Editorial: Will denied NDP nomination bid be the final chapter in Steve Ashton’s political story?

When former Thompson NDP MLA Steve Ashton lost his appeal of the Manitoba NDP’s candidate selection committee’s decision not to let him seek the nomination in the riding for the next provincial election, which may come this year or next, a political career that dates back to him first being elected in 1981 may have finally come to its end.

If so, the last three years since he was finally defeated in a provincial election for the first time in more than three decades may wind up being considered as a sort of an awkward swan song of the type that some professional athletes go through when they fail to see that the game has passed them by and try to recapture their former glories, only to end up serving as a reminder of how far they have fallen since their prime.

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Ashton lost the Thompson constituency in the 2016 provincial election to Kelly Bindle of the Progressive Conservatives, who rode his way to victory mainly by outpolling the incumbent in Thompson and nearby areas like Paint Lake. He continued working for the party, then lost a bid to become the party’s leader for the third time in eight years, not to a veteran MLA and cabinet minister in the form of former premier Greg Selinger as he did the first two times, but to rookie Fort Rouge MLA Wab Kinew. In with the new blood and out with the old, it seemed.

That the NDP party might not want Steve Ashton flying its flag any longer is not all that surprising. As good as he was at getting elected, the longtime Thompson MLA my not have been as good at ingratiating himself with the party’s power brokers to become part of the inner circle during the party’s 17-year stint in power that began in 1999. As the representative of the biggest city in the north, and the hub for provincial government employees and Vale hourly workers and other union members, he probably didn’t need to. When it came to playing politics, he may not have been afraid to play “dirty,” with many believing that he was behind the revelation of Kinew’s past brushes with the law during the leadership campaign and that this permanently soured the relationship between the two. Ashton was also involved in the Tiger Dams fiasco/scandal that was part of the reason for several cabinet members breaking ranks with then-premier Selinger in a well-publicized revolt that precipitated the second leadership contest that Ashton lost to Selinger, the first having come in 2009 after former premier Gary Doer stepped down.

But the biggest reason for Ashton being shunted aside in favour of some newer candidates may be that he represents the old guard and that maybe an older white man is not the sort of representative that the NDP wants in the north anymore. Ashton is good at organizing supporters, even if he never won a leadership race, and there was a good chance he would have captured the nomination for Thompson, then maybe not have been able to win the riding in the general election. What’s more, as long as he maintained his role as the MLA and/or candidate for Thompson, the next generation of the party’s candidates would remain in arrested development, unable to step out of his shadow. Sometimes politics is a long game in which you need to develop new representatives, not necessarily for this election but for the one to follow it, and maybe let them gain some experience as an opposition backbencher before possibly getting a role in government some day down the line, just as Ashton did back when he was first elected.

The move won’t necessarily work out in the NDP’s favour, however.  No other candidate will probably be as high-profile as Ashton, so it isn’t a given that they will win the riding, even if it has had outlying communities like Nelson House, Churchill and Gillam added to it for the 2020 – or 2019 – election. What’s more, Ashton could decide to run as an independent, which might not end up with his being elected, but could definitely siphon enough votes away from whoever the NDP candidate turns out to be to cost the party a seat in the legislature. Still, after building up an impressive streak of wins through most of his political career, the story of late for Steve Ashton has been mostly one about losing.

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