No matter what Mayor Sam Katz may say about party politics at city hall -- he says the only party he has is on his birthday -- Winnipeg is a battleground between two factions this fall.
Winnipeggers heading out to the lake this morning to enjoy the final long weekend of the summer will see a fresh crop of civic-election signs on lawns and boulevards, displaying dozens of names in many colours.
But most of the candidates are players in a proxy war between city council's governing centre-right coalition and the centre-left opposition. Not all have Tory, Liberal or NDP memberships, but even self-described Independents who get elected will be forced to take sides in a struggle to determine whether Katz will still be able to advance his legislative agenda without having to forge a consensus on city council -- assuming he wins a third term in office.
Since January, Katz has been describing the campaign as a struggle against an NDP effort to control city council. His rhetoric has been fiery and defiant, even though he initially praised Manitoba's New Democrats for endorsing candidates right out in the open.
Privately, however, his conservative and right-leaning Liberal allies concede they are engaged in the same game. The key difference is strategy: Since the general public doesn't like the idea of party politics at city hall, there is no harm pretending parties don't exist at 510 Main St.
And there are no formal party lines -- just two ideological factions, with the centre-left attempting to win back the tenuous power it lost in 2004, when former mayor Glen Murray resigned and the populist Katz took his place.
The incumbent claims all this is nonsense, noting he had no allies on council when he was first elected.
"You keep talking about control, but I came on with zero," he said Friday in an interview. "I think I'm really good at building consensus and leading."
Only time will tell. On the morning when the real campaign starts -- the one with signs on lawns and only eight weeks left to make voters pay attention -- here's how the race to control city council and by extension, the city's future, is shaping up, starting with the race for mayor and five hotly contested wards:
The mayor's race
Barring the last-minute entry of a high-profile candidate, the race for a mayor is effectively a two-way contest between the nominally conservative Katz and former NDP MP and MLA Judy Wasylycia-Leis.
The first four months of the formal campaign have amounted to little more than positioning, as both Katz and Wasylycia-Leis have shied away from talking about policy in favour of characterizing each other in less-than-favourable terms.
Wasylycia-Leis has attempted to portray Katz as a cynical businessman beholden to corporate interests. This week alone, she held two press conferences where she suggested the incumbent mayor is engaged in secretive manoeuvres at city hall.
"This contempt for public transparency has no place in a democracy," she said Friday at her campaign office.
Katz decried this as character assassination, but he's engaged in some mudslinging of his own, as he has repeatedly described his chief opponent as a career politician who's been away from Winnipeg too long to understand the city and has no ideas of her own. "Sooner or later, people want to see the meat in the sandwich. And they eventually realize there's nothing but bread," he said.
The most recent Probe Research polls suggest Katz holds a double-digit lead on Wasylycia-Leis, who has spent much of the summer attending small gatherings in an effort to recruit volunteers and solidify her support.
"My feeling, not based on anything scientific, just being at every coffee party imaginable, is it feels like a neck-and-neck race," she said in an interview. "I wish I had polling to back that up."
Four other mayoral candidates are currently registered. The colourful crew includes photo-radar opponent Nancy Thomas, fillmmaker Ed Ackerman, real estate agent Rav Gill and appliance salesman Avery Petrowski.
When 27-year councillor Bill Clement died of cancer in May, he left not just a hole on city council but a political vacuum in the city's most affluent ward.
Charleswood-Tuxedo, easily the city's most conservative parcel, will never swing to the left. But there was nobody on the ground planning to mount a serious campaign in the sprawling ward this fall, with the possible exception of Livio Ciaralli, Clement's sole opponent in the 2006 election.
No less than eight candidates have jumped into this void already, though one -- Liberal organizer Cheryl Conley-Strange -- plans to withdraw for personal reasons.
The remaining candidates include Ciaralli, Wendy Lenton, cook Dashi Zargani, retired Air Canada employee Steve Szego, lawyer Timothy Martin and two promising candidates attempting to marshal the ample Conservative party resources in the ward -- Paula Havixbeck and Jarret Hannah.
But don't count on this contest being a simple dogfight between two organized candidates. Council races in open wards tend to be unpredictable and Charleswood-Tuxedo is especially so, as most people in the field had the chance to organize before May and even then remained quiet for weeks out of respect to Clement.
In a nice bit of political symmetry, Winnipeg's other completely unpredictable race takes place in Daniel McIntyre, a compact NDP stronghold with the lowest average family income in the city.
Eighteen-year council veteran Harvey Smith is in the fight of his lengthy political life, as he's besieged by organized candidates on the left and right.
The race began in earnest late in 2009, when Keith Bellamy, a constituency assistant to NDP MP Pat Martin and a friend of Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan, began trying to wrestle the party nomination for the inner-city ward away from Smith.
Bellamy succeeded, but Smith quit the party and returned to the race after another left-of-centre candidate -- Liberal-affiliated school trustee Cindy Gilroy-Price -- jumped into the crowded pool, which also included insurance broker John Cardoso.
