Manitoba·Analysis

Will Bowman take a page from the Sam Katz re-election playbook in 2018?

If the mayoral campaign is a snoozer, the race to fill Winnipeg's 15 other city council seats will amount to a complex political game where the prize is nothing less than the control of city council for the next four years.

If mayor's seat is safe, focus on council seats to keep majority control

Mayor Brian Bowman could snooze to re-election but still lose control of city council. (Warren Kay/CBC)

If no significant candidate emerges to challenge Brian Bowman sometime soon, the race for mayor in Winnipeg could be just as dull as a Perkins breakfast menu and end up being even more colourless. 

But that doesn't mean this year's municipal election won't matter. Far from it, actually.

If the mayoral campaign is a snoozer, the race to fill Winnipeg's 15 other city council seats will amount to a complex political game where the prize is nothing less than the control of city council for the next four years.

Right now, Bowman can count on the support of no fewer than nine city councillors — as seven members of executive policy committee, plus Couns. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) and Matt Allard (St. Boniface). 

Those nine votes add up to a simple majority on council, which is good enough for passing any piece of legislation that does not involve the disposal of recreation space.

The other seven members of council sometimes vote alongside Bowman. But if a contentious political issue emerges, they could just as easily vote against the mayor.

So if a single city council seat shifts away from the Bowman's de facto governing party this October, his ability to implement his political agenda will become more difficult for the next four years. If two allies slip away, governing will become even more complex.

This is why a nothing mayoral race does not guarantee a nothing election. 

To date, Bowman has not declared his intention to see a second term. But he's also said he can't foresee a scenario where he would abandon the job after only four years.

Assuming he does run again, time is starting to run out for a credible candidate to unseat him. And this is not just because no incumbent Winnipeg mayor has been defeated since George Sharpe lost to Stephen Juba in 1956.

Rather, mounting a mayoral campaign requires campaign volunteers, skilled people to organize this workforce and smart strategists who can offer the voting public something in the way of a palatable platform. That platform doesn't have to be grounded in coherent public policy, as the late Rob Ford proved in Toronto. 

But creating something catchy and assembling a campaign team capable of promulgating those ideas is a tough, though not impossible task in a matter of months.

This is why it is likely Winnipeg is heading into an election season reminiscent of the 2006 municipal campaign, when Sam Katz won a second term as mayor.

Sam Katz expanded his control of council in the 2006 election, thanks to a relatively weak field of mayoral challengers. (CBC)

At the time, Katz had only served two years, after winning a 2004 byelection, and remained immensely popular.

In the 2006 race, Katz barely had to undo a button on his purple blazer to fend off challengers. 

In the 2006 race, Katz barely had to undo a button on his purple blazer to fend of challenges from wacky public-access TV personality Ron Pollock, young progressive candidate Kaj Hasselriis (now a CBC producer) and former NDP MLA Marianne Cerilli, who entered the race to ensure the left at least made an effort to unseat Katz, a nominal conservative.

Freed from the need to mount a vigorous campaign, Katz and his advisors spent most of their energy on council races. The goal, for the former mayor, was to increase his control of a council that typically voted 10-6 in his favour during his abbreviated first term.

Team Katz recruited conservative Brenda Leipsic to run in River Heights-Fort Garry, where she easily defeated Donald Benham, one of the former mayor's loudest critics. Katz advisors also supported young Tories Scott Fielding and Jeff Browaty, who respectively defeated incumbents Jae Eadie and Mark Lubosch and in St. James and North Kildonan.

Mayoral advisor Brian Kelcey was also dispatched to St. Boniface in a failed effort to prevent Dan Vandal from reclaiming his old seat from Katz ally Franco Magnifico.

Despite that defeat, Katz entered his second term with a 12-4 council majority and was able to govern with ease from 2006 to 2010.

The incumbent mayor, whose name recognition remains very high, ought to be intrigued by the possibilities afforded by a virtual cakewalk of a re-election campaign.

This lesson could not be lost on Bowman, despite his pledge to avoid the old-school politics practised by his predecessors. The incumbent mayor, whose name recognition remains very high, ought to be intrigued by the possibilities afforded by a virtual cakewalk of a re-election campaign.

A city council without a Janice Lukes, Russ Wyatt, Jeff Browaty or Ross Eadie would be attractive to a mayor who has complained frequently about city council's unofficial opposition.

But it would amount to some degree of hypocrisy if Bowman or anyone in his office actively sought to defeat any of his opponents, precisely because of the rookie politician's previous pledges to be squeakier than squeaky-clean.

Still, failing to even attempt to control the makeup of council could also prove foolish, especially given the opposition Bowman faces within the community after four years as mayor.

That hasn't been a topic of discussion that I've had with anybody.- Mayor Brian Bowman

Hard-right conservatives are no fan of the urbanist red Tory who wants to reopen Portage and Main to pedestrians. Neither are developers who remain angry about growth fees, cabbies irate about Uber and much of the traditional left.

CBC News asked Bowman this week whether he was concerned about a co-ordinated effort by the right to reduce his political influence on council.

"That hasn't been a topic of discussion that I've had with anybody," the mayor said Tuesday, following an executive policy committee meeting. "That's a discussion for another day."

That other day may be coming soon, especially if no one with gravitas, power or a strong public profile emerges as a mayoral candidate.

For Brian Bowman, an easy re-election victory won't be worthy of a celebration if city council's opposition expands into a majority.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.

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