In the absence of a single issue preoccupying the minds of Winnipeg voters, the 2010 mayoral race may boil down to a referendum on the six-year reign of Mayor Sam Katz.
Challenger Judy Wasylycia-Leis doesn't see it that way. In a wide-ranging interview earlier this week, the former Winnipeg North MP and St. Johns MLA says she's not just the beneficiary of anti-incumbent sentiment, but a legitimate alternative with a different take on politics.
In short, Wasylycia-Leis claims she can govern the City of Winnipeg by consensus and be more attentive to citizens. Judging from the latest poll -- a week-old Probe Research survey that placed her in a statistical dead heat with Katz -- many voters believe the message.
But the poll was conducted before a flurry of debates that saw Katz get the most attention this week, both by being more concise and taking jabs such as the now-famous "Thanks, Mom" retort.
Here's what Wasylycia-Leis had to say about her credentials to be mayor, her political affiliations and the question of whether she's running for mayor or merely against Sam Katz:
Free Press: You've never been a city councillor. You weren't in power long as an MLA and never as an MP. What makes you qualified to be mayor?
Judy Wasylycia-Leis: Two years in government is nothing to sneeze at. It's a significant contribution (and) enough time to understand government.
In my 13 years as an MP, I also played significant roles, especially as finance critic. One of my major achievements was to co-ordinate our caucus efforts to (direct) $4.8 billion in corporate tax breaks to programs such as housing, education, the environment, aboriginal issues.
Four-point-eight billion is many times bigger than the city budget itself, so I think I've demonstrated (an) experience and understanding of government. I've shown the importance of fiscal responsibility in management.
In all of my 25 years of political life, I've practised politics of empowerment, working with people and consensus-building. And I think that's most important at city hall.
FP: What makes you think you won't wind up spending the first two years of your term just trying to figure out how city hall works?
JWL: I think it will just take a couple of months to really get familiar with city hall. I'm not pretending I know the ins and outs of municipal government, but I've had a pretty in-depth education with all levels of government.
I don't see it as a long process of getting grounded. Obviously, I'm going to need immediate access to information. The one thing I'm worried about is I think I'm going to find quite a financial mess at city hall.
When you look at the possibility of operating deficits in the forecast, increased numbers with respect to (the city's waste-water-management contract with) Veolia and unfinished business on numerous fronts, I'm going to have to respond immediately on numerous fronts. It's going to be a steep learning curve and I intend to start working immediately.
FP: You're even in the latest poll with Sam Katz and the numbers suggest that's partly because voters who supported candidates who are no longer running are now with you. How would you feel about winning because people vote against Katz rather than voting for you?
JWL: How are you going to know that? I hear what you're saying, and lots of people I talk to say "I'm with you because I can't stand Sam Katz." But that isn't enough to win most people over. They only finally make the decision to vote for me when they believe I have a solid platform.
I think people, in the final analysis, vote for something. In the next three weeks, my challenge is to demonstrate I am a serious alternative to Sam Katz.
FP: You started this campaign saying you were angry about Katz and you later said he was an OK mayor. Why the change of heart?
JWL: That's not a contradiction. I'm angry about the secrecy, especially about the Veolia contract. I'm angry about the flip-flopping on rapid transit. I'm angry about the division we have over active transportation.
But that's not a contradiction, in terms of how he is seen as mayor. He's OK. He gets by. But we're not moving forward and there's nothing really exciting and new about Winnipeg. We can muddle along. We can continue to follow Sam's approach, a flavour-of-the-month management approach. But we do not have a well-managed city.
FP: What do you think when Katz says you're copying his platform?
JWL: I'm floored... I think of a skit on Saturday Night Live.
I put plans on the table. Some are ideas that have been around for a while and never acted on. He's trying to pretend or create the illusion they are part of his administration and are actively being pursued and they're not. Crime prevention is an example.
FP: Some voters don't trust you on crime. What would you say to them?
JWL: I think Winnipeggers understand this is a difficult issue. You have to get at the roots of crime, not just policing and not just building law-and-order stuff. You have to approach this from all angles.
I know (Winnipeggers) are looking for solid, serious approaches to problem-solving to deal with this issue. I've put my plan on the table and I hope Sam will put his on the table. This is probably the most important issue of the election, one that requires the most thoughtful debate and discussion.
FP: The city has a revenue problem. Your proposed property tax increases will net an additional $90 million over four years. That might keep pace with operating inflation, but it won't make a big dent in the $3.7-billion infrastructure deficit. What else would you do?
JWL: I put a plan on the table. That's more than Sam Katz has done. It addresses years of neglect and a 13-year property tax freeze. And it's a start. And that revenue has to be targeted to potholes, policing and community centres.
I believe that initiative gives significant leverage with other levels of government. I don't believe you can go to provincial and federal governments and say "I want more, gimme, gimme, gimme." I don't think they respond when the mayor stands on a street corner and whines and complains about roads that need to be finished or bridges that need to be built.
The way we solve this very serious infrastructure deficit is through collaboration at the provincial and federal level.
FP: Both Glen Murray and Sam Katz weren't able to get access to growth revenues. What makes you think you'll succeed?
JWL: Glen Murray was making progress. It was being discussed in federal and provincial circles. After he left, there wasn't a leader who took up the cause.
I'm under no illusions. All big cities are faced with this. But we have to succeed.
FP: How do you respond to the concern a mayor with strong ties to the NDP would be beholden to Manitoba's NDP government?
JWL: I don't see it as a drawback that I'm a New Democrat. But I entered this race as a broad-based candidate, representing many different interests.
I understand the players and worked with them and know them. I don't think it matters what political party I came from, just as it shouldn't matter Sam Katz gets endorsements from Conservatives.
In the end, the responsibility is to commit to what you've promised.
FP: Your campaign poster has the UFCW logo. Your campaign manager is on leave from CUPE. How do you respond to the concern you would be beholden to unions?
JWL: You make sure posters and pamphlets are printed in union shops. You'd expect that and I make no apologies for that. I'm pleased to have workers supporting me, just as I'm pleased to have Sharon Carstairs, a Liberal, on my campaign team, and Geoff Lambert, a (Progressive) Conservative.
It's funny you ask that, because I've not looked for and not received any union endorsements. Sam Katz has gone out of his way to make sure he has some union endorsements. I think I'm in a stronger position as a candidate who's not endorsed by any political party.
FP: The biggest financial issue facing the city is the combined-sewer overhaul. What is your preferred solution to what's potentially a $4-billion problem?
JWL: I don't have an in-depth answer for you. I know it's a problem. I know it has to be addressed. I know the bill is huge. But I do know Winnipeggers want the highest standard of (waste-water treatment).
The bottom line is the cleanest water possible, from a health and scientific point of view, not from a psychological point of view. It's the same with the nitrogen vs. phosphorus removal.
FP: Let's say you win. Who would your advisers be and what existing councillors would you put on EPC?
JWL: I will give careful thought to a transition team. I would interview all of the councillors and make the decisions after that process is completed. I want to build a good relationship with all city councillors.
FP: Would you place left-wing and right-wing councillors on EPC?
JWL: I would look at people on the basis of their expertise and ideas, not on the basis of politics.
FP: Who would your chief of staff and senior policy adviser be?
JWL: You'll be the first to know. My first priority is to win the election.
FP: OK, so in 10 words or less, why should someone vote for you?
JWL: I love this city and I want to make it better and I know that we can have a world-class city again, with proper planning.
Next Saturday: An interview with Sam Katz