Former backroom guy: Manitoba Liberal leader in spotlight ahead of election

WINNIPEG — Manitoba's Liberal leader has gone from political backrooms to elected office after winning a seat in the legislature last year.

Dougald Lamont had spent years writing speeches and platforms for others, but now the 50-year-old has a voice of his own.

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"These are a lot of my ideas that I would like to be able to present myself, rather than just being a ghostwriter for somebody," Lamont said in an interview.

He admits he can come across a bit stiff and serious. Often dressed in a vest and jacket, Lamont said people may not know he has a humorous side.

"I look way more serious — and I'll sometimes sound more serious — than I actually am," he said. "I like deadpan humour, so I will say something that sounds completely serious and it's not at all. It's a joke."

His recent political wins are no joke.

His party still faces major challenges in fundraising and organizing, but he has been underestimated more than once in his career, only to prove his critics wrong and exceed expectations.

After spending years in communications jobs, with freelance writing and his own digital ad agency on the side, Lamont co-chaired a 2014 mayoral campaign by Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who was then mostly unknown to the public.

Ouellette finished a strong third in the seven-candidate field. A year later, Lamont was communications director for Ouellette when he ran for the federal Liberals in Winnipeg Centre and took the longtime NDP stronghold from incumbent Pat Martin.

Lamont himself was an underdog when he won the provincial Liberal leadership in 2017, by beating out two opponents who had the advantage of legislature seats. He then had to win a seat of his own and decided to run in a byelection in St. Boniface, which had been solidly NDP for 19 years.

He won, which gave the Liberals enough seats for official status in the legislature for the first time in two decades.

Now on the front lines of politics, Lamont has had to adjust to glad-handing, working a room and being in crowds of people.

"There's that sort of 'Hail fellow, well met,' clap-somebody-on-the-back-of-the-shoulder thing, and I'm not like that," he said, using an archaic English expression one might hear from a liberal arts professor.

If the Liberals are to become competitive, Lamont may have to focus less on policy discussions and more on public appearances and raising money. The most recent filings with Elections Manitoba show the Liberals have less money in the bank than the Tories, NDP and even the seatless Green party.

Lamont doesn't like small talk, but is quick to add that engaging with people — whether it's at front doors or at public meetings — is energizing.

"You knock on someone's door and they tell you all the most serious things that are happening in their life. That is an incredible experience, also because it's a responsibility," he said. "So then you could say, 'Well look, here's this person who has this problem. Can we now maybe do something about it?'"

Lamont's move to connect with people is still a work in progress, one political analyst says.

"Putting yourself forward ... and finding a connection with voters on less a cerebral level and more an emotional level is a big transition," said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

As for Lamont's policy leanings, he has long criticized government austerity and cuts to front-line programs. His interest was initially sparked during his university days in the 1990s, when the Tory government of the day increased tuition sharply and students were piling up loan debt.

He has spoken out, not only against Tory policies, but also criticized cuts to income and small-business taxes by the previous NDP government. On a personal blog a few years ago, he wrote those tax cuts — not overspending — were the reason for Manitoba's stubborn deficits.

He wants to become premier, he said, partly to keep education and other programs affordable and available for the next generation, which includes the four children he has with his wife, Cecilia.

"Part of my motivation to run is that I don't want to see a repeat ... of what I think the PCs did to Manitoba in the 1990s."

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