One of the ironies is Gilroy-Price and Bellamy both helped organize the Winnipeg Citizens Coalition and worked behind the scenes to ensure River Heights Coun. John Orlikow had a head-on fight against a conservative candidate during last year's byelection.
Now a de facto right-of-centre candidate has emerged in Lito Taruc, a popular broadcaster and Filipino community leader whose Tuxedo address will be his primary liability in a ward where 18 per cent of the population has roots in the Philippines.
Taruc is not a right-winger, but he certainly wouldn't join council's opposition. If the left fails to hold on to Daniel McIntyre, there's very little risk council's governing coalition will lose control.
When NDP-affiliated Coun. Lillian Thomas decided to retire this fall after briefly mulling a mayoral run, the 21-year councillor endorsed her executive assistant Darryl Livingstone to be her successor.
It didn't work out that way. Livingstone lost an NDP endorsement contest to former CTV reporter Shaneen Robinson, daughter of NDP MLA Eric Robinson, who will fly the party flag this fall while the council fixture stands on the sidelines.
But this will be no coronation, as school trustee Rod Giesbrecht, who also sought the NDP nomination and lost, has orange signs all over the ward and campaign literature that includes a picture of him and Premier Greg Selinger.
Giesbrecht was kicked out of the party for running against a fellow member. Now he, Robinson and Nelson Sanderson, who's been involved in the Métis Friendship Centre, may soon be facing off against a celebrity candidate in former Winnipeg Jet Thomas Steen, who ran federally for the Conservatives in 2008 and is expected to enter this race -- at least by party members who'd like to see him bring out some mayoral votes for Katz and maybe even take the ward.
The problem is, Steen has yet to register. He has 10 more work days to visit the city clerk's office.
After 30 years, Old Kildonan Mike O'Shaughnessy is saying goodbye to city council, to the dismay of reporters who've enjoyed his wit over the decades.
But the wide-open race to succeed him has been relatively quiet, with little acrimony emanating down from Winnipeg's northernmost ward so far.
Devi Sharma, a former O'Shaughnessy assistant, faces a fight with Casey Jones, who finished third in the ward in 2006. Robert Chennels has also registered.
Katz's team is counting on holding on to this seat and the NDP has not made a lot of noise about taking it away. But again, there are no sure bets in wide-open races.
If it was up to Harry Lazarenko, retirement would never come. But the 30-year council veteran doesn't always get his way.
After enduring an aneurysm during the second week of May, Lazarenko is still recovering and is not expected to be able to campaign this fall.
The wide-open race to succeed him is already five candidates deep. Greg Littlejohn, who finished third in the ward in 2006, is taking another crack at the ward with no incumbent in the way. NDP member Ross Eadie, who twice came close to knocking off Mike O'Shaughnessy in Old Kildonan, has decided he has a better shot at winning on the east side of the CPR tracks.
On the nominal right sits Jenny Motkaluk, an information-technology executive currently on maternity leave. Construction surveyor Trevor Mueller and David Polsky are also in the race.
Lazarenko voted with Katz on the floor of council but was an occasional wild card at city hall. A win by the left would be a pickup for the opposition.
By virtue of being in office only 19 months, River Heights-Fort Garry Coun. John Orlikow will have to fight to hold on to his seat in a ward that's had four councillors in six years. The left-leaning Liberal faces a challenge from Subway franchise-holder Michael Kowalson, a conservative who will help bring out mayoral votes for Katz.
As first-term councillors who do not sit on executive policy committee, Jeff Browaty in North Kildonan and St. Charles's Grant Nordman -- both of them conservatives -- will not be able to take anything for granted. The other rookie councillor, conservative-affiliated Scott Fielding in St. James-Brooklands, is in a better position to withstand challenges from Fred Morris, who finished fourth in the ward in 2006, and NDP member Deanne Crothers.
In Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry, high-profile NDP member Jenny Gerbasi faces a fight on the left from dissident party member Shane Nestruck and on the right from property manager Ian Rabb, who will be expected to give conservative voters in the left-leaning ward a reason to go to the polls.
St. Norbert was supposed to be a safe seat for the Katz campaign, but Coun. Justin Swandel's decision to stay at the lake while angry football-stadium opponents held a public meeting has emboldened an already robust campaign being waged by St. Norbert Arts Centre director Louise May. Swandel remains the favourite but will have to work to hold on to his seat.
In inner-city Point Douglas, two-term incumbent Mike Pagtakhan -- a Katz ally who has never won by a great margin -- was originally considered extremely vulnerable. But a single challenger, two-time council candidate Herman Holla, emerged this week.
In St. Vital, EPC fixture Gord Steeves faces competition from Harry Wolbert.
No races at all
So far, two incumbent councillors face no opponents - Transcona's Russ Wyatt and Dan Vandal in St. Boniface. If nobody runs against them by Sept. 21, they will be free to sit out the remaining month of the election and campaign for somebody else.