Third time's a charm? Steve Ashton seeks once more to become Manitoba NDP leader

He didn't get elected as Thompson MLA for the first time in a political career dating back to 1981 when the Progressive Conservative party swept into power in the April 2016 provincial election but Steve Ashton is taking another swing at a goal that has eluded him twice before: the leadership of the provincial NDP party.

Ashton announced his third party leadership bid via press release June 28 and through Winnipeg media outlets the night before, making it official with an announcement at Winnipeg's Concordia Hospital on Wednesday morning.

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He ran unsuccessfully twice before, losing to former premier Greg Selinger both times, in 2009 when Gary Doer resigned and again in 2015 when a cabinet revolt saw several high-profile NDP MLAs, not including Ashton, question Selinger's leadership.

Ashton said in his leadership campaign announcement that his goal was to reclaim the NDP's roots as a progressive movement and to rebound in regions of traditional strength.

"I am running to provide a clear NDP choice," he said. "I believe our vision of social and economic justice, our concern for the environment has never been more valid. We must tackle growing inequality and the dramatic impacts of climate change. Fundamentally, we must be prepared to challenge the status quo and seek real change. We have traditionally been a party that represents all areas of the province. We especially need to win back the support of rural Manitoba, along with the north and Winnipeg where we lost support in the last election."

Selinger took about two-thirds of the delegates to beat Ashton in 2009. Six years later, Ashton finished third on the first ballot behind Selinger and Theresa Oswald and didn't throw his support behind either of the two remaining candidates.

Three NDP MLAs – interim leader Flor Marcelino, Jim Maloway and Ted Marcelino – expressed support for Ashton in his campaign announcement press release, saying he represented the true spirit of the NDP, can rebuild the party and has the ability to take on Premier Brian Pallister immediately.

Wab Kinew, a rookie NDP MLA elected for the first time in April 2016, who was born six weeks after Ashton won his first election to represent Thompson, is the only other declared leadership candidate. The contest will be decided Sept. 16.

Ashton was minister of infrastructure and transportation from 2009 to 2014, intergovernmental affairs minister from 2006 to 2009, water stewardship minister from 2003 to 2006, minister of labour and immigration in 2003, conservation minister from 2002 to 2003, minister of transportation and government services from 2001 to 2002 and highways and government services minister from 1999 to 2001. Prior to the NDP ascending to power in 1999, he was in opposition for 11 years. He was a backbencher in Premier Howard Pawley's government for the first seven years of his career as an MLA.

While infrastructure and governmental affairs minister in 2014, Ashton was at the centre of a controversy over the attempted awarding of a $5 million untendered contract for the purchase of flood-fighting equipment, a contract that was never awarded. An investigation by Manitoba Ombudsman Charlene Paquin released in January 2016 found that the department did not have sufficient reason to not follow the standard tendering process.

Ashton stayed behind the scenes following his loss to Progressive Conservative MLA Kelly Bindle in 2016 but remained active in politics, working for the NDP caucus and hinting within a few months of his first election night loss that he would likely seek office again.

"I said to myself, there's too much at stake on some of the things I've been involved in through the NDP in the north just to walk away from it and maybe I can contribute and probably the best thing to do is to decide sooner rather than later," he told the Thompson Citizen in July of last year.

The former MLA says he will position himself as the anti-Pallister.

"I will be focusing on alternatives to the job-killing austerity of the Pallister government that also recognizes the growing precarious employment young people face, moving on a living minimum wage of $15 an hour at the beginning of our mandate, leadership on climate change, action to reduce and eventually eliminate tuition fees, immediately reversing the Pallister anti-labour agenda and a major initiative to work with indigenous peoples and communities to improve infrastructure and provide real opportunities." 

Ashton's daughter, Churchill-Keewatinook Aski NDP MP Niki Ashton, is currently seeking the leadership of the federal NDP party for a second time.

Ashton says the popularity and success of left-wing candidates like Bernie Sanders in the campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination in the United States and of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the June 8 United Kingdom election, whose party increased its seat count by 30, has inspired him.

"I believe we can, and we will, build a clear progressive movement that can provide Manitobans a clear choice in the next election," said Ashton.

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