Manitoba·Analysis

Browaty and Lukes already have scored a victory with Portage and Main

Couns. Jeff Browaty and Janice Lukes secured a strategic victory against Mayor Brian Bowman last week simply by floating the idea of a Portage and Main plebiscite this fall.

Brian Bowman will be weakened, whether or not reopening the intersection winds up on the ballot

The more Winnipeg voters discuss reopening Portage and Main this election season, the more it hurts incumbent mayor Brian Bowman, who is more popular than his campaign pledge. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

It's only June, but Jeff Browaty and Janice Lukes have already scored a win during this election season.

The North Kildonan and South Winnipeg councillors secured a strategic victory against Mayor Brian Bowman last week simply by floating the idea of a Portage and Main plebiscite this fall.

On Thursday at city council, Browaty and Lukes moved a notice of motion to place the question of whether to reopen Portage and Main to pedestrians on the ballot in October.

Their motion will come up for debate when council meets again in July. But even if they fail to convince their council colleagues of the need for a plebiscite, they've already succeeded in their quest to put Bowman at less of an advantage throughout the remainder of the election cycle.

Bowman, who is seeking a second term, remains in very good shape as an incumbent mayoral candidate. The rookie mayor enjoys excellent name recognition, is highly visible within the community and has not suffered from many major scandals at city hall, aside from the self-inflicted injuries of his 2015 spat with True North Sports & Entertainment and the collateral damage last fall from the Sterling Lyon Parkway extension mishap.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman pledged to reopen Portage and Main to pedestrians in 2014. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Adding to Bowman's re-election prospects is a cast of relatively unknown challengers. This race continues to resemble 2006, when a very popular Sam Katz did not face a serious challenge on his way to his second term.

Freed from having to campaign too hard against former NDP MLA Marianne Cerilli, CBC broadcaster Kaj Hasselriis and cable-TV personality Ron Pollock, Katz and his team focused their efforts on city council races in a successful effort to increase the size of his council majority.

Katz went from enjoying a 10-6 majority on council to a 12-4 advantage on election night in 2006.

Thanks to Browaty and Lukes, it's now more difficult for Bowman to both cruise to an easy re-election victory and increase the size of the de facto Bowman party at city hall.

Right now, Bowman controls nine votes, while the unofficial council opposition sits at six members. Council speaker Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan) serves as the lone true independent.

The trick for Bowman this year, as it was for Katz in 2006, is to place enough chips on the council races without failing to reserve resources for the mayoral race, where his opponents are trying to make Portage and Main a defining issue.

Since April, one of the only two talking points to emerge from mayoral challenger Jenny Motkaluk has involved a pledge to keep Portage and Main closed.

This does not mean the business consultant has idiotic advisors. Rather, it shows Motkaluk trying to define herself early on as someone who is not the incumbent mayor.

Motkaluk has claimed that she has not met a single person who supports reopening Portage and Main. While that claim is highly dubious — public opinion polls suggest a significant minority of Winnipeggers like the idea — her disdain for reopening the intersection serves a signal to voters who could form her base.

Coun. Janice Lukes has made a career of supporting pedestrian-friendly projects, but usually votes against Bowman at city hall. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Enter Browaty, who has always opposed reopening Portage and Main, and Lukes, who has made a career out of supporting pedestrian-friendly projects but appears to dislike Bowman more than she likes active transportation.

If the duo succeeds in their gambit to create a Portage and Main plebiscite, then the campaign for mayor will become synonymous with a referendum over reopening the intersection, an idea that is far less popular than Brian Bowman is himself.

It doesn't matter that ballot questions in Winnipeg are not binding and are really just symbolic gestures. A vote against reopening Portage and Main would amount to a defeat of a portion of the mayor's agenda.

After all, Bowman promised to reopen the intersection in 2014 and has expressed frustration over not being able to fulfill that pledge during his first term.

This is why Bowman is likely to muster the support of EPC + 2, his de facto governing party, and defeat the Browaty-Lukes motion to place Portage and Main on the ballot. 

Couns. Scott Gillingham and Brian Mayes — two EPC members who oppose reopening the intersection — have wriggle room to vote against the opposition motion. A politician may vote credibly against any plebiscite on the basis ballot questions are out of line with representative democracy, where the public selects individuals to make informed choices on their behalf.

Coun. Jeff Browaty has been consistent in his opposition to reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

Many voters, however, likely have no disdain for ballot questions or "the tyranny of the majority" so reviled by representative-democracy purists.

That's why even if the Browaty-Lukes motion fails, they will succeed at weakening Bowman's position. Council's refusal to endorse a plebiscite would provide both councillors the opportunity to paint out Bowman as "anti-democratic," in the populist sense, and claim he does not listen to the people.

So could Motkaluk or fellow challenger Tim Diack or even Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt, should he follow through on his sudden interest in running for mayor.

This is a lose-lose scenario for Bowman.

If council votes in favour of a Portage and Main plebiscite, Bowman loses by association to his relatively unpopular campaign priority. If council votes against the idea, he also loses by appearing to snuff out the will of the people to have their say.

Bowman's re-election team must spend more time campaigning for mayor when it might be tempted to expend more energy stocking the council chamber with Bowman-friendly faces. 

No matter what happens, Browaty and Lukes have scored a strategic victory simply by floating the idea of a Portage and Main ballot question and walking away.

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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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