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Paranoid? I think not

Katz has reason to be suspicious of Winnipeg Citizens Coalition

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Back in the early 1950s, almost everyone in North America believed someone else was out to get them.

The Americans were scared of Communists. Intellectuals were scared of being blacklisted by McCarthyists. And little kids were scared of having their brains sucked out by bug-eyed, bulbous-headed aliens, thanks to movies inspired by the paranoia of the times.

Amid this climate of fear and loathing, a young family emigrated from Israel to Winnipeg to seek the proverbial better life. Among them was an infant named Samuel Michael Katz.

He would grow up to become a concert promoter, baseball team owner and mayor of the City of Winnipeg. And there was nothing paranoid about the man until 2009, when he began worrying about his own bug-headed monster: The beast known as the New Democratic Party of Manitoba.

Katz’s concern about the NDP first manifested  itself in June, when he opened fire on the province for a piece of legislation called Bill 35.

The bill bans corporations and unions from donating to candidates in municipal elections. The mayor felt it provides an advantage to NDP-affiliated council candidates. That’s because in elections where politicians of all political stripes have less money to spend on advertising, the NDP’s highly effective "ground game" — a well-organized pool of volunteers who can get out the vote on election day — becomes a bigger factor.

At the time, the mayor said "some ministers" in what was then the Doer government are "putting all their energies toward me" and noted then-finance minister Greg Selinger, now Manitoba’s premier, is close friends with St. Boniface Coun. Dan Vandal. 

Now you could argue a guy as well-known and popular as Sam Katz should have nothing to fear from anyone, even the premier of Manitoba. But in a modern election, popularity alone may not be enough to trump an organized opposition that includes a governing party and some Liberal allies.

The seeds of this organization actually took shape in 2008, when a coalition of Dippers and left-leaning Liberals formed a group called the Winnipeg Citizens Coalition, which is aimed at ensuring leftie candidates don’t run against each other in municipal elections.

Aside from playing a small role in John Orlikow’s byelection victory in River Heights-Fort Garry in 2009, this group has yet to do much of anything. But the mayor repeatedly lent the WCC legitimacy by claiming it exists solely to remove him from power.

In reality, the citizens coalition is out to loosen Katz’s control of city council. Paul Hesse, a left-leaning Liberal coalition member, bowed out of the River Heights race to give Orlikow a better shot of beating Conservative-backed broadcaster Geoff Currier.

And also in 2009, the New Democratic Party quietly made a move to further the coalition’s goals when the party amended its constitution to allow coalitions to play a role in nominations of municipal candidates.

Despite the official absence of political parties from city hall, every sitting member of the current council except Sam Katz has been a member of one party or another at some point. And even Katz has party ties, given that many of his key advisers have been Tories or right-wing Liberals.

But the NDP has had the ability to nominate municipal candidates for years. When more than one party member wants to run for city council, they’re supposed to approach the riding associations that coincide with their council wards.

What’s changed since last year’s NDP convention is the party may now work with the Winnipeg Citizens Coalition — a move that makes Katz sound a lot less like a paranoid politician and a lot more like a guy who knows somebody is gunning for him.

When I reported this change in December, Katz applauded the NDP for coming out and admitting what it was doing. Yet some coalition members are playing cute and espousing the phoney line that they’re merely out to increase voter participation in municipal elections.

Last week, newly elected WCC co-chair Bobbi Ethier — a Liberal — told one of my colleagues Katz should embrace the coalition. 
Sure. And mice shouldn’t worry about cats, krill should hang out with humpback whales and the allied forces in Afghanistan should start sitting down for tea with the Taliban.

As last week’s weird State of the City speech revealed, Sam Katz can be a little wingy. He may give his opposition more credit than it deserves sometimes.

But the move to defeat a few of Katz’s council allies and even get rid of him has a lot more substance than old worries about Communists under beds and aliens overhead.

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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