Bowman poised to win the re-election battle but lose the war for control of Winnipeg city council

Winnipeg is a single city council seat away from depriving Brian Bowman of the votes he needs to continue exercising control over council, should he do what polls suggest he's about to do and win a second term.

Incumbent's apparent healthy lead in the mayoral race won't help on a council with fewer allies

Brian Bowman led the two most recent mayoral polls. That doesn't help his would-be allies on city council. (Rudy Gauer/CBC)

The weirdness on display in Winnipeg's mayoral race — an arrest, conspiracy theories and an admission of homelessness this week alone — may lead some voters to dismiss the municipal election as a joke.

That would be a mistake.

On Oct. 24, no fewer than five new councillors will be elected in Winnipeg, thanks to the departures of four sitting councillors and changes to the city's ward boundaries (including the elimination of the St. Charles ward, the creation of Waverley West and the newly defined St. Norbert-Seine River ward).

Even more importantly, Winnipeg is a single city council seat away from depriving Brian Bowman of the votes he needs to continue exercising control over council, should he do what polls suggest he's about to do and win a second term.

There is a fiction, perpetuated often by both Bowman and his predecessor, Sam Katz, that the mayor only has one vote in the council chamber while council as a whole is supreme.

In reality, the past two Winnipeg mayors imposed their political will over council through a governance structure that functions very much like a party system.

Katz controlled 10 to 12 votes in the 16-member chamber during his three terms at city hall. Bowman operated with a slimmer margin during the second half of his first term, able to reliably count on only nine votes on council.

While the mayor's advisers would be the first to concede Bowman couldn't rely on all nine of his council allies to vote alongside him on every issue — executive policy committee members Scott Gillingham, John Orlikow and Brian Mayes were ready to revolt over Portage and Main — a council majority allows a mayor to govern without the time-consuming business of building consensus on any given issue.

That majority is close to slipping away for Bowman, should he win his second term in a couple of weeks. If only one Bowman-friendly seat is occupied by a member of council's unofficial opposition this November, he will no longer be the leader of council's unofficial governing party.

Former Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz, seen here posing with his portrait, enjoyed a larger council majority during his three terms than Bowman did during his rookie term. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

In Charleswood-Tuxedo, outgoing Bowman loyalist Marty Morantz is almost certain to be replaced by a more hard-nosed conservative. In Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry, there is a wide-open race to replace Jenny Gerbasi, who sometimes functioned like a council whip. The St. Norbert-Seine River race is also wide open, while Bowman could lose another friendly seat in Point Douglas, where Mike Pagtakhan is retiring.

Even if those races prove to be a draw for the incumbent mayor, a victory by former councillor and ardent Bowman critic Garth Steek over John Orlikow in River Heights-Fort Garry would be enough to deprive the second-term mayor of his council majority.

On the plus side for Bowman, he could pick up a friendlier councillor in Transcona, where the unpredictable Russ Wyatt is retiring. And Bowman opponent Shawn Dobson is fighting for his political life in a head-to-head St. James battle against Gillingham.

Less dabbling in ward races

A few months back, it looked like Bowman was preparing to dabble in these ward races the same way Katz did when he first faced re-election in 2006.

During that race, members of Katz's team spent just as much energy assisting council allies — such as the late Brenda Leipsic in River Heights-Fort Garry, Franco Magnifico in St. Boniface and Scott Fielding in St. James-Brooklands — as they did trying to re-elect the incumbent mayor.

Bowman has had less opportunity to do this. For starters, he had to fend off a credible threat from mayoral challenger Jenny Motkaluk, who tried to use Bowman's support for reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians as a wedge issue capable of separating the incumbent from the suburban, conservative voters who supported him in 2014.

The Portage and Main ballot question proposed by North Kildonan Coun. Jeff Browaty gave Bowman the out he needed on Portage and Main. Council's approval of the referendum in July served as a strategic blow against Motkaluk.

Yet Bowman emerged from the summer hobbled by a Motkaluk campaign that was busy making policy pledges while he was working behind the scenes to meet voters on an individual basis.

Brian Bowman and Jenny Motkaluk take part in a debate hosted by the Winnipeg Realtors Association and Winnipeg Free Press at the Centre Culturel Franco-Manitobain on Oct. 4, 2018. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

While Bowman heads into the election home stretch with an apparently healthy lead over Motkaluk, it is a lead he still has to protect if he wants to win on Oct. 24.

Minor pledges

He is not doing so with his policy announcements, which largely have amounted to minor pledges to redirect existing funds in the city budget from one line item to another.

It's fair to say Bowman has unveiled little in the way of a substantive re-election platform, in the conventional sense. For example, Friday's promise to create a working group to reconsider 24/7 construction — something the city has rejected twice over the past 11 years — could be seen as another effort to get his face on TV. 

Rather, Bowman is campaigning to win by attempting to meet as many voters as possible in person, in every public and private venue imaginable. 

This time-consuming work means the mayor is not out stumping for his allies, such as Orlikow in River Heights or Gillingham in St. James. It's also unclear whether the presence of the mayor would help or hinder those allies, but that's beside the point.

Overall, though Brian Bowman finds himself in a strong position 18 days before Winnipeggers choose their next mayor, he may find himself winning the re-election battle but losing the war over the control of council.

It wouldn't quite be a Pyrrhic victory, but it may leave Bowman wondering how on Earth he hopes to govern over the next four years.


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.