WINNIPEG - Manitoba Liberals have chosen a 36-year-old lawyer and political neophyte to lead them out of the political wilderness.
Rana Bokhari won 431 votes to take the party's top job in a squeaker on the first ballot at a leadership convention in Winnipeg. The minimum number of votes needed to win on the first round of voting was 430.
Bokhari is promising to focus on bringing in new members and rebuilding the party's financial base. The Liberals had only 700 members a year ago, but Bokhari brought in over 600 new members during the campaign.
"My focus is on getting a strong foundation in place for the party so we can be some kind of fighting form in the next election," Bokhari said. "There's a lot of work to be done but I'm up for the challenge."
Dougald Lamont took 285 votes on the first ballot while Bob Axworthy came last with 131 votes. Although there were some 2,146 members who could vote for the new leader, only about 857 members cast a ballot. Just over 600 people voted in advance polls earlier this week, while 49 mail-in ballots were received.
Fewer than 300 people were voting at the convention Saturday.
Rebuilding the party won't be easy, Bokhari admitted.
The party only has one seat in the legislature and does not hold official party status. Its only seat is held by outgoing leader Jon Gerrard and he has not ruled out running again in 2015. But Bokhari's focus is less on getting a seat and more on building support outside the legislature.
The priority right now is "memberships, money, memberships, money, memberships, money," Bokhari said.
"We need to expand our membership by reaching out to those who have lost faith in our politics," she told those gathered at the convention in Winnipeg. "Together we will build a modern party that is ready to compete, to win and to govern."
Bokhari drew on her experience growing up on a Manitoba farm.
"This is growing season for our party," she said. "It is growing season for our province. I know that Liberals are ready to work hard, to get dirt under our fingernails and plant for our province's future."
Despite the tiny margin of victory, the small voter turnout and the fact that many members did not stick around to hear Bokhari's victory speech, Bokhari said she hopes the party can come together.
"I'm hoping that we are all Liberals," she said. "I hope our best interest is the future of our party. Let's hope that everyone feels that they want to unite and move forward together."
Meghan Trueman, a 28-year-old Bokhari supporter, said she has never voted in a provincial election, let alone been a member of a party.
"I usually spoil my ballot," she said. "I've never been happy with any of the candidates."
But she said she's known Bokhari for eight years and she has restored her faith in politics. Bokhari has an uphill battle ahead of her, Trueman said.
"She has an incredible ability to connect with people," said Trueman, who works at the University of Manitoba. "She's got more energy than anybody I've ever met before so if there is somebody that can do it, it's her."
Before announcing the results, the party paid tribute to outgoing leader Jon Gerrard who has led the Liberals for 15 years. Gerrard has been the "lone Liberal" since the 2011 election where they were reduced to just one seat and 7.5 per cent of the vote. The party went into the election with two seats and 12 per cent of the vote.
The Liberals have shown Manitoba how democracy works, Gerrard said as he reflected on his years at the helm.
"It was an honour and a great privilege to be Liberal leader," he told the crowd. "It will be fun to have somebody to work with. I want to pledge my support to the new leader."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version contained the wrong spelling ot Meghan Trueman.