Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Brandon faces clear choice for mayor

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Shari Decter Hirst


Shari Decter Hirst

BRANDON -- It is the mayoral contest Winnipeg's voters may envy in the coming months.

While there could be 10 or more candidates running for mayor of Winnipeg, with the majority fighting for the centre-right vote, Brandon's mayoral election will give voters a clear choice between two well-known, experienced candidates who hold sharply contrasting views on a host of issues important to their city.

Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, a longtime New Democrat, is running for re-election against popular former deputy mayor Rick Chrest, a centrist business owner with deep, multi-generational roots in Brandon.

The incumbent often has the advantage in an election, but a Probe Research poll conducted for the Brandon Sun in January gave Chrest a 29-24 lead over Decter Hirst in a hypothetical contest involving seven potential candidates. If Chrest received all of the support given to the other centre-right candidates named in the poll, and Decter-Hirst received all of the support given to the other centre-left candidates, Chrest would lead by a 57-43 margin.

It is a risky extrapolation, but it accurately reflects the current mood of Brandon voters, many of whom are weary of the controversies that have dogged Decter Hirst throughout her mandate.

They include her attempt to raise property taxes by more than 20 per cent in one year, the squandering of hundreds of thousands of tax dollars on a futile Canada Games bid, conflict-of-interest allegations, exaggerated academic credentials, unpaid property taxes on properties she owns, and her open-mic threat to slap a city councillor during a council meeting.

In a recent column entitled Shari, Shari, quite contrary, Brandon Sun managing editor James O'Connor expressed his frustration with Decter Hirst, writing "Our city's first councillor needs to start playing nicer with others. She has to stop whining when things don't go her way. She has to stop getting her name in provincial media for negative issues.

"She needs to shut up and listen to her staff, fellow councillors and the people of Brandon who elected her."

With scorching criticism like that in the press and all the political baggage she has accumulated during her tenure as mayor, Decter Hirst's path to re-election is far from certain, but she will be relying on a strategy that has carried other incumbents to success.

In an effort to distract voters from her missteps, she will attempt to reframe the dynamics of the campaign by putting the focus on Chrest, arguing he is a pawn of Brandon's business class who neither understands nor cares about the concerns of ordinary Brandonites. She will warn he would take Brandon backwards, and isn't worth the risk of jeopardizing the city's bright future.

If that sounds familiar, it is the strategy Manitoba's NDP has successfully employed against the Progressive Conservatives in the past three provincial elections. The problem for Decter Hirst is it will be difficult to use against Chrest, for two reasons.

First, Brandonites already know who he is and what he stands for.

He was born here and has served the city in various capacities for three decades, including two terms on city council.

Second, he has strong answers to the mayor's fear-mongering. He can point to the large property-tax increases Decter Hirst voted for -- with little to show for it -- and compare that to the eight straight city budgets he voted for that kept property-tax increases at or below the rate of inflation.

In response to the accusation he is part of an "old boys club," Chrest can remind voters several of the city's most prominent business owners actually supported Decter Hirst in the 2010 mayoral campaign.

As to the suggestion he is a threat to the city's future, he can invite voters to recall Brandon consistently ranked as one of Canada's top 10 cities when he was on council, but not since Decter Hirst became mayor.

While Brandon's mayoral campaign promises to be a hard-fought affair, it has several attributes Winnipeg's will not: It will give voters a thorough airing of issues and a distinct choice. Best of all, the winner will emerge with a mandate delivered by the majority of voters.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Twitter - @deverynross

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 9, 2014 A11

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