Ten months before Winnipeggers go to the polls, the mayoral race is looking like one of those electronic party invitations where everyone gets to see who's going before they make a decision of their own.
To date, six relatively well-known Winnipeggers have expressed interest in running for mayor next year. Only one -- lawyer and former St. Vital councillor Gord Steeves -- has declared he wants to place his name on the ballot for the Oct. 22, 2014, election.
The other five are all mulling a run and saying sensible, if boring, things about the need to consult the electorate, their families and their dogs before deciding.
What that means is voters are in for months of speculating about the Winnipeg mayoral race instead of actually engaging in a debate about the serious issues facing this city.
The actual campaign period is six months long -- candidates for mayor are allowed to begin raising and spending money at the beginning of May. But they don't have to actually register their campaigns until the middle of September, when the nomination period closes.
In the 2004 mayoral byelection, the last time Winnipeg was graced with so many credible candidates, Sam Katz stepped in at practically the last minute. As a populist and popular outsider, he ran away with the race.
Three elections later, Katz is the ultimate insider and has lost his populist appeal. But it would be foolish to count him out until the nomination period closes.
By that point, polls will suggest which way the electorate is leaning, and some of Katz's would-be successors will have had the chance to attract attention, both the positive and negative kind.
For now, the other four potential candidates are lawyer Brian Bowman, former NDP MLA and MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis and Couns. Scott Fielding (St. James-Brooklands) and Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood-Tuxedo).
Fielding has declared he's all but in. Havixbeck says she's not ready to declare. Wasylycia-Leis remains sufficiently interested that she appeared before council Tuesday to offer her thoughts on the city's spending plans for 2014.
Steeves also appeared as a budget delegate, leaving Bowman as the only outed candidate who wasn't present to offer his thoughts on how the city intends to spend $968 million on services and $379 million on infrastructure next year.
Katz, of course, voted in favour of the operating and capital budget. Havixbeck and Fielding said no to both. Wasylycia-Leis told council she's pleased Sherbrook Pool will be reopened, but didn't think the budget constituted much in the way of long-term planning for the city. Steeves said the city is borrowing too much cash.
All this may sound mundane, but it's important to get to know what these people believe and what they stand for as soon as possible. Personalities can attract attention, but policy is the substance of a mayoral campaign, and ideas have the potential to carry more currency than ever, thanks to the power of social media.
Currently, the most communications-savvy potential candidate is Bowman, who dwarfs the competition in terms of Twitter followers. He noticed when Twitter started chattering about his conspicuous absence from Tuesday's council meeting.
In an interview, Bowman said he didn't attend because he was trying to finish year-end business at his law practice. He also said he didn't think it was appropriate to campaign before he decides whether to run.
But the lawyer does have an opinion about the 2014 budget.
"I thought it wasn't as visionary as it could be," he said, describing the city's spending plans as tinkering. "Each budget is an opportunity, and I'm not sure this one hit the mark."
In cities such as Toronto, where the mayoral-campaign period is longer, voters get to know what their candidates stand for much earlier and thus get more time to ruminate about their ballot-box decision. The Toronto mayoral race also features more debates.
It would serve the voters of Winnipeg well if potential candidates got off the pot and declared their intentions.
That may not be the best strategic move, as Katz has demonstrated. But it's the right move for a robust debate about the city's future.