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Is Justin in trouble?

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St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel sure got an earful from crabby Fort Richmond residents last night at an open house about the new stadium. He was buttonholed and peppered with questions and he barely got a word in edgewise.

Folks living south of the U of M say the Bombers’ new home will make their neighbourhood a parking and traffic nightmare and there’s been no consultation with residents. And organisers like Jeff Fidyk are frustrated that Swandel hasn’t championed their cause and has been awol at public meetings.

Earlier this summer, I was tempted to do what many online commenters are doing - dismiss the residents as nimbies and assume the fight would be confined to one small suburban enclave. But the residents got 300 people to a meeting a few weeks back and they appear to be getting increasingly well-organised and well-researched. And, as the status of the stadium gets murkier, the Fort Richmond folks start to look like they might have a point.

As mad as they are at Swandel, Fidyk tells me none of the core activists are actively volunteering for Swandel’s challenger, Louise May, but they sure have her signs on their lawns. Swandel has probably lost hundreds of votes in Fort Richmond and University Heights, but is that enough to put the sprawling ward in play or seriously erode Swandel’s 4,500 margin of victory in 2006?

I ask for two reasons. First, the issue reveals one of Swandel’s biggest weaknesses – his tendency toward pugnaciousness. I heard a snippet of audio from last night’s meeting on the CBC this morning, and Swandel didn’t come off well. He sounded imperious and dismissive.

Swandel is one of the smartest, hardest-working and most detail-oriented councillors at city hall. He sees things many councillors miss and he’s no fence-sitter, which is refreshing.

But now that he’s well out of his rookie phase, Swandel has become more and more like his mentor, former St. Nob councillor John Angus. The veteran Liberal is one of my all-time favourite councillors but a guy whose white-haired charm barely concealed a don’t-screw-with-me steeliness.

Angus didn’t suffer fools, and he was often short with constituents. If Swandel adopts that approach to contentious ward issues, he could alienate more than just the few dozen voters near the stadium.

Second, ward problems like the stadium seem like exactly the kind of small-scale, self-contained issues that fester and grow and bring down an incumbent. Sometimes those are the only things that can counter the power of name recognition that keeps politicians ensconced at city hall for decades.

Is St. Norbert turning into this year’s North Kildonan, where then-councillor Mark Lubosch took his ward for granted, was late out of the gate and got clobbered by upstart Jeff Browaty in the last election? It was the endless debate over opening/closing McIvor Avenue that largely did Lubosch in.

I was surprised by Browaty’s victory, and it taught me not to underestimate the snowball effect of a few vocal people on a few very cranky blocks whose small, parochial questions raise bigger ones about how a councillor represents his ward.

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About Mary Agnes Welch

Mary Agnes Welch joined the Free Press in 2002, first as a general assignment reporter and then covering city hall and the Manitoba legislature before moving to her current post as public policy reporter.

Before Winnipeg, she worked at the Windsor Star and the Odessa American, a small daily newspaper in West Texas. There, in addition to covering more than 20 counties, she took high school football scores from coaches all over West Texas by phone every Friday night.

Mary Agnes is a graduate of Columbia University’s journalism school, has won several Western Ontario Newspaper Awards and has been part of two teams of reporters nominated for a Michener Award. In 2011, she was nominated for a National Newspaper Award in the beat category. She is also the former national president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

She once misspelled "Shih Tzu" in the paper and received 37 emails from angry dog-owners.


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