Three years down, one to go: Brian Bowman enters home stretch of his first mayoral term

Should Brian Bowman desire a second term as Winnipeg's mayor, he has history on his side.

With history on his side for a successful second run and few challengers, Bowman is not ready to declare

Mayor Brian Bowman, in his newly renovated office at city hall, has completed the third year of his rookie term. (John Einarson/CBC)

Should Brian Bowman desire a second term as Winnipeg's mayor, he has history on his side.

No sitting mayor has lost an election in Winnipeg since 1956, when George Sharpe lost to the populist Stephen Juba. The power of incumbency kept Juba in power for 21 years, and also helped ensure subsequent mayors Bill Norrie, Susan Thompson, Glen Murray and Sam Katz would never taste defeat at the municipal level.

Though he's widely expected to place his name on the ballot one year from today, Bowman is not yet prepared to relinquish his status as an upstart, rookie mayor and transition into the role of incumbent.

He also isn't ready to see himself as the establishment candidate in the 2018 mayoral race.

"Oh, that's quite a characterization," Bowman said in an interview in his office on the verge of the fourth and final year of his rookie term.

'Truly messed up city hall'

The non-practising lawyer had minimal political experience before he sought office in a 2014 mayoral race where he successfully portrayed himself as the candidate most capable of changing a city hall that was staggering from the scandals of the Sam Katz era.

After three years in power, he acknowledges change is not easy at an institution as large as the City of Winnipeg, which he described as "truly messed up" when he took over the reins of power.

Nonetheless, he insists his administration is making progress.

"We're getting a lot of things done and we're effecting a lot of positive change in our community," he said before listing off what he considers his successes over the past three years.

For starters, during his first three budgets, property-tax hikes were limited to 2.33 per cent, as promised, though fulfilling the same pledge in 2018 could result in election-year service cuts.

The city is in the process of completing a dog park along Assiniboine Avenue, placing WiFi on up to 12 buses and — pending a vote on Wednesday — is poised to spend $3.5 million to improve Portage and Main as well as prepare to reopen the intersection to pedestrians in 2019.

The mayor speaks more enthusiastically about the negotiated settlement of collective bargaining agreements with firefighters and police officers, the instution of growth fees, the city's commitment to reconciliation, and what he describes as "historic" spending on infrastructure.

More openness, more or less

Similarly, Bowman beams when he lists off various steps the city has taken to become what he describes as more open and transparent.

Those include the creation of a new position for an integrity commissioner, preventing members of council from buying alcohol at the expense of taxpayers and asking the province to call an inquiry into the real-estate and capital-procurement scandals that rocked the previous municipal administration.

Not all of those "openness and transparency" measures have been meaningful, however. As of last week, only four names appeared on a voluntary lobbyist registry created at the mayor's behest. A pledge to elect members of executive policy committee, rather than appoint them, was abandoned quickly after the 2014 election. 

And the city continues to reject freedom-of-information requests officials have the power to release should they choose to, much the same way the city did when Katz was in power.

More significantly, the mayor faces the very tough task of ensuring Winnipeg completes six rapid-transit corridors before 2030, even as the Southwest Transitway approaches completion and the city studies Red River crossing options for the East Transitway that will connect downtown to Transcona.

Potential funding for future bus corridors s running up against a shortage of short-term funds for Winnipeg Transit, thanks to the end of a provincial deal to cover half the utility's costs.

Winnipeg Transit is contemplating route reductions, and fare hikes above 5 cents are possible in 2018, Bowman warns.

Royce Koop, associate professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba, said Bowman will be measured by the abundance of 2014 campaign promises. (Gary Solilak/CBC)
Bowman's record to date may be overshadowed by his ability to deliver on the abundance of promises he made in 2014, says Royce Koop, an associate professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

"Mr. Bowman was a first-time candidate. He was a fresh face. People didn't expect for him to win until later on in the campaign, so there was every incentive for him to make lots of promises," said Koop, noting veteran politicians are less likely to make many promises.

"Has he done things? Absolutely. And it may be enough for voters to say 'Yeah, he actually met his promise.' Some voters are going to remember those very lofty promises and some of the things he hasn't delivered on and are going to judge him on that basis."

So far, however, Bowman has little competition next year should he choose to make it official and run.

North Kildonan Coun. Jeff Browaty, who opposes reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians, is the only councillor publicly considering a run for mayor.

"I love Winnipeg and I'm really frustrated with the way things are going these days. At this point, I'm ruling nothing out," Browaty said.

North Kildonan Coun. Jeff Browaty is not ruling out a run for mayor. (Gary Solilak/CBC)
As well, approval polls continue to shine on the rookie mayor. A Probe Research survey commissioned by CTV, published last week, suggests 59 per cent of Winnipeg voters approve of Bowman's performance. The poll of 600 adults, conducted between Sept. 21 and Oct. 10, has a 95-per-cent certainty and a margin of error of four per cent.

For an incumbent, there is no strategic value to announcing a re-election run one year ahead of a vote. Winnipeg's campaign-finance period does not begin until May, while nominations take place in September.

As history suggests, challenging an incumbent mayor in Winnipeg is an uphill battle. 


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

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.