The race to determine Winnipeg's future begins in earnest today, as council candidates may begin to campaign in a series of contests that together are more important than the battle for mayor.
Four out of Winnipeg's 15 wards have no incumbents competing for re-election this year and two others are also very much in play, paving the way for radical change in the composition of a council Mayor Sam Katz has effectively controlled since he was first elected in 2004.
The death of Bill Clement and the pending retirements of Mike O'Shaughnessy, Lillian Thomas and Harvey Smith mean wide-open races are taking place in Charleswood-Tuxedo, Old Kildonan, Elmwood-East Kildonan and Daniel McIntyre. The ongoing hospitalization of Harry Lazarenko and Mike Pagtakhan's political ambitions have added uncertainty to the result in Mynarski and Point Douglas as well.
Up for grabs is nothing less than Katz's ability to control the floor of council. Since the mayor has been able to count on at least 10 votes in Winnipeg's 16-member council -- his own and those of nine friendly councillors -- the election of only two more left-of-centre candidates will create a completely new dynamic on city council for the incumbent mayor, should he continue to hold his lead over challenger Judy Wasylycia-Leis.
"Anywhere between four to six seats are definitely in play, so the whole makeup of council will be very different, no matter who wins or who loses," said St. James-Brooklands Coun. Scott Fielding, one of five new faces to join council in the 2006 election. "Some policies which were rock-solid in this place will be turned upside down, regardless of who is elected."
But it will only take the loss of a pair of Katz-friendly council seats to transform politics in the City of Winnipeg. A Katz victory coupled with the loss of two centre-right seats would force the six-year mayor to govern the same way predecessors Glen Murray and Susan Thompson did: by building coalitions to support his policy, as opposed to leading a de facto majority in council.
The mayor acknowledged as much last week, when he used his first official campaign scrum to lash out at Manitoba's NDP for trying to claim control of city council instead of directly attacking Wasylycia-Leis.
In 2006, Katz and then-campaign manager Ryan Craig attempted to counter what was then a six-member council opposition by endorsing and otherwise supporting right-of-centre candidates such as the late Brenda Leipsic in River Heights, who knocked off Donald Benham, and neutralizing Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt by promoting him to executive policy committee.
In response, the centre-left Winnipeg Citizen's Coalition formed in 2008 with the expressed purpose of ensuring NDP-affiliated council candidates and left-leaning Liberals don't run against each other in 2010. The coalition had its test run in 2009, when Liberal Paul Hesse bowed out of the River Heights-Fort Garry byelection to allow fellow Liberal John Orlikow a better chance of defeating nominal conservative Geoff Currier.
Also in 2009, Manitoba's NDP amended its constitution to allow the party to co-operate with the citizen's coalition as part of a civic ward endorsement process that has resulted in nomination meetings in Daniel McIntyre and Elmwood East-Kildonan.
So important is the role of political affiliation in this election, some candidates are attempting to use their political independence as a chief selling point.
In Charleswood-Tuxedo, candidate Jarret Hannah issued a press release this week proclaiming he alone in the southwest Winnipeg ward "is the only candidate who has emerged without the need to toe the party line when making important decisions."
Today is the first day council candidates may register their campaigns, which allows them to raise and spend money. To appear on the Oct. 27 ballot, all council and mayoral candidates must also submit nomination papers in September.