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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fringe candidates get attention they deserve

Posted: 07/28/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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Mike  Vogiatzakis

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In May, Idaho Republican Gov. Butch Otter stunned political observers when he demanded all candidates in the GOP primary race be allowed to participate in a televised debate.

It was a stunner because in addition to Russ Fulcher, a veteran state senator, the primary campaign included two, shall we say, fringe candidates.

There was Walt Bayes, an elderly rancher with 16 children (five of whom went on to be rodeo cowboys) who is best known for having a beard Santa Claus would envy. Alongside Bayes was biker Harley Brown, an infamous eccentric who claimed a "Masai prophet" predicted one day he would be president of the United states.

Fortunately, both men are blessed with a modicum of self-awareness.

Bayes actually thanked Gov. Otter for making room for he and Brown in the debate. "(Otter) kind of insisted that me and this other un-normal person could be here tonight."

In his closing statement, Brown offered this gem of realism. "You have your choice folks," Brown said, a vision in his trademark biker hat and leather vest. "A cowboy, a curmudgeon, a biker or a normal guy. Take your pick."

Is this a robust example of the beautiful, imperfect wonder that is democracy, or a needless distraction? There has been speculation Otter invited the fringe candidates to debate in order to give Fulcher, the only true threat in the campaign, less time to attack the incumbent's record.

Either way, the Idaho primary reveals one of the dilemmas of modern democracy: the role of fringe candidates. It is a dilemma on display now in Winnipeg's mayoral race.

In alphabetical order, there are four candidates who can be considered mainstream: lawyer Brian Bowman; city councillor Paula Havixbeck; former councillor Gord Steeves, and former MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis.

In addition, there are three other "fringe" candidates: university administrator Robert Ouellette, funeral home director Mike Vogiatzakis, and Michel Fillion, a club booking agent.

Ouellette has earned respect and media exposure for a mainly thoughtful, sometimes scattered campaign. The other two candidates, not so much.

It is always a challenge for the media, in day-to-day coverage of the campaign, and lobby groups, which host mayoral forums, to figure out where to put the non-mainstream candidates. Democracy demands any citizen with the courage to put their name forward deserves some attention. On the other hand, a mayoral election is serious business and anyone considered less than serious can be left on the sidelines. That isn't fair, but it's a practical reality.

Media coverage and forum invitations tend to focus on candidates deemed to be "viable." The problem is, we don't have a hard definition of viable. That injustice has already caused some of the fringe candidates to complain they are being unfairly denied media exposure.

Fillion, who has not been very visible, went to city hall earlier this month to rail at reporters for ignoring his campaign and focusing on his work as a booking agent for exotic dancers.

Fillion argued democracy demands we pay attention. However, other than claiming he wants to make Winnipeg a better city, he hasn't offered many ideas on how to make that happen. As a result, he is an afterthought.

The same challenge faces Vogiatzakis. The bombastic businessman has been active online and made a few announcements and public appearances. However, other than hyperactive populist rhetoric, it's hard to find a serious idea in his campaign.

And yet, he continues to protest his treatment by the media. On the weekend, Vogiatzakis initiated a Twitter firefight when he criticized a column by Free Press colleague Bartley Kives that offered a power ranking of the mayoral candidates. As you might imagine, Vogiatzakis did not rank high.

Saturday turned into a day of angry, sometimes unintelligible tweets, including a Rob Ford-style selfie with three bikini-clad supporters at a campaign event at Fun Mountain. Vogiatzakis originally defended the photo ("I'm at a water! park did you expect the ladies to swim in jeans?") but later deleted it.

He also suffered universal condemnation for his angry Twitter stream of consciousness. Several citizens of Twitterdom had a solution for Vogiatzakis: surrender your phone to your campaign manager and stop tweeting.

Should his name remain on the ballot in October, Vogiatzakis will get serious attention. Whether he enjoys that attention is a different matter.

Vogiatzakis is now learning one of the most important lessons of electoral politics: Putting your name on a ballot is easy; campaigning is very hard.

That means as a candidate, you do not get automatic attention. You get the attention you deserve.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2014 B1

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