Manitoba's next premier may be the darling of a right-wing, anti-vax fringe party.
Under the governing Progressive Conservatives' one-member, one-vote rule, People's Party of Canada's-endorsed candidate Ken Lee could win the leadership on Oct. 30 and become premier.
Sources say Lee, the former chief financial officer of the PC party, has sold more party memberships than the required 1,000 — and many, many more than any of the other leadership candidates.
A supporter of Lee offered on social media to pay for people's $20 memberships. When contacted by the Free Press, the Winnipeg man said he was told by someone in Lee's campaign that he shouldn't offer to pay for memberships. Instead, he said he was offering $20 loans at zero per cent interest that don't have to be paid back for 100 years.
Elections Manitoba said that doesn't appear to be a violation of campaign finance rules.
It is, however, sleazy, said political analyst Christopher Adams.
"I wouldn't brag about it," the University of Manitoba political studies professor said Wednesday.
"There is a tradition in leadership campaigns of people buying memberships for other people. I'm not surprised about that happening," he said, citing tactics that have been employed by the three main political parties at the provincial and federal level.
The deadline for candidates to enter the leadership race was 5 p.m. Wednesday. Candidates were required to have the endorsement of 50 established party members by the deadline. By midday, sources said Lee was a dozen short of the total number of PC party members needed to vouch for him.
The Progressive Conservative leadership election committee wouldn't comment on the outcome or Lee's candidacy after the Wednesday deadline had passed. It said it wouldn't issue a statement until it had a slate of approved candidates and had finished reviewing and verifying the applications and memberships.
Late Wednesday, Lee issued a news release that said he had "met all the requirements set out by the leadership rules... and is awaiting conditional rules and background checks."
The PC party would not say why it had allowed Lee to make it as far as the vetting process when his campaign website is critical of the Tory pandemic actions, condemns public health orders and COVID-19 vaccination requirements.
In an email, the Progressive Conservative party's leadership election committee said "the views of any applicant or interested party is their own and not that of the PC party."
Leadership hopeful and former Conservative MP Shelly Glover said she welcomes Lee's "or anyone else’s" candidacy.
"This is a democratic country where people are allowed to speak their mind," she said in an email. "We may choose to disagree, but I don’t think we should silence those with opposing opinions."
Often a new candidate in a leadership race might bring in a lot of disaffected people to a party, Adams said.
"Leadership races sometimes bring in people who are not within the control of the party organization." The "silver lining" is that they can add some "vitality" to a leadership race, he said.
On social media, Lee has the endorsement of local People's Party of Canada leaders who want him to be premier.
"We at the People’s Party of Canada stand with him and endorce (sic) him," PPC Winnipeg South candidate Byron Gryba said on Facebook. "PPC are fighting hard against vax passports. We want freedom to gather, shop etc. for all Canadians. Perhaps there will be no need for invasive nasal rapid testing."
"Dr. Roussin has failed Manitobans," reads one line that takes up an entire page of Ken Lee’s campaign site, referring to Dr. Brent Roussin, who’s been in charge of Manitoba’s public health response since the pandemic began.
Lee's campaign platform lists several points, including: "no vaccine passports, vaccination not a job requirement, churches and businesses — all essential, added protection for the vulnerable, increase hospital ICU capacity."
Glover and former health minister and Tuxedo MLA Heather Stefanson have said they’re vying for the leadership and passed the vetting process after publicly launching their campaigns. McPhillips MLA Shannon Martin, who launched his campaign Monday, announced late last night that his bid has "come up short."
Lee, an accountant, has been flying under the radar and most Manitobans don't know his views, Adams said.
"I think that these things work themselves out. I don't think the party would elect a leader that they think is unelectable as a premier," Adams said.
The party's leadership rules have been criticized by candidates as being too restrictive and now there are questions about them being not exclusive enough, Adams said.
"It's kind of ironic that a month ago, people were complaining that the party had set up too high a threshold to join the race and that the turnaround (time) was too short," he said. Glover complained the candidates had to raise too much money and sign up too many members in just weeks. Winnipeg city Coun. Scott Gillingham said the tight deadlines didn't provide him with enough time to launch a proper leadership bid.
"Now the question is, are the thresholds too low? I guess that there's always the seeking of that balance in all of these processes," Adams said.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.