Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Firefighters, police have yet to fill dance cards

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It's getting close to crunch time in the Winnipeg civic election and two of the most important political players have yet to book a date for the big night.

The United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Police Association, two powerful and influential unions that have played important roles in past civic-election races, have yet to announce mayoral endorsements.

Endorsements can and do make a difference in elections. Mayoral hopeful Brian Bowman, for example, is likely to do well with an endorsement from Jets owner Mark Chipman, announced Tuesday. The WPA and UFFW would be equally coveted nods.

The WPA had not endorsed a preferred mayoral candidate for nearly two decades when, in 2010, it backed soon-to-be-former-mayor Sam Katz. However, during his last term, Katz supported a council-sponsored review of police operations that left many in the WPA frustrated and angry.

WPA president Moe Sabourin said his union is still weighing possible endorsements but has not committed to supporting any one candidate.

The WPA's cautious approach stands in stark contrast to the UFFW, already hip-deep into the endorsement game.

The UFFW has become a bona fide force in electoral politics. And not just for its endorsements; its aggressive ground-level support has made it a worthy partner for many campaigns.

So far, UFFW president Alex Forrest said, six candidates for city council have received endorsements. These include four incumbents (Brian Mayes -- St. Vital; Grant Nordman -- St. Charles; Jenny Gerbasi -- Fort Rouge/East Fort Garry; and Ross Eadie -- Mynarski) and two newcomers (Matt Allard -- St. Boniface and Sachit Mehra -- St. Norbert).

To date, however, the UFFW has not picked a mayoral candidate. "We've been meeting with most of the candidates to feel them out on issues," said Forrest. "We will endorse someone, and once we support a candidate, we're in that battle 100 per cent."

What is the UFFW looking for in exchange for not only its endorsement, but also its ground game? Forrest said he would like assurances a mayoral candidate will not shy away from building new fire stations.

In the wake of a devastating audit of bungled efforts to build four fire-paramedic stations, that is a pretty big ask. Forrest is insistent, however, if a candidate wants the UFFW's considerable organizational support, he or she will have to play ball.

The UFFW can muster the direct support of more than 200 firefighters to help raise funds and organize street-level campaigns, Forrest said. That kind of support could be critical for a civic candidate. That having been said, when you get a UFFW endorsement, you get all the baggage as well.

UFFW support is, by design, sprinkled all over the partisan map. Although that means the UFFW is not beholden to any one party, it does cause some anxiety in certain political circles.

In its council endorsements, the firefighters have already thrown their support behind a strident Tory (Nordman) and a strident New Democrat (Gerbasi), with other endorsed candidates sprinkled in between.

Provincially, the firefighters have been extremely loyal to the NDP. In civic races, however, it has supported a broader array of candidates, some with conflicting ideologies and policies.

For example, the UFFW was always a big Katz supporter, even though he drew heavily on provincial Tory support for his campaigns. That galled provincial New Democrats, who felt the UFFW should have found a mayoral candidate more in line with NDP positions.

That history will put the UFFW in some sticky situations in this election.

Consider that in 2011, the UFFW attacked former councillor-turned-mayoral-candidate Gord Steeves when he resigned his seat to represent the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives in the provincial election. Steeves ran and lost in Seine River against MLA and cabinet minister Theresa Oswald.

In a news release, Forrest called Steeves a dishonest political opportunist for challenging Oswald. After attacking Steeves, you would think that would disqualify him for a mayoral endorsement. And you would be wrong.

Forrest said Steeves is still one of the candidates in the running for an endorsement. "When I criticized Gord, it was because he was going after a candidate, Theresa, that we supported fully. But in this election, we can still look at the individual when making our decisions."

On election night, when it's crunch time, politicians become pragmatic. And that means there isn't a candidate in the city who won't want to be seen with a burly firefighter in a flashy gold T-shirt.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 27, 2014 A5

History

Updated on Wednesday, August 27, 2014 at 9:57 AM CDT: corrects number of fire stations

4:50 PM: Corrects spelling of Grant Nordman

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