studying worrisome indicators and believes governments are all entering a period of fiscal retrenchment. Winnipeg's high tax rate and civic debt bode badly for the future, especially given the provincial government's similar predicament. This is a new reality, one Steeves said calls for a new approach.

"I know some things now I didn't know back then," he said. "I see an over-dependence and reliance on government that's so pronounced it's actually collapsing countries now."

Steeves' public shift to the right began in 2011, when he resigned his very safe council seat to run for the provincial Tories, even though he was a longtime Liberal. At the time, given his close friendship with then-leader Hugh McFadyen and the relatively centrist bent of McFadyen's Tories, the move seemed less jarring.

Steeves said he was always a fiscal conservative, and was originally drawn to the Liberals in the 1990s when then-finance minister Paul Martin cut government spending and slayed a $42-billion deficit. Those were the same fiscal tactics Murray deployed when Steeves served on his EPC. Steeves said he supported big, city-building projects such as rapid transit back then because he saw Murray also shrink the debt and cut taxes. His core political principle of fiscal conservatism has not changed, said Steeves and those who know him well.

Steeves is genuinely wonkish — another campaign surprise. He's researched and drafted his own policies and written all his own speeches. Most of them have been punchy and memorable, and undercut the lingering impression he's a jock and not much more.

"I've enjoyed getting back in the books, reading the reports, researching everything. I've enjoyed the 15 minutes you folks give me twice a week to read out what I'm thinking, to lay out my plan," he said of local media. "There's been some back and forth going, you've challenged me. I've really had fun with that."

Despite that fun, Steeves, who held his St. Vital ward easily in three general elections after beating Al Golden in a byelection in 2000, says his bid for mayor has been his toughest campaign yet.

It nearly collapsed in May after a disastrous event in a nearly empty hotel meeting room and the very public departure of a key adviser, who described a campaign in disarray. Steeves was widely expected to bow out, but instead took personal control of his campaign. By early August, he'd regained huge momentum, thanks to an underdog strategy built around a suburb-friendly, right-wing campaign filled with populist promises such as killing bus rapid transit. Then, much of that momentum evaporated thanks to some old, racist Facebook comments about indigenous people posted by his wife. In that post, Lorrie Steeves ranted about "drunken native guys" downtown asking for handouts from hardworking people whose tax dollars already "keep their sorry assess (sic) on welfare."

Steeves was profoundly upset by the post, deeply worried for his wife and the criticism she was about to endure and unwilling to add to it. Those feelings culminated in a hapless news conference, held days after the Facebook posts made headlines, that saw him dance around questions on racism and poverty and walk away from several aboriginal leaders who wanted to speak with him. It was not the Gord Steeves many know and like.

"There are those who would gladly have had this issue go on and on and with a variety of meetings and castigations and verbal assaults. I'm not interested in being punished or raked over the coals," he said of his handling of the episode. "I wanted to get on with the rest of the campaign."

It's possible to accept Steeves' long-held fiscal conservatism and a genuine fear for Winnipeg spawned his mayoral strategy, one that also set him apart in a crowded, relatively centrist field.

It's harder to reconcile his campaign's knee-jerk tone, especially in the weeks after the Facebook episode. He pledged to round up panhandlers and drunks downtown and put an end to "boulevard begging." He refused to speak to student groups, shunned inner-city debates and failed repeatedly to acknowledge Winnipeg's deep racial divide that sidelines aboriginal people and makes the Tina Fontaines of the world more vulnerable to violence. He vowed to eliminate buffer zones for mosquito fogging, except those needed for medical reasons. He dedicated a week of the campaign to slagging Wasylycia-Leis for being a tax-hiking NDPer.

On the spectrum of conservative politics, Steeves' bid for mayor has been more Vic Toews than McFadyen, playing to the selfishness of voters and marked by a meanness that runs contrary to his personal reputation and was never remotely evident in his time at city hall, or in his provincial campaign.

"I don't mean to be mean. That was not my intent," he said. "But when you put forward policies that are a little more pointed and direct and specific and maybe a little less lenient, I believe a lot of that stuff just flows with that... I don't want to exit the stage — good, bad, indifferent — without me having told people what I think the problems are."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

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History

Updated on Thursday, October 16, 2014 at 5:51 AM CDT: Replaces photo

8:33 AM: Adds video

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