On Wednesday October 22, Manitoba voters went to the polls. Lawyer Brian Bowman was elected the mayor of Winnipeg, while Rick Chrest defeated incumbent mayor of Brandon Shari Decter-Hirst. What factors led to the decisions that voters made? How can these results be used to advance a progressive agenda for these two cities?
Background On Winnipeg
After ten years, incumbent Mayor Sam Katz decided to leave public life. He was very unpopular by the end of his mandate, owing to such things as audits around city contracting decisions,problems with frozen pipes and snow clearing, and an unpopular decision to route rapid transit through an empty wetlandfollowing decades of delays on the project. One of Katz’ first acts of office was to cancel construction of a rapid transit line that had been approved by his popular predecessor Glen Murray.
Unfortunately, citizens of Winnipeg were not able to make a completely informed choice. The media tried to pigeonhole the candidates on a rigid left-right axis, with 2010 challenger Judy Wasylycia-Leis on the left, and Brian Bowman, Gord Steeves, and Paula Havixbeck on the right. Consequently many forums did not include all candidates, which upset a few people, although a few did include all candidates. here is how they fared:
Up In Front: It’s Lonely At The Top With Nowhere To Go But Down
Judy Wasylycia-Leis was the favourite going into the race. She had name recognition from her previous run, the backing of the NDP and organized labour, and with Katz out of the race, she became the de-facto incumbent mayor. She counted on a vote split on the right and ran a cautious, don’t-rock-the-boat campaign and as the candidate with experience, although she offered a few select planks on issues of affordable housing,accountability, and active transportation. Her campaign team completely missed the surge by Brian Bowman, instead having focused its guns on former councilor Gord Steeves.
With Katz out, Steeves was the presumed standard-bearer for the right end of the spectrum, and the candidate seen as most likely to continue on with Katz’ policies. He ran a classic right-wing campaign, promising a property tax freeze, asset sales, and cancelling the unpopular rapid transit line to the University of Manitoba. The last item in particular he could have capitalized on, but his campaign went badly. He followed the right-wing strategy of avoiding debates put on by community groups. His plan for handling proposed developments sounded like what had been going on under Katz. But the most damaging thing to his campaign were racist comments made by his wife on social media. Disgusting in their own right, they struck a particularly bad note in a racially divided city hurting from mourning the death of homeless hero Faron Hall and murder of Tina Fontaine.His support dropped throughout the campaign, ending in the single digit.
Paula Havixbeck was a more marginal player on the right. A one-time Katz ally and member of his inner circle, she parted ways and became a critic, making a name for herself criticizing deals the city made. It was more a low-key affair focused on issues as infrastructure, snow removal, and 311, and was not able to gather much momentum or big endorsers, and she finished second last.
The Rising Stars
David Sanders, an NDP-affiliated former provincial bureaucrat, was a late entrant in the race. He had a history of attending city hall and asking tough questions. He opposed the rapid transit detour and focused his campaign on the issue of competent public administration. He was not able to gain much support, although he did finish higher than a sitting councilor.
Just as impressive as the mayoral face itself, aboriginal candidate and university administrator Robert Falcon-Ouelette inspired Winnipeg to come together and to dream and hope. He wrapped his campaign around the themes of hope, proposing ideas as moving rail lines outside the city to make way for light rail transit, taxing parking lots as if they were buildings to encourage downtown growth, affordable housing, and making Winnipeg a child friendly city. His personal journey, from homelessness to earning a Ph. D, also inspired people. Without having any formal experience in politics or a formal political machine behind him, he rose to a third place finish when the ballots were counted.
Despite being backed by the Chamber of Commerce (including an endorsement from Winnipeg Jets owner Mark Chipman) Bowman was able to gain support across party lines and to paint himself as a fresh face. Tagged by many to be on the right side of the spectrum, owing in part to his proposal for a municipal sales tax, he out-flanked Wasylycia-Leis on several urban issues of concern to progressives including extend rapid transit throughout Winnipeg by 2030, ending homelessness, opening the intersection of Portage and Main to pedestrians, and funding the arts. His proposals were very heavy on dreams and optimism and light on practical steps to achieve them. This turned to his advantage, as Winnipeg voters were tired of being told no and embraced the idea of the city moving forward.
While the result of the race for mayor was not what the left had hoped for, they can take comfort in seeing hard-right councilors Thomas Steen and Grant Nordman go down to defeat. The representation of women also improved slightly, as Janice Lukesand Cindy Gillroy will join Devi Sharma and Jenny Gerbasi. A key test will be whether he follows through on his promise to allow council to elect members of his Cabinet. This cabinet composes almost half the votes in the council chamber, so if elected that removes the ability of the mayor to force votes to go a certain way. Bowman’s self-portrayal as wanting an inclusive government and governing by consensus provides a window of opportunity to advance progressive policies to make Winnipeg the viable city it can become.
Brandon: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same
Brandon has a history of electing business-friendly mayors, and the election of Chrest returned to that tradition. The NDP-backed incumbent, Shari Decter Hirst, had swept into office in 2010 on the sentiment that Brandon was an “old boy’s club” that wasn’t inclusive of the general citizenry. The overall record of Decter-Hirst’s administration was mixed. There were some worthwhile accomplishments, such as an affordable housing strategy,introducing Sunday bus service, successfully fighting major flooding in 2011 and 2014, and the arrival of regular air service to Brandon’s airport. She was also the subject of several controversies, including an accusation of conflict of interest,threatening a sitting councilor, scandals around failure to pay taxes on businesses she owned, a labour dispute with Brandon firefighters, and a failure to respond to criticisms from increasing property taxes. Even though property taxes were rising in other cities, the raises proved perfect fodder for her critics who wanted to paint her as a “tax-and-spend” NDPer, which hurt her at a time when the NDP government was losing popularity in Manitoba. As she took over from several generations of councils that had held tax increases to the bare minimum, she did not have political cover needed to raise taxes, unlike in Winnipeg where Katz broke a promise not to raise taxes in his last term. Chrest had an uninspiring platform, instead running on a back-to-basics approach, and on his reputation as a popular businessman. It worked for Chrest. Decter-Hirst ran an ambitious campaign, but Chrest’s popularity combined with her controversies cost her dearly, and she was handily defeated in all corners of Brandon.
Brandon council is a different story. Incumbent councilor Jan Chaboyer was joined by newcomers Vanessa Hamilton and Lonnie Patterson to elect a total of 3 women in an 11-member chamber, one of the best results for woman representation in recent history. Chrest spoke often of the need for teamwork, and has expressed a desire to speak with each councilor to help set priorities for the next session. This allows a window of opportunity for progressive issues to be addressed by a business-friendly council, and if taken advantage of, can leave this mayor and council with many worthwhile accomplishments beyond what the mayor-elect campaigned on.