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Showdown in River Heights: Can the NDP Take This Liberal Stronghold?
Election watchers are on the lookout for a potential upset brewing in this tony Winnipeg constituency
If there’s one thing you could count on in Manitoba elections for the last few decades, it was that the Manitoba Liberals would be representing one seat in the centre of Winnipeg, usually straddling the border between the sea of blue in the capital’s suburban communities - and the sea of orange in its urban core.
For 33 of the last 37 years that seat has been River Heights, represented by Liberal luminaries such as former party leader Sharon Carstairs, who led her party to their smashing 1988 near-miss for government; Anita Neville, former federal MP and current Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba; and currently by former party leader Dr. Jon Gerrard, who throughout a rough 24 years has kept at least one seat Liberal red at the Manitoba Legislature.
River Heights is almost always a battle between the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, save for one election - in 1981 - when the New Democrats came a bare second. Unsurprising considering the seat isn’t a typical NDP target: At roughly $105,000 median income per household it has among some of the richest communities in the city, with some areas three-to-four times higher in income than Winnipeg’s core, right across the Assiniboine River.
Compared to parts of the North End, the community has low numbers of manufacturing workers and higher numbers of business, finance (1-in-5), and management - but also a high number of government service workers (1-in-5), including education, and healthcare workers (1-in-10).
Those last numbers are appealing and crucial for the New Democrats, who sense a potential upset in the seat.
In 2021, education workers organized against and defeated Bill 64, a Pallister government bill that would have eliminated local school boards across the province. One of the organizers working against Bill 64 in River Heights was Mike Moroz, a local teacher who helped run a vocal campaign, including phone canvasses and sign blitzes across the community. Moroz opted to further work to defeat the PC government by becoming the nominated NDP candidate in the seat in May 2022 - and has kept up a full-time campaign since.
“When the [election] was officially called, I was just beginning my fourth complete canvass of the constituency since becoming the candidate,” Moroz said in a phone interview earlier this week. “Its a highly-educated, super-engaged community that wants very much to talk about the problems we face collectively.”
Moroz said his campaign has heard about a wide range of issues at the door, including healthcare, education, climate change, and affordability - noting that even a community as secure as River Heights faces and cares about the cost-of-living crisis affecting Manitobans. When asked about whether there was a feeling for a need of change in the riding, particularly in light of the seat being held by Dr. Gerrard and not the PC government, Moroz stuck to it being about the issues.
“The need for change is bigger than any one candidate or incumbent,” Moroz said. “The issues we’re confronted with are so much larger than either one of us, that when change comes up its not about local change - its about making sure we have the kind of leadership we need at the provincial level.
“We’re running a solid local campaign to secure a seat to make sure we get a change in government - it’s just math at the end of the day.” Moroz said. “We need more NDP MLAs than Conservative ones in order to have a majority government to make the changes we need. Mr. Gerrard and I just happen to be on the same ballot.”
Jim Cornelius, the campaign manager for Dr. Gerrard’s re-election campaign, readily admitted to this campaign being competitive - and unlike prior elections, this time it’s between Dr. Gerrard and his NDP rival. But he said few people have raised the need for local change at the doors.
“Generally the response we get is, ‘Jon we love the job you’re doing, you’ve really done great, and we’re there for you’,” Cornelius relayed. “He works extremely hard - so many people have spoken to him, know him, know his passions. We’re reasonably confident that will carry the day.”
Cornelius said they’re hearing many of the same issues at the doorsteps in River Heights, with particular notice about healthcare, a Liberal priority this campaign and a file Dr. Gerrard has worked on diligently both as a legislator and practitioner. He noted that Dr. Gerrard’s record at the Legislature bringing up important issues is a key part of his re-election appeal.
“[We’re] talking about what Jon’s been able to achieve, bills he’s got passed, issues he’s advocated and been able to get the government to move on,” Cornelius listed. “The whole range of things he’s been able to accomplish… that’s what we’re saying. They can very safely re-elect Jon, who’s been a great MLA and will continue to work hard for them, with no risk that somehow they’re electing a Conservative government.
“The NDP are making it seem like you have to vote NDP if you want to get rid of the Tories — in River Heights, that’s not the case.”
As of September 21st the 338Canada projection for River Heights has Jon Gerrard maintaining a notable, albeit not safe lead - but it is the only solid lead for any Liberal in the province, including Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont’s St. Boniface riding. Yet projections cannot account for all local factors, and election watchers are keeping a close eye on any shifts in the community.
As for the candidates: Both are confident, but won’t take anything for granted.
“We’re working as if its very tight,” Cornelius said. “[But] we’re reasonably confident when people come to make their decision, they’ll vote for someone with so much experience and integrity and fought hard for this community.”
Moroz ended with a similar tone. “The marks look solid - the amount of support we’ve gotten, the number of volunteers we’ve got, the response… at the doorstep is great. People are connecting with the campaign locally and centrally.
“But at the end of the day - nobody’s voted for anything yet. What I know for sure is that everything is impossible, until it isn’t.”
The author attempted to reach out to the campaign of Tim Burt, the Progressive Conservative candidate in River Heights, but received no response before publication time.
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