Sitting mayors rarely lose

From an historical perspective, it won’t be easy for any candidate to unseat Sam Katz as mayor. In fact, incumbency is the strongest hand Katz holds — 1956 was the last time a mayor seeking re-election was dethroned.

Whomever decides to contest the mayoralty chair in this year’s election — NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis and Councillor Lillian Thomas are the only ones expressing an interest — there is no doubt Katz is somewhat confident about his prospects.

Wasylycia-Leis is a high-profile parliamentarian, who said she is considering a run for mayor after being approached by people looking for an alternative to the business-oriented Katz.  

Katz’s reply to Wasylycia-Leis’s prospect of running for mayor was to imply she was part of a left-wing NDP conspiracy to take over city hall. In his recent 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.”

The Winnipeg Citizens’ Coalition is trying to ensure NDP and left-leaning Liberals don’t run against each other in the civic election, which prompted Katz to proclaim 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 by party organizations in their election bids, but once elected to city hall, party affiliations are rarely openly professed.

Fort Rouge Councillor Jenny Gerbasi, who is affiliated with the NDP, called Katz a hypocrite, according to a Free Press report by Bartley Kives. “If you look at the 2006 election, it was Sam Katz’s party — who all happened to be Conservatives — who got four new councillors in by active participation from that group. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy. I think it’s just people getting involved in politics, and all parties have a right to do that.”

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 by 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 refrained from making radio speeches and billboards and pinned up only a few posters. He would later boast that he spent just $25 on his campaign, while Sharpe spent $25,000.

Missteps were the hallmark of both campaigns. 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, but 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.

At what was described as a “comic opera” encounter at city hall, Juba challenged Sharpe to debate the issue of parties for councillors at Winnipeg Hydro’s Point du Bois generating station. When Sharpe said he would not participate in a debate, Juba told reporters it was more evidence that Sharpe had something to hide about the expensive trips charged to the city, which had already been condemned by the chairman of the finance committee.

Juba didn’t run the promised “class  campaign.” Instead, as Bernie Wolfe, a deputy-mayor under Juba, told the WREN, he emerged as a master of manipulating the media “and he did it in a hilarious way.” With his gift at 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. But if someone with Juba’s panache does arise and the circumstances can somehow be replicated, the outcome this fall could be just as surprising as in 1956. Still, it’s a rather big “if.” In almost every historical case, sitting mayors hold the advantage.