Last year's surprise turnaround

What occurred last year on October 22  ranks as one of the most spectacle turnarounds in the history of Winnipeg civic elections. For the city and its residents, it has to be considered the major event of 2014. 

The only similar “surprise” outcome  in the city’s civic election history was Stephen Juba’s upset of incumbent Mayor George Sharpe in 1956. Juba stunned the city’s elite and became the first non-Anglo-Saxon elected as mayor of Winnipeg. Born in Winnipeg to Ukrainian immigrant parents, Juba went on to become the city’s longest-serving mayor (1956 to 1977).

At the time of the WinnipegREALTORS® Mayoral Forum on October 9, just a couple of weeks away from election day, it was still conceded that Judy Wasylycia-Leis, a long-time politician at the federal and provincial levels, was the frontrunner. Polls taken before the forum showed that the former NDP MLA and MP  was well ahead of the other six candidates at 41 per cent. 

But there were indications that a change in the fortunes of a specific candidate was emerging — Brian Bowman had risen to second place in the polls at 23 per cent, replacing former councillor, Gord Steeves, who, at 16 per cent, had slipped from second in the polls to a distant third place.

Still, by the end of the forum, there remained a feeling that nothing had substantively changed and Wasylycia-Leis wasn’t unseated as the frontrunner.

But that 23 per cent level for Bowman was a surprising reversal in his fortunes, as polls at the start of the campaign showed he was supported by a meagre three per cent of the electorate. Bowman’s continual rise upward in the polls should have been recognized as a harbinger of things to come, but many still believed that it was attributed more to the drop in support for Steeves than any overall change in the future voting preferences of Winnipeggers. 

Wasylycia-Leis had the full weight of the much-vaunted NDP political machine behind her and nearly every commentator couldn’t foresee any possibility that her support would be sidetracked. But there was a sudden slamming down on the brakes, resulting in her subsequent train wreck on October 22. It happened in the final stages of the campaign when a movement began with the message, “Anybody but Judy,” being heard across the city. 

The beneficiary of this anti-Judy movement was Bowman, but the expectation still existed that the privacy lawyer and Wasylycia-Leis would be going head-to-head on election night. It was going to be a tough battle — or so the forecasters thought. 

An Insightrix Research poll conducted for Global News and CJOB just prior to the election indicated that Bowman held a scant two percentage point lead over Wasylycia-Leis. In the end, this was the confirmation that there had been a massive momentum shift over the course of the campaign in favour of Bowman. 

Elections do sometimes fall within the realm of the unpredictable, and political pundits are not infallible. In the end, Winnipeg voters proved to be unpredictable in the extreme, opting to elect Bowman in a landslide.

When the final ballots were tallied, Bowman had 111,504 votes (47.54 per cent) cast in his favour and Wasylycia-Leis had 58,440 (24.92 per cent). Wasylycia-Leis took an early lead when the polls initially closed, but it was a fleeting lead that quickly evaporated in Bowman’s favour.

In another election surprise, 36,823 (15.7 per cent) voted for Robert-Falcon Ouellette, a university administrator, so he finished in third place, six percentage points ahead of Steeves. 

Ouellette used his surge in popularity to announce his candidacy for the Liberal nomination in Winnipeg Centre, which is currently held by New Democrat MP Pat Martin.

Both Bowman and Ouellette are political newcomers without any previous experience holding elected office, but it was this inexperience that may have in the end been to their advantage. Among the electorate, the old guard at city hall was held in increasing suspicion due to a number of scandals that erupted in 2014. Bowman’s promise of more open and accessible leadership at city hall seemed to have resonated with voters.

Bowman also divorced himself from any association with a political label, which was something that Wasylycia-Leis could not avoid. Like Juba, Bowman ran as an independent from political affiliation. And like Juba, who branded Mayor Sharpe as Liberal-Progressive Premier Douglas Campbell’s “trained seal,” Bowman did stress that Wasylycia-Leis could never be disassociated from the NDP government of Premier Greg Selinger.

And like Juba, Bowman is more aptly termed a “populist,” who transcends party lines. Bowman didn’t solicit support from political parties but his campaign was supported by former Conservative Premier Gary Filmon and Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari. The endorsement of Mark Chipman, the very popular businessman who returned the NHL and the Winnipeg Jets to the city, was also extremely helpful.

The final outcome on October 22 last year even surprised 42-year-old Bowman, who told the media that he knew his campaign had been gaining momentum, but he didn’t expect to win in a landslide. The build in momentum was dubbed “Bowmentum,” a cry repeatedly heard from his campaign workers and supporters during his victory speech at the Inn at The Forks.

Bowman, a Métis, is Winnipeg’s first aboriginal mayor, although his heritage was rarely mentioned by him during the campaign. Instead, Bowman referred to himself as a progressive — he supports the arts and bus rapid transit — business-friendly candidate who is first and foremost a Winnipegger. Bowman felt this message of pride in his city was a primary reason for his success at the ballot box along with a desire to effect a vote for change.

Still, Bowman’s election was an historical occasion for both the city and the 78,000 off-reserve aboriginals who live in Winnipeg, which he emphasized when he was sworn into office on November 4. Bowman’s election as mayor is a continuation of the strong Métis presence in Winnipeg that has been a fact of life since the Red River Settlement leadership days of Cuthbert Grant and Louis Riel.

Ouellette also represented the winds of change in the community as he drew support far beyond his aboriginal roots as a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation.

It’s hard to argue against the election of Bowman as not being among the most eventful local occurrences of 2014.