Criminal past of front-runner Wab Kinew features in Manitoba NDP leadership race
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WINNIPEG — Manitoba New Democrats will choose between two men Saturday to be the opposition party's new leader — one faces questions about past criminal accusations and the other is a former cabinet minister with his own controversies and two failed leadership bids under his belt.
Wab Kinew, 35, a rookie politician who is dealing with recent revelations about his brushes with the law, is widely considered the front-runner. He scored majority support among delegates elected in the province's 57 constituencies and who will cast ballots at the leadership convention.
Kinew also received endorsements from the province's major unions, which also send delegates to the convention.
"You never know what's actually going to happen until all the numbers are in ... but certainly if we were to place any bets rights now, it does seem he's walking away with it," Kelly Saunders, who teaches political science at Brandon University, said Friday.
Kinew is facing Steve Ashton, 61, a former cabinet minister who ran unsuccessfully for leader in 2009 and 2015.
Kinew's campaign has had to deal with previously undisclosed court matters, including an assault conviction in Ontario in 2004 and domestic violence charges in 2003, which were later stayed by the Crown.
The complainant in that case, Tara Hart, went public this week and told The Canadian Press Kinew "flung" her across a room in the apartment they shared, which caused her to suffer severe rug burns. Kinew said he never hit or threw Hart.
Ashton has been using the revelations to try to swing delegates to his side for Saturday's vote. He has criticized Kinew for not disclosing the cases earlier, and his campaign has emailed party members to tell them Kinew's actions do not reflect well on the party.
Kinew "refused to own up to the domestic assault charges ... effectively calling the (complainant) a liar," reads an Ashton campaign email sent this week.
Ashton's controversies have been on the political front. He was criticized by the provincial ombudsman for trying to circumvent normal contracting rules to buy flood-proofing equipment from a supplier who was a family friend and campaign donor.
The ombudsman said civil servants were pressured in 2014 to not allow other companies to bid for the contract. The idea was eventually quashed by the Treasury Board.
Ashton was first elected to the legislature in 1981, but was never given one of the big cabinet portfolios of finance, justice or health. He spent most of his time in the transportation or infrastructure portfolios and was defeated in his Thompson seat in last year's election.
A Kinew victory would give the governing Progressive Conservatives a lot of fodder for attack ads, Saunders said. Aside from his recently revealed legal troubles, Kinew has also been convicted of assaulting a taxi driver and impaired driving — decade-old offences for which he recently received pardons.
He has also faced criticism over homophobic and misogynistic rap lyrics and social media posts which came to light in last year's election.
"The PCs are certainly going to have a field day in continuing to raise those issues in attack ads," Saunders said. "Their whole messaging for the next election has been framed out already."
One of Kinew's most high-profile endorsers said Friday she continues to stand by him.
"I believe fundamentally in the ability for us as a people, as humanity, to change," said Nahanni Fontaine, who was first elected to the legislature last year.
Kinew has worked hard to become a supporter of women, an advocate for LGBTQ rights and a force for other social issues, Fontaine said.
"I don't see anything but someone who is committed in a very wholesome and true and genuine way to Manitobans."