With the presence of two strong contenders running for mayor, the Winnipeg REALTORS® Mayoral Forum, to be held on October 6 at the Centre Culturel Franco-Manitobain, has the potential to influence the final outcome. Despite pundits giving two candidates the nod over any others seeking to become mayor, it’s a forum with a difference, as all candidates participate. Typically, other forums focus on the front-runners and ignore those who are labeled “fringe” candidates.
“What we want to do is make sure the issues are heard directly from the candidates,” said Don Cook, the chairman of the WinnipegREALTORS® civic and legislative affairs committee. “We want the public to be able to make an informed decision.”
Shaw Cable TV, which has had a long association with WinnipegREALTORS® political forums, is televising this year’s event. When the last mayoral forum was held in 2006, some 70,000 viewers tuned into the Shaw broadcast.
The front-runners in the mayoral race are Sam Katz and former NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis, while the “lesser-knowns” include Ed Ackerman, Rav Gill, Nancy Thomas and Avery Petrowski. The presence of a well-know challenger to Katz has made this year’s October 27 civic election more interesting than other recent races. Still, Wasylycia-Leis has to overcome the “incumbency” barrier.
From an historical perspective, it won’t be easy for any candidate to unseat Katz as mayor. In fact, incumbency is the strongest hand Katz holds. Even with a high-profile candidate seeking to dethrone him, there is no doubt that Katz is feeling confident about his prospects.
Wasylycia-Leis is running for mayor after being approached by people looking for an alternative to the business-oriented Katz. His initial reaction to Wasylycia-Leis candidacy was to imply she was part of a left-wing NDP conspiracy to take over city hall. In his State of the City address, Katz blasted the NDP for its intention to field a slate of candidates in October’s election. “I will do everything in my power to make sure no political party ever, ever takes control of city hall.”
Katz has proclaimed his opposition to all party politics at city hall. “It’s funny how, as mayor, you’re accused of having friends who own businesses and invest in our city,” he said in his speech. “But if you hold membership in a political party, it’s OK to make deals with your friends, all under the guise of party politics.”
Party politics has emerged at city hall in the past. The NDP and the Independent Citizens Election Committee — a coalition of Liberals and Conservatives (former Premier Gary Filmon and Finance Minister Eric Stephanson served as ICEC-backed councillors) — fielded civic candidates, but party politics has since become a behind-the-scenes entity. Specific candidates have been helped in the past by party organizations in their election bids, but once elected to city hall, those affiliations are rarely openly professed.
The last time people got involved in civic politics in any significant way to topple a sitting mayor was in 1956. The outcome of that election came as a total surprise to interested observers who had foreseen the re-election of George Sharpe. When Stephen “Steve” Juba, an independent MLA, announced his intention to run for mayor, he declared he would be running a “class campaign,” according to an October 1, 1956, Free Press article.
Juba, who had no experience at city hall, had unsuccessfully run in two other mayoralty elections, including a 1954 loss to Sharpe. The Free Press somewhat reluctantly endorsed Sharpe, primarily due to Juba’s lack of civic government experience and his alleged erratic behaviour during the campaign, as well as Sharpe’s unfulfilled campaign pledges made in 1954. According to the newspaper, another two years in office would allow Sharpe an opportunity to make good on his earlier promises.
The editorial board said electing Juba “would be a larger risk than the citizens of Winnipeg should wisely take... If a man of Mr. Sharpe’s type cannot at city hall get done much of what he aims at, there can be no reason to suppose that an erratic man would succeed better ...”
During his campaign, Juba pinned up only a few posters. He would later boast that he spent just $25 on his campaign, while Sharpe spent $25,000. It is hard to imagine that Wasylycia-Leis and the NDP would risk not mounting a well-funded and comprehensive election campaign, given the advantage Katz prosesses as an incumbent.
Missteps were the hallmark of both campaigns in 1956. When a debate was scheduled, Juba appeared but Sharpe did not, claiming the venue was not the one agreed upon. As a result, Juba had a captive audience, yet he refused to address the crowd.
Sharpe made use of the radio, with speeches made on his behalf by former Mayor Garnet Coulter and others. When asked about the pro-Sharpe speeches, Juba replied: “You can’t beat that kind of stuff. But, you watch, it might backfire on them.”
In this case, Juba was a prophet. With his continual reminders, the public questioned why Coulter, who was then a paid city employee, was participating in Sharpe’s re-election campaign. It became known as the “Coulter Affair,” and was a contentious item at subsequent city council meetings.
While Juba did not spend much money on his campaign, he attracted plenty of media attention, and freely talked to reporters. When Premier Douglas Campbell announced that the province was offering land on Broadway for a new city hall, Juba accused Sharpe of being the premier’s “trained seal.” He said the offer was evidence that the provincial government feared his election.
Juba never ran the “class campaign” he promised. Instead, Bernie Wolfe, a deputy-mayor under Juba, told the WREN, that Juba became a master at manipulating the media “and he did it in a hilarious way.” With his gift of manipulating the media to discredit Sharpe, Juba won the 1956 election, the last time a sitting mayor wasn’t re-elected.
No one can truthfully imply Wasylycia-Leis is another Juba — the only trait she shares is a lack of civic experience. It would probably take a complete breakdown in Katz’s campaign for Wasylycia-Leis to replicate the outcome of 1956.
Still, it’s encouraging to know that there is a real race underway for mayor. As a result, the mayoral forum will undoubtedly have some influence on how people vote on October 27.