Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Municipal elections get some jam

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Neither the mayoral race in Winnipeg nor the nail-bitingly close contest in Toronto can match the excitement of this week's upset in Calgary, but all of a sudden, municipal politics are starting to look really interesting.

In Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, a Muslim with a master's degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, came from nowhere to overtake the two front-runners and claim the mayoralty.

It was from the position of director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School that Michael Ignatieff left to become leader of the Canadian Liberal Party. But while Ignatieff spent his life in academia and journalism before switching to politics, Nenshi has had a distinguished business career with the leading consultancy firm McKinsey and Co.

In Winnipeg, the close race between Sam Katz and Judy Wasylycia-Leis and in Toronto between George Smitherman, the former Ontario deputy premier, and suburban councillor Rob Ford have their own sense of excitement for different reasons.

The accounts of Nenshi's victory over his closest opponent, the veteran councillor Ric McIver, are that he made brilliant use of social media: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and his own website. The key to his victory, however, appears to be that he was an outsider voted in by a populace fed up with the former mayor and his council.

We've seen that phenomenon before. It has dominated American presidential politics from the election of Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama. Presidents Carter and Clinton were governors of little-known states. Neither had national experience. President Reagan, an actor who came to politics late in life, was the quintessential Washington outsider and President Obama, although a sitting senator when elected, has other rather obvious outsider traits.

It is the phenomenon that brought Sam Katz into politics. Before running for mayor six years ago, Katz was best known as an impresario and the man who brought baseball and the wonderful Canwest Park to the city. He had never held public office. Katz was so much of an outsider, and entered the race so late, that he was playing catch-up on many of the issues in the campaign. The success of the ballpark and a persona that suggested Katz was more man-of-the-people than politician became hugely appealing.

Katz, no longer an outsider, is running as an incumbent, a position that may be more of a liability than an asset as voters worldwide have become disillusioned with those in power.

Wasylycia-Leis has made politics her career and has that baggage to carry, but her long experience in the federal opposition and left-leaning stance make her a genuine alternative.

In an ironic twist, the wildcard outsider who threatened to juice the Toronto election was former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray, who briefly, a year ago, started gauging the support he might have to run for Toronto mayor.

I went to his opening event -- a gathering to which a far bigger crowd turned out than he had expected. He gave one of the best speeches -- entirely off-the-cuff -- about the importance of cities that I have ever heard and then he dropped out.

Once George Smitherman decided to run, the chances were that both men would draw votes from the same liberal crowd and that Murray's chances of winning were much reduced. In one of Murray's most astute political moves, he parlayed his wildcard threat into running in the provincial seat Smitherman vacated.

As a newly minted cabinet minister in Dalton McGuinty's Ontario government, Murray may be the true winner from the mayoral race, as Smitherman battles for his political life.

There is no Nenshi-style outsider in Toronto, but the mantle of anti-government feeling has been fully taken up by the right-of-centre Ford, whose slash and burn promises of fiscal cuts have hit a chord with voters fed up with the centre-left policies of outgoing Mayor David Miller, and particularly with what they see as a capitulation to the municipal workers' union.

The close fight has, however, created real interest among voters. Long lines have been forming at advance polling stations and there are signs that the centrist supporters of Smitherman may come out in droves to stop Ford.

Municipal politicians cannot ask for more than getting the voters truly engaged in city politics. Gifted outsiders like Nenshi help that to happen, but close races like those in Toronto and Winnipeg can serve the same purpose. It is municipal government that rubs most directly against our lives. Once every four years we get the chance to say how well our local leaders have performed. Go out and vote.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 21, 2010 A12

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