Manitoba's Progressive Conservative party has ensured that its next leader — and the next premier — will be a woman.
The PC party announced Thursday that former health minister and Tuxedo MLA Heather Stefanson, and former police officer and Conservative MP Shelly Glover, will be the only two candidates in its Oct. 30 leadership race. They have "met all requirements as set out in the rules established by the party’s executive council."
Ken Lee, the former chief financial officer of the party and critic of the PC government's pandemic restrictions and vaccine passports, says he doesn't know why he was not approved to run for the leadership.
"The PC party of Manitoba has sent me an email: 'Following a rigorous application process, I regret to inform you that you have not been approved as a candidate," Lee said in a Facebook post Thursday.
"As a Manitoban and a proud Canadian, this is a very sad day for freedom and democracy."
After the leadership race application deadline passed on Wednesday, Lee issued a statement saying he'd met all of the requirements — he'd raised $25,000 in donations, sold more than 1,000 memberships, got 50 members in good standing to sign his nomination papers and passed all background checks.
"I can honestly say that I do not know the reason why I have been denied a place on the upcoming ballot," Lee said on Facebook, where he garnered endorsements from anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers and the far-right People's Party of Canada.
He has declined to be interviewed.
To get on the ballot, candidates also have to pass an interview process "to ensure a commitment to the principles and values of the party," the Progressive Conservative party said Thursday.
The PC leadership election committee declined interview requests, but spokesman Keith Stewart said in an email that "it is not the practice of the committee to comment publicly on each applicant or specific aspects of the application process relating to candidates."
It's "rigorous" and "embodies a broad range of factors, all of which have been carefully considered," committee chairman George Orle is quoted as saying in a news release. "It’s an exciting time for us to engage Manitobans to elect the next premier of Manitoba, and we look forward to an enthusiastic campaign."
Having a woman at the helm of the party could boost its support among women which, according to a Probe Research poll in June, was at 21 per cent provincewide — with only 13 per cent of women in Winnipeg saying they would vote PC. The New Democrats had the support of 55 per cent of women provincewide and 64 per cent in Winnipeg.
"The NDP tend to have more of an advantage among women voters and when they lose elections, it tends to be when the (Progressive) Conservatives are able to take away that advantage for the NDP," University of Manitoba political studies professor Christopher Adams said Thursday.
"Now that we know that there are two candidates and they're both women and that we'll have a woman as premier after she's sworn in by the lieutenant-governor after Oct. 30, that probably will help the Progressive Conservatives in the next election.
"The party needs to win back women voters and one of the things that might help will be having a woman as as party leader."
The PCs will select a new leader, who will be premier-designate, in a one-member, one-vote, mail-in ballot. The deadline to become a member in order to vote is Sept. 30.
Sources told the Free Press Wednesday that Lee had sold more memberships than the other leadership candidates.
"I have conducted myself like a true professional and I have no skeletons in my closet," Lee told his supporters on Facebook. "My biggest disappointment is that I will no longer be able to carry your voice for freedom and try to make changes that would help."
One of Lee's supporters who initially offered on social media to pay for party memberships of those who sign up to support Lee told the Free Press Wednesday he would provide interest-free $20 loans to those who bought a membership and they wouldn't have to pay it back for 100 years.
Elections Manitoba said reimbursing people for membership fees violates the Election Financing Act, which says a person or organization must not reimburse or otherwise compensate, or offer to reimburse or otherwise compensate, any individual for all or part of a contribution.
"An individual must not make a contribution expecting to be reimbursed or compensated by another person or organization for all or part of the contribution," Elections Manitoba spokesperson Alison Mitchell said in an email.
"The loan scenario is less clear, as loan provisions under the (law) do not relate to members of the public, but only to political participants. I would suggest you contact the party to see whether they have a concern about this."
Stewart said the party "does not condone the activity of providing money or loans to purchase memberships."
The NDP demanded the PCs be transparent about membership sales and party activities during the leadership race.
"The PC party must tell the public they are not allowing the use of the '100-year loan scheme.' It is clearly wrong," said New Democrat Malaya Marcelino.
"Manitobans need to know that no one in the PC party can buy their way into the premier’s chair."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.