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Bevilacqua considers leadership bid

[PoliticsWatch Updated 5:00 p.m. March 3, 2006]

Liberal MP Maurizio Bevilacqua says he's assessing a leadership bid. 

OTTAWA  —  With the Liberals looking for a new leader, PoliticsWatch will be profiling the top contenders. In the first instalment, PoliticsWatch talks with Toronto-area Liberal MP Maurizio Bevilacqua. 

Less than a week after the federal election, as Liberal MPs walked out of their first caucus meeting as the opposition in waiting, Maurizio Bevilacqua is surrounded by a group of reporters who want to know if he would be entering the leadership race. 

Bevilacqua, a former cabinet minister in Jean Chretien's government, and an 18-year veteran on the Hill has had his name included in virtually every news story listing the possible contenders to succeed Paul Martin.

Each time he is asked, he deflects the questions, saying he is interested in rebuilding the party and bringing his skills to the job. 

"The reality is no one can predict what can happen in leadership conventions. The important thing is to focus on the rebuilding process."

While he scrummed with reporters a larger scrum was occurring adjacently with Liberal MP Scott Brison, a potential candidate and recent Liberal convert who is believed to be testing the waters and developing an organization. 

Outside of Toronto, Bevilacqua is not a household name like some of the other unofficial contenders for the party's throne. 

Very laid back in nature, he does not openly rush to the cameras after each caucus meeting, even though he does have a good relationship with the media.

In fact, over the last three years, Bevilacqua has kept a relatively low profile with the press gallery, scrumming just a handful of times.

However, talk to Liberals in Ottawa and they will tell you not underestimate this MP because of his longevity, popularity within the party and other intangibles.

He is also known to be have some of the skills that other potential hopefuls may not have in terms of organizational and fundraising abilities. That could give him an edge over others, as it will likely take $2 million to run a campaign. 

Liberals say Bevilacqua has a large network of long-time contacts within the party all over the country. He also has been taking French lessons for over a year. 

Fastforward to a few weeks later, and PoliticsWatch meets with Bevilacqua in his Centre Block office shortly after the close of a two-day Liberal caucus retreat on Parliament Hill. 

After he gives a very firm handshake, the MP is very relaxed and calm sitting on his home turf. He speaks more openly than in the scrum about his possible leadership bid. 

"I don't think it would surprise anyone that in fact I would be assessing the situation right now," he says when asked the big question. 

"I know that a lot of people have contacted me to seriously take a look at it. And when the number of people is what it is then you have to begin assess the situation.

"I think that people who have known me for a long time are saying, 'Why don't you look at it?' And so you look at it."

However, any decision to run won't be announced until the party sets up the rules for the leadership race sometime later this month, the MPs says. 

"I think you know it's pretty natural that people would look at a person like me based on the long-track record with the party over the years. There are very few people who at age 45 have the experience that I have."

So what are those Liberals who are calling him saying?

"In discussions with some people that are encouraging me to run what they tell me is the reason why they want me to run is because I represent generational change for them, unquestionable loyalty to the Liberal party as well as experience."

Married with two children, Bevilacqua is 45 years old,  just one year younger than Prime Minister Stephen Harper. 

He was first elected to Parliament in 1988 at the age of 28 and has spent 40 per cent of his life as an MP on Parliament Hill. 

He is one of 13 Liberals in the House to have come full circle, having sat in opposition in the 1980s, moved to the government side in the 1990s and returned to the opposition this year. 

Despite being tagged as a "business Liberal," Bevilacqua comes from what he calls "humble roots."

Bevilacqua, who was born in Sulmona, Italy, arrived in Canada with his family at the age of 10 and came from a modest economic background, as his father was a construction worker who later started his own firm. 

He became involved in student and Liberal politics while studying at York University, went on to work as a staffer for Liberal MP Sergio Marchi and later at Queen's Park. 

Very quickly, and just 18 years after first arriving in Canada, Bevilacqua found himself sitting in the House of Commons after the 1988 election when he won by just 77 votes over Tory candidate Michael O'Brien in the riding of York North. 

The victory was later declared void, but Bevilacqua easily won a by-election in 1990. In 1993, he coasted to victory receiving 71,223 votes. 

"I'm very proud and fiercely Canadian because this country has been extremely good to us," he says about himself and his family.

Sitting in the opposition benches, Bevilacqua witnessed the turbulent last years of the Mulroney government and the constitutional and free trade debates. 

But during that period of time, Bevilacqua was busy as the young MP traveled around the country to draft a youth policy that later became the Liberals' Youth Employment Strategy. 

"I got a good sense of the country in those five years."

Paul Martin and Maurizio Bevilacqua. 

In 1990, Bevilacqua made a major decision. 

