December 10, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Never before have we seen so many legitimate challengers ready and willing to be Winnipeg's next mayor, so far in advance of the next election.
It used to be potential candidates would lie quietly in the tall grass, waiting for the incumbent to make his or her intentions known. If there was no incumbent, they would pounce. If the incumbent decided to run again, most challengers would quietly withdraw.
Mayor Sam Katz has not indicated definitively whether he's running in 2014. That has not stopped the onslaught.
We already have one official candidate -- former councillor Gord Steeves -- and a host of others who are threatening to run with a confidence and brashness rarely seen in this city.
Coun. Paula Havixbeck, a constant critic of the current mayor, seems certain to run. The same goes for council colleague Scott Fielding. Former MP Judy Wasylicia-Leis, who ran against Katz in 2010, is mulling a second bid. Lawyer Brian Bowman is said to be nearly 100 per cent in the race.
This could be the most hotly contested mayoral race since 1992, when former mayor Bill Norrie stepped down and three former city councillors battled eventual winner Susan Thompson, a political rookie, for the top civic job.
Just a few months ago, it appeared Katz, if he wanted to run again, was unbeatable. This despite having suffered through the revelation of a host of ethical transgressions.
Since then, Katz's aura of invincibility has mostly disappeared. The recent special audit into the contracts for the fire-paramedic station replacement program has helped galvanize a long list of concerns about Katz and his friends and business partners.
The audit found former CAO Phil Sheegl, a close Katz friend and business partner, improperly helped Shindico Realty, a company owned by Katz loyalists Sandy and Robert Shindleman, obtain four lucrative contracts to build fire-paramedic stations.
More details about the manipulation of the city's real estate transactions are expected in a second, broader audit next year. However, the damage is done. No one is afraid of Sam anymore. And that has emboldened challengers.
However, what these mayoral wannabes have in ambition they may lack in leadership potential.
Consider the case of the aforementioned Steeves, who held a splashy news conference this week to announce his candidacy. He had posters, balloons, T-shirts and buttons festooned with his slogan, "Mayor for a new day."
In fact, the only thing he didn't have was the legal authority to announce his candidacy. The official campaign does not begin until next April, and until then no one is allowed to spend money on campaign materials or events. That's a tragic irony for a man who has a law degree.
And the irony didn't stop there. At his likely illegal launch, Steeves pledged to restore a culture of responsibilty to civic affairs. Unfortunately, Steeves spent most of his post-announcement scrum dodging responsibility for the fire-paramedic station mess.
Given Steeves was not only on council but also chaired the committee that oversaw the fire-paramedic station program when it began, his claims are simply unbelievable.
The launch event may not propel Steeves to the mayor's office. On the positive side of the ledger, he may have set a world record for the fastest breach of a campaign promise.
In fairness, Steeves is not the only mayoral contender to stumble.
Coun. Scott Fielding, long thought to be a mayoral candidate in 2014 if Katz did not run, has been much more restrained in his approach. No splashy campaign launch, no problems with electoral law. However, he has also demonstrated some questionable judgment.
Following the release of the fire-paramedic station audit, Fielding resigned from executive policy committee. At the time, Fielding said his decision was a protest against a draft 2014 civic budget that called for a possible property-tax increase.
First and foremost, it's hard to believe Fielding would step down from council over a draft budget. If he felt strongly there should be no tax increase, then he owed it to his constituents to stay on EPC and make that point.
A more likely explanation is Fielding is running as quickly as he can from EPC and the train wreck Katz is becoming so it does not impair his mayoral bid. For someone who aspires to lead the city, that is a strange way to demonstrate leadership.
There is a black cloud hanging over Katz right now, and that is certainly forcing challengers out into the open. Ironically, those who have been first off the mark have not yet demonstrated they're worthy of the mayor's office.
This is a city that is in desperate need of an upgrade in the mayor's office. So far, it's not clear a better option has stepped forward.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 1, 2013 B1