Did Brian Bowman err in sitting out the first 4 months of Winnipeg's mayoral race?
Incumbent's decision to forgo policy pledges has allowed room for challenger Jenny Motkaluk to get name out
Throughout the month of August, incumbent Winnipeg mayoral candidate Brian Bowman was absolutely everywhere — except in front of a podium making campaign announcements.
With two-thirds of the mayoral race leading up to election day on Oct. 24 over, Bowman has yet to unveil a single policy plank in his re-election campaign.
To some voters, this may seem unremarkable. An incumbent mayor has less of a need to define himself, given that voters are very familiar with his name and image.
He also promised back in May, at the start at the mayoral campaign period, to forgo policy announcements until after the Labour Day weekend.
In recent Winnipeg election-campaign history, this is not business as usual — even in a campaign that started with a very well-known incumbent facing off against lesser-known challengers.
In 2014, the wide-open race to succeed Sam Katz saw candidates, including Bowman, float ideas early and often throughout the spring and summer.
The 2010 race, a head-to-head contest between Katz and former NDP MP and MLA Judy Wasylycia-Leis, was in some ways even livelier.
Even during Katz's first re-election campaign in 2006, when he faced relatively little opposition, the former mayor started making policy announcements in June, not September.
'Substantial stuff' coming: Campaign manager
Leaving aside the idea Winnipeggers deserved to hear more from Bowman and other candidates during this campaign — only business consultant Jenny Motkaluk and, to a lesser extent, former Winnipeg Transit driver Don Woodstock have actually been active this spring and summer — the question is whether the incumbent mayor has committed a strategic error by essentially ceding the policy arena thus far.
"I don't think so. He was very busy meeting with people. It wasn't like he was holed up in the office," said Bowman campaign manager Kelly McCrae, a member of the mayor's office who's taken a leave to work on the candidate's re-election bid.
McCrae notes Bowman has been very busy all summer, meeting directly with voters.
The incumbent mayor's social media presence bears witness to this activity: pictures of Bowman attending Folklorama pavilions, visiting small businesses and attending street festivals can be found on the mayor's Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Some very charming traditions on display last night at the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SlovenijaPavilion?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SlovenijaPavilion</a>! Maybe <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Winnipeg?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Winnipeg</a> should have a festival where we chase the winter away in furry costumes too? Also, loved the unique stilt dance! <a href="https://twitter.com/Folklorama?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Folklorama</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MyFolklorama?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#MyFolklorama</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Folklorama49?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Folklorama49</a> <a href="https://t.co/n3J3daSTIN">pic.twitter.com/n3J3daSTIN</a>—@Mayor_Bowman
McCrae contends now, as Bowman did in May, that Winnipeggers pay more attention in September, when kids are back in school, their parents return from holidays and election signs appear on lawns.
"Once the policies are flowing, there's going to be some substantial stuff and people will take notice," McRae said.
Pragmatic promises from challenger
As much as being an incumbent is an advantage — no sitting mayor in Winnipeg has been defeated since Stephen Juba knocked off George Sharpe in 1956 — owning a four-year track record gives Bowman something to defend.
And it can be more difficult to make policy pledges once you know how city hall actually works.
There is more room for challengers to make ambitious or even grandiose gestures, although the most visible among the candidates has largely made small and pragmatic promises.
So far, Jenny Motkaluk has only made a single enormously expensive campaign pledge: she wants to spend more than half a billion dollars on new electric buses.
Not coincidentally, this big-ticket pledge has been the only Motkaluk announcement to provoke a strong response from Bowman, who called it wasteful and unrealistic.
Motkaluk campaign manager Keith Poulson, a veteran of several federal Conservative and provincial Progressive Conservative efforts, said his candidate has made an effort to cost out her announcements.
"We're not pulling stuff out of the air," Poulson said.
More significantly, Motkaluk's team has tried to zero in on what many city hall observers perceive to be Bowman's primary weakness: a lot of his 2014 support came from conservative suburban voters, who may not be enamoured with some of the incumbent mayor's more progressive and urbanist policies.
Chief among them are Bowman's support for reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians as well as his intention to build more rapid-transit corridors.
During the first two months of her campaign, Motkaluk did very little but rail against those two ideas, trying to use them as a wedge to separate Bowman from a contingent of his 2014 base.
The strategy, devised with the help of policy analyst Brian Kelcey — a former Sam Katz adviser who quit and turned against the former mayor — appears to have allowed Motkaluk to set herself apart from the other Bowman challengers.
"For our purposes, we wanted to define Jenny as not just a name on a ballot. I think we've achieved that," Poulson said. "Basically, every conversation we have [with voters] now is her versus the incumbent."
Motkaluk has a lot of work to do if she wishes to knock off an incumbent mayor. It may be that when voters get to know her better, they may not find her as appealing as they find the charismatic, friendly Bowman.
Or it may be Bowman's campaign erred in sitting out the first four months of a six-month race.
Now that it's September, there is no time left to defer policy to later in the campaign.