In Bill Clinton’s first election win to the Presidency, James Carville famously set the tone of the campaign with a message haiku that included the line, “it’s change versus more of the same.”
That formula ultimately explains a great deal about how Winnipeg voted last night.
In one of the race’s more remarkable stories, Robert Falcon-Ouellette rose from the fringe to a strong third place because he – and his team – spoke out in positive terms that distinguished him as a change from more conventional candidates. Even his most impractical ideas seemed refreshing compared to Judy Wasylcia-Leis' boilerplate commitments.
'Wasylycia–Leis was ultimately undone by decisions her team probably made months earlier. Her front-runner campaign was simply too cautious to promise distinctive change to a city yearning for it.' - Brian Kelcey
Gord Steeves’ support never stopped shrinking because every new announcement brought back a terrible sense of déjà vu. Every mention of land sales, tax freezes and photo radar left voters feeling like a Steeves mayoralty would change little from the Katz era.
Even Wasylycia–Leis was ultimately undone by decisions her team probably made months earlier. Her front-runner campaign was simply too cautious to promise distinctive change to a city yearning for it. It was too partisan to distance itself from a tired provincial government.
Finally, she herself seemed too familiar in a relatively fresh-faced field of candidates.
In that context, what must Mayor-elect Brian Bowman do to actually succeed in the coming months?
Getting elected isn’t enough for an insurgent candidate like Bowman. He, and we, should measure his success in terms of momentum. Winnipeg has a hundred-odd problems to overcome and at least a few early successes are needed soon to build enough momentum to fix even more.
Sure, Bowman faces some routine challenges: the ugly 2015 budget, hiring a new CAO, and high odds that Premier Greg Selinger’s government will be petty and petulant in response to an unfavourable outcome.
But for the longer term, it’s more important that Bowman learn to govern in a way that’s true to the campaign he just won.
For example, Bowman will be surrounded by young men of similar temperament on council, like Marty Morantz (Charleswood-Tuxedo), Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan), Scott Gillingham (St. James – Brooklands) and Matthew Allard (St. Boniface). Only Allard is progressive; only Browaty is an incumbent.
Yet part of Bowman’s unlikely success lay in his willingness to appeal to a broader Winnipeg.
Many of his volunteers were relatively young, and he had far more female advocates than any traditional Winnipeg conservative candidate would. He worked harder than others to build tenuous bridges with young aboriginal activists.
And Bowman should take that into government. He should make it a priority to find innovative advisers, recruit new public servants and line up fresh names for civic boards, who by their very arrival will purge out Winnipeg’s usual suspects approach to government.
On council, he should be careful to draw on the talents of Janice Lukes (just elected in St.Norbert), Ross Eadie (Daniel McIntyre), Cindy Gilroy (Mynarski) and even Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge / East Fort-Garry) and Mike Pagtakhan (Point Douglas). He should also insist that Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan) do much more than just hold her seat (barely) on council.
He should be sure to secure a broad coalition by every measure not out of tokenism, but to avoid repeating Katz’s own arrogant mistakes. He should break the city’s appointments process wide open, and treat every city board seat as an opportunity to open another door for more new perspectives.
Cheerleader or problem-solver?
Once Bowman starts to assemble a coalition that reflects his own insurgent victory, his next strategic problem will be deciding which Brian Bowman is going to be mayor.
Bowman was often mocked online as a relentless booster, cheering on every tiny civic victory with a permanent grin, a Bomber jacket and an excess of confidence. It’s true that these attributes also helped him get elected; no one seems to have given the suddenly-dour Gord Steeves the memo that conservatives must smile and project optimism to win elections.
Some of council’s most tired personalities – Swandel, Nordman, Smith, Steen – retired before they could be beaten, or they stuck around long enough to lose last night. But a few sad relics of the Katz era (Wyatt, Mayes) remain. A cadre of Katz and Sheegl apologists also remains entrenched in the city’s public service.
Voters elected Bowman in droves because he, more than Wasylycia-Leis, represented a change from that era. Yet the hangovers from the Katz era would love nothing more than to bog Bowman down in ceremonies, foreign junkets and Jets games so they can get back to the grimy business of running the city into the ground their way, without interference.
And this is where Bowman the risk-taker, the frowner, and the guy who stuck to principles on issues like council severance needs to step up.
If he doesn’t put problem-solving and principled reform ahead of the usual cheerleading in the crucial first months of his administration, Bowman won’t just disappoint his voters, he’ll have done worse: he’ll have wasted a real opportunity to help make Winnipeg a better place.
Like it or not, that’s an opportunity he’s surely earned, in the face of many taunts that he would be too much of a change for a town that hasn’t had nearly enough of it lately.
Brian Kelcey is a veteran of city politics in Winnipeg and Toronto, and a frequent commentator on urban political issues nationwide. He can be found online at @stateofthecity or www.stateofthecity.ca.