THE big box of concrete and Tyndall stone known as city hall can be a mysterious place, where questions hang in the air like the smoke from an acrid grease fire in a kitchen with shoddy ventilation.
But even through the haze and the rancid smell, it’s easy to see the outline of the biggest question of all: Will Mayor Sam Katz run for office again in 2014?
If I could answer that question, I would, but only Katz knows for certain. And it’s a good bet he hasn’t made up his mind.
When he does, you can count on him keeping that decision close to his chest as long as possible. In 2004, Katz jumped into Winnipeg’s mayoral byelection practically at the last minute. In 2006 and 2010, he didn’t confirm his intention to run for another term until he signed his registration papers.
You can expect Katz to play a waiting game once more in 2014, because his decision to run will be influenced by his potential opponents. Over the years, he’s said repeatedly he’ll run for mayor as long as the citizens of Winnipeg want him to be their mayor. In effect, that means he will run for mayor as long as he believes he can win the race.
In December, a Probe Research poll suggested 49 per cent of Winnipeggers don’t want the mayor to run again. But that result can not predict whether Winnipeggers will vote for him next year.
In a straight-up rematch against left-of-centre candidate Judy Wasylycia-Leis, it’s likely Katz would in fact prevail, in spite of the scandals and policy failures that have dogged his office since 2010.
No, I’m not talking about the moronic nonsense about the gum last week, but the fire-paramedic construction scandal, the water-park fiasco, the Responsible Winnipeg ad campaign, the Arizona company swap with chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl, the $1-million Scottsdale home acquisition from developer Sandy Shindleman’s sister-in-law and the Hu’s Asian Bistro Christmas party affair. The latter issue actually led a sitting judge to declare the mayor engaged in "bad political and ethical behavior." There are also many voters who believe Katz broke an election promise not to raise property taxes, even though Katz did not in fact make such a promise. Those very same voters, however, aren’t likely to vote for a leftie like Wasylycia-Leis, who actually did promise to raise taxes.
This is why the presence of other candidates is so important. A former ally such as Gord Steeves — a centrist former city councillor with federal Liberal and provincial Progressive Conservative affiliations — would make for a fascinating opponent. So would a city-hall outsider such as Paul Jordan, the chief operating officer of The Forks Renewal Corporation, who has administrative experience and some form of a public profile.
Early polling would likely indicate Katz could easily defeat either Steeves or Jordan, but new faces have the ability to make up ground against long-in-the-tooth incumbents over the course of a campaign.
You only have to look as far as Calgary to see how an initial longshot like Naheed Nenshi — a policy geek few Calgarians had ever heard of — went from nobody to election-night winner over the space of a few weeks.
Of course, it’s tough to characterize Steeves as a fresh face, given his 11 years on council. His primary saving grace may be his absence throughout the water-park debate, most of the fire-paramedic construction program and the ensuing real-estate circus at city hall.
Many Winnipeggers also know very little about Jordan, who maintains a vast network of professional contacts in his capacity as a quasi-non-governmental official, but is only known to the public as The River Trail Guy.
The question is whether Katz will choose to roll the dice against either of them or both of them, if they enter the race, never mind another outsider with some public profile and credibility. Wasylycia-Leis or rookie Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck present themselves as far more predictable commodities.
Of course, all of this assumes Katz actually wants the mayor’s job for another four years. By some accounts, he needs the $130,000 salary, which augments his take-home pay from the Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball club rather nicely. When his personal financial statements were made public as part of a court case in 2006, those were the mayor’s only significant sources of income.
Katz, however, portrays himself as a far more successful businessperson. When his Scottsdale home acquisition was made public last fall, Katz made a point of noting how fortunate he’s been over 40 years in business.
If that is in fact the case, and Katz has no need for the salary that comes along with the mayor’s job, then something else must motivate him to remain on the job. As someone who has followed this mayor closely for more than seven years, I’m at a loss to suggest what that might be.
If Sam Katz has a grand economic-development strategy in mind for Winnipeg, we haven’t seen it. Throwing infrastructure subsidies at the IKEA-led retail development may have been politically astute, but it wasn’t exactly inventive or effective.
If the mayor has a social-development policy in mind for the city, the North End and the inner city have been waiting 8 ½ years to see it. If he has bright ideas about reducing crime across the entire city, Police Chief Devon Clunis is only a telephone call away.
If Katz has a grand plan to increase the efficiency of the public service and reduce the cost of government, then the time has long passed to actually share such a strategy. The cost of delivering emergency services alone — police, firefighters and paramedics — is rising just as quickly in Winnipeg as it is in every Canadian city.
It would be foolish to ask if the mayor has a transportation plan in mind for Winnipeg, given the bizarre series of positions he’s taken on rapid transit over the past eight years. For the sake of mercy, questions about accountability and ethics will be ignored today, especially with a fire-paramedic construction program review so close to being completed — and a real-estate audit not far behind.
If Sam Katz doesn’t appear to have any policies or ideas up his sleeve for Winnipeg right now, how could he claim to have any coming in 2014? It’s almost like he’s given up already, considering the way he handed the keys to the policy bus to Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt during the month of May, when Winnipeg’s latest golf-course proposal sputtered to a shaky stop.
Despite all of this — the absence of motivation, the absence of ideas and what is beginning to look like an absence of desire — it would still be foolish to count Katz out in 2014.
I’ve said it many times, but I’ll say it again: The best thing about Sam Katz is he refuses to back down, while the worst thing about him is he refuses to back down.