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Shaking up city hall harder than promising it

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This morning, lawyer Brian Bowman will officially enter the race to become Winnipeg's next mayor with a promise to bring a younger, more innovative approach to governing.

Can Bowman, a man with no political resumé, ride this pledge to victory?

Right now, he is not well known to voters, and polls have him languishing in the single digits. Of course, being a relative unknown can have that kind of effect on political polls.

Even so, today Bowman becomes the first viable non-politician to seek the mayoralty in a decade. And from the outset, he will campaign as a candidate from a new, younger generation, running to change the culture at city hall. And someone who, incidentally, has no connection to real estate audits, shady land transactions and out-of-control infrastructure projects.

Not to be too cynical, but everyone who is not mayor and wants the job promises to change city hall. Including experienced politicians looking to move up the political food chain.

Former councillor Gord Steeves, who entered the race last week, promised to repair the relationship between city hall and its estranged citizens. (Apparently, this disconnect started suddenly three years ago after Steeves left council to run provincially.) Steeves promised to "resolutely represent the hopes dreams and interest of all the citizens of this great city." Unlike, apparently, the folks who are now at city hall.

The problem facing Bowman the outsider and Steeves, a veteran politician trying desperately to be seen as an outsider, is that promising change is one thing, delivering it is something else. And despite the fact Winnipeggers have several times given their hearts to outsider candidates, we have precious little real change to show for it.

In 1992, shop owner Susan Thompson won with her populist pledge to change city hall, defeating three veteran city councillors: Dave Brown, Ernie Gilroy and now-Premier Greg Selinger.

Thompson's principal act of change came when she disposed of the old board of commissioners -- a panel of formidable senior bureaucrats who challenged the authority of the mayor and council -- and created the position of chief administrative officer. Opinions about the value of that change are still mixed.

In 2004, current Mayor Sam Katz beat a broad cadre of challengers including several councillors (Dan Vandal, Garth Steek and Shirley Timm-Rudolph), a former councillor (Al Golden), former provincial cabinet minister (MaryAnn Mihychuk) and a former MP (Gordon Kirkby).

Since becoming mayor a decade ago, Katz's major accomplishment has been an extended property-tax freeze and reductions in other forms of civic taxation. But that doesn't add up to much in the way of real change.

It's very tough to handicap mayoral candidates right now -- outsider or otherwise -- because we still don't know whether the incumbent is going to run. Katz has promised to make his intentions known early next month.

Remember, no incumbent mayor has been unseated for more than 50 years. Both Thompson and Katz stormed city hall as outsiders, but in both cases the incumbents (Bill Norrie and Glen Murray, respectively) had stepped down.

Incumbent or not, the appeal of a true outsider can be potent.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, even though he was already a city councillor, campaigned as a populist reformer. That theme remains effective; even though he has become Canada's most-notorious elected drug addict, he continues to run a strong second in polls.

The model outsider, however, is Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who had never been elected to office before engineering a come-from-behind victory in 2010. He was re-elected in 2013.

Nenshi is the model now for outsiders hoping to campaign on their lack of political experience. However, Nenshi is also the model for delivering real and tangible change.

His first two terms have been full of new initiatives and changes to the way the city does basic things. He has launched an unparalleled infrastructure-improvement initiative, including major increases to active and rapid transit, fuelled in large part by significant property-tax increases.

He continues to be extremely popular with voters across demographics. He is one of the youngest big-city mayors in Canada, the first Muslim mayor, and one of the first to get electoral results by using social media. He is comfortable meeting with environmentalists and business leaders. He appears at comic-book conventions and was grand marshall of the Pride Day parade.

What he has not done is use the promise of change to get elected and then fall back into the same old, same old.

Bowman will arrive on the mayoral scene today promising many Nenshi-like solutions. And throughout the campaign, we can expect Steeves, and other challengers who will no doubt come forward, to compete with Bowman to convince voters that change is coming.

And if we're really, really lucky, one of those candidates will win, and actually deliver on all those promises.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 6, 2014 0


Updated on Tuesday, May 6, 2014 at 7:24 AM CDT: Corrects typo

May 12, 2014 at 7:09 AM: Corrects that Stephen Juba defeated incumbent George Sharpe in 1956.

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