Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Meet city hall's First Lady

New mayor's wife smart, funny and sometimes profane

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IT would be a serious mistake to underestimate Baillie Katz. She's beautiful, with cat-like green eyes made up to give her an exotic look. She's tiny, probably a size 0, and wears clothes that might be very expensive or just look that way on her. The French manicure is perfect. She's toned and polished, with the look women have when they've been rich for awhile.

Her wedding ring, which she designed herself, could be part of a set of brass knuckles done over in gold and diamonds.

But this is no blushing violet. Baillie Katz, the 37-year-old wife of the new mayor, is smart, funny and occasionally profane. While it might sometimes suit her to appear delicate, the reality is that this is a tough woman who has been up and down several blocks and lived to tell the tale.

And if you don't like what you see, says the woman whose nickname in her twenties was "Barry" -- short for "Barracuda" -- tough luck.

"You develop a thick skin," she shrugs, cradling a mug of strong coffee. "When you're with someone in the public eye, you have to. If people have decided that they're against you, they don't like you, it doesn't matter what information they get, truth or otherwise, they're still not going to like you. The important thing is for your friends and family, when they know the truth, everything after that isn't important."

Political wives don't talk this way. They don't volunteer the details of their marital separation or the fact that they moved to the family's Phoenix vacation home while they tried to decide if they really wanted to be a wife and mommy. They certainly don't reveal, as she candidly does, that there were other men during the year apart.

Sam and Baillie Katz married six years ago, but they'd known each other forever. They met when she celebrated her 21st birthday in one of his nightclubs. The future mayor was 37.

Their reconciliation is recent. There are no photos of her in the family room of the sprawling Park Boulevard house she and Sam Katz share with their two-year-old daughter, Ava. She says they've made their peace and frankly, my dear, she doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks.

"It's yesterday's news," she says. "Whatever people are going to say, let them say it. My mother never said a hard word about anyone. She really adheres to that adage, just smile, be civil, be kind, be decent. I abhor gossip."

Baillie smiles a Cheshire smile and adds some good gossip of her own. There will likely be another little Katz running around city hall, she says, "if the phone calls would stop. We fully intend to have more children. Absolutely."

Political wives don't do or say a lot of things that Baillie Katz does. She bluntly admits she has spent a lot of time escaping Winnipeg, the place where she was born and raised. She grew up on Queenston in River Heights. Her doctor dad, Morris Burke, and her opera singer mom, Eleanor, still live there. They've been married 53 years, she says, hitched the same year Sam was born.

She laughs that her mother used to have kosher meat flown up to Norway House when her dad practised there. She and Sam keep kosher now, she says, musing that a lot of people probably didn't realize he was Jewish while he was running for office.

"That's our identity," she says simply.

She went to Joseph Wolinsky school and on to the University of Winnipeg Collegiate before she got an arts degree at the University of Manitoba. For awhile she thought she'd go into law, but realized she was more interested in business.

Along the way she took the lessons that middle-class girls take and, armed with the voice of an angel, made a name for herself in the Chai ensemble, at the Hollow Mug and Rainbow Stage. Despite her talent and looks, her parents stressed that education was more important.

She left the city early and often. Part of the reason for the separation, she says, is she really wanted to get out of Winnipeg and figure out who she was.

"I didn't have Ava until I was in my thirties. I think it's a difficult transition when a woman goes from being productive and being out there in the real world, so to speak, and talking to adults. All of a sudden you're at home and you feel like the world is going on without you. I think a part of me wanted to be independent and productive."

She worries the Sweet 'n Lo packet in her hand, folding the pink paper between her tapered fingers.

"I really fought against living here. I was very bitter because it's very difficult to do business here. I had been used to cities that were absolutely pro-business. My dirty little secret is I like this city now. I realize the more I'm away how much I do like it.

"I have to stay near my family. I have a very large family here and I have very close cousins and extended family. If we were going to stay here and not move away, we were going to make a definite commitment to do as much as we could for the city, and I really believe Sam was the right one for the job."

When she talks about Sam's election, she slips into the plural.

"We're going to fix things that need to be fixed," she says. "This city is going to be progressive and vibrant if it takes everything we've got."

She's looking at the next two years with her husband, whom she affectionately calls "Shmoo" (an abbreviation of his Hebrew name), as a chance to change the face of Winnipeg.

"You cannot keep complaining about a city and being apathetic. It only happens for so long before you shut up or make a change. You've got to start trying to make it better and Sam really is devoted to doing that.

"I'm his sounding board. I'm his sort of soft place to land. That's my role. I'm an ear, an adviser. I guess I'll watch his back."

It goes without saying that this determined woman will also be watching her own.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

PHOTO KEN GIGLIOTTI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Baillie Katz, the 37-year-old wife of the new mayor, is smart, funny and occasionally profane.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2004 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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