Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Note to politicos: Take tots to game

They can shield you from the boos

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A former staffer for the late Jack Layton, the federal NDP leader whose career was cut much too short by cancer, once remarked to me he and other handlers always took special precautions any time the leader was asked to make a public appearance at a professional sporting event.

Most politicians will tell you they hate doing sporting events. A combination of pre-game anticipation and copious amounts of beer make these gigs the suicide missions of politics.

As a result, if Layton was asked to drop a puck or toss out a first pitch, staff would make sure he was accompanied by children. "You can't boo kids," the staffer said.

Mayor Sam Katz is probably wishing he was flanked by kids on Thursday night when he participated in the Winnipeg Blue Bomber pre-game ceremonies at the spiffy new Investors Group Field. When he was announced, a goodly portion of the 33,500 fans rained guttural disdain down on the mayor.

Now, they also booed Bomber CEO Garth Buchko, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Perhaps it was in response to the traffic and logistical problems that affected earlier events at the stadium. Or because the stadium opened a year later than planned. Or maybe they just started booing Katz and kept going when Buchko was announced next.

That's the thing about incidents like this: It's impossible to tell exactly what the crowd is trying to say when they boo someone. It's even impossible to know if everyone is booing for the same reason. For that reason, it would be unfair to read too much into the reaction Katz got Thursday night.

It is true the mayor has had a rough ride at city hall recently, and there are no doubt some in this city who would boo him any chance they got. However, this reaction seemed to be more indiscriminate. Politicians are not generally held in high regard, and when we see an elected official standing out in the middle of an expansive football field, with nothing to protect them from whatever sentiment is coursing through the crowd, it's hard to resist a hearty boo.

Over my years covering politics, I have seen mayors, premiers and even prime ministers booed at public events. Although it seems to be harder to boo a prime minister than any other elected official. Even though people may have strong opinions about a prime minister's performance, he or she is still the prime minister. And as such, they seem to receive a higher degree of deference.

Premier Greg Selinger, it should be noted, avoided Katz's fate by avoiding Thursday's pre-game ceremonies altogether. Just his luck, he had to meet with western premiers and governors in Utah. One can only imagine how Selinger, now on the defensive for introducing a one-point increase in the provincial sales tax, would have fared had he been part of the pre-game ceremonies. Junior minister Kevin Chief stood in for Selinger and did not receive much of a reaction at all.

What is fascinating about these spontaneous outpourings of emotion is how entirely detached they are from the reality of the situation. Like the reality the new Bomber stadium would not exist were it not for Selinger, Katz and a boatload of taxpayer money.

Many citizens are no doubt still debating the sanity of pouring public money into a football stadium. But it's safe to assume the gross majority of those at the stadium Thursday thought it was a reasonable thing to do. You might even think they had some love for the politicians who got the deal done.

Let's just consider the extent of the grant and loans provided to the Bombers to build this grand new stadium. The city provided $7.5 million in direct grants; the province kicked in $22.5 million in non-repayable support.

The province also loaned the football club $160 million to build the stadium. Part of the loan ($75 million) will be paid off with property taxes generated by new development on the old Polo Park stadium site. The other part of the loan ($85 million) will be paid off from stadium operating profits.

No one is suggesting Selinger or Katz need to overlook their more unpopular decisions. However, it might be reasonable, even justified, to give thanks where thanks is due.

It's hard to say when either politician will get a chance to participate in an event such as the stadium-opening ceremonies again. Perhaps the next time someone invites them to perform some ceremonial duties at a sporting event, if either or both politician is still holding office they can borrow a couple of small children to accompany them.

It couldn't go any worse.

dan.lett @freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 A4

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