He became the first Liberal MP to openly support Paul Martin's bid for the Liberal leadership, even though Jean Chretien was the heavy favourite to win. 

In effect, Bevilacqua became the first of many Martinite MPs in what would evolve into an internal party battle that still dominates the Liberal party 16 years later. 

Martin lost the leadership race, but Chretien still assigned critical tasks to Bevilacqua even though he was a Martin supporter. 

And Bevilacqua seemed to always wind up where the action was. 

When jobs was the No. 1 issue during the recession of the early 1990s, Bevilacqua was the party's employment critic in opposition. 

When the Liberals came to power and embarked on an ambitious reform of social programs, Bevilacqua was the parliamentary secretary to then human resources minister Lloyd Axworthy. 

He then spent five years as chair of the Commons finance committee, tabling reports and recommendations that would become parts of then finance minister Paul Martin's budgets. 

His roles in the Chretien government provided him the opportunity to travel the country extensively and meet Canadians as part of numerous consultations. 

In January of 2002, things changed for Bevilacqua when he was named to cabinet, making him one of a handful of the so-called Martinites to be promoted. 

Media reports and Susan Delacourt's biography on Martin have all suggested that his relationship with Martin's inner circle, known as The Board, soured after his promotion. 

Having been the first MP to support Martin, Bevilacqua was widely assumed by the media to be a shoo-in to remain in cabinet when Martin became leader in late 2003. 

But Ottawa was stunned when Bevilacqua did not show up at Rideau Hall to be among 39 cabinet ministers sworn in with Martin. 

He was offered a parliamentary secretary's position but turned it down. 

Just days after that stunning development, PoliticsWatch spoke with Bevilacqua, who said he remained loyal to Martin. 

During that conversation, he seemed almost unfazed by the whole experience. 

"The only thing I know is the prime minister has made a decision and he asked me to step down from cabinet and I obliged. There's nothing wrong with that. We all make choices. There's no problem … But life goes on."

At the time Martin was enjoying unprecedented popularity with the public and looked like he could rule Canada for a decade.

It appeared Bevilacqua would remain on the sidelines for a while. 

But just two years later and Martin is now a backbench MP and the members of his Board are no longer a hot commodity in the capital. 

Bevilacqua sat on the foreign affairs committee during that time and kept a relatively low profile with the press. Despite all the divisions within the Martin caucus and the problems with the 2004 election campaign, Bevilacqua never spoke out against Martin and his people even though the Press Gallery would have ate it all up. No Carolyn Parrish was he. 

Even with Martin and the Board out of the PMO, Bevilacqua remains diplomatic. 

"Paul Martin was a great minister of finance," he says. "He achieved a lot in public life. He can look back at his contribution as a Canadian citizen and look at it with a great deal of pride. 

"Now his term didn't last as long as he wanted but nevertheless he did become prime minister and made a contribution to public life and that's the way you have to view these things."

Like a lot of Liberals, Bevilacqua is of the camp that there was a failure to communicate the Liberals' economic record and achievements during the 2006 campaign that put them back in opposition. 

"I also found that we had a lot of things to communicate and many priorities and sometimes when you have many priorities you have no priorities at all - I'm talking from a communications perspective. 

"I don't think it was a stellar campaign. I think the campaign had its glitches and that it could have gone better for us. But at the end of the day I'm sure that everyone who was involved knows that. They'd be the first ones to admit to the fact that we had concerns and problems."

While some Liberals may feel a change in leadership alone will revamp the party and return it to power, Bevilacqua says the party has to do some deep introspection first. For him, renewal just isn't some catch phrase. 

"We have to look at where we lost -- for example, our seats in Quebec," he said. "So there's the issue of understanding what actually had transpired in Quebec. 

"Rural Canada, for example, we lost seats there in Ontario. Out west, we didn't make the gains that we expected to make.

"So you have to be honest with yourself. So the first step towards solving the problem is admitting to yourself that you have a problem. So we have certain challenges we have to overcome."

Those challenges are being cited among the reasons some of the high-profile frontrunners, such as Frank McKenna and Brian Tobin, have decided to pass on entering the leadership race. 

'Why would two men in their fifties want to spend years on the opposition benches while the party rebuilds?' pundits asked.

Nonetheless, Bevilacqua is not one of those who believes it can easily be assumed that the next leader of the party will be on the opposition benches for six or seven years.

"Am I optimistic about the fact that we can solve those issues? Absolutely. Am I optimistic about the fact that I think that Stephen Harper is beatable? I know that he is beatable. I think that he can be defeated.

"But," he cautions, "you should not underestimate him."

Ironically, do not underestimate is what many Liberals are saying about Bevilacqua as well. 

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