Running into trouble After a sometimes bruising four-year course in politics, Winnipeg's mayor heads back to the starting line knowing that an even more difficult second term is waiting for him if he hangs on to his job in October's civic election
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/06/2018 (1509 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Mayor Brian Bowman is taking an exceptionally long time to find an answer.
“If I had to do it all over again, what would I have done differently?” he says, repeating the question just put to him amid the early morning din of a downtown coffee shop.
Resplendent in his typical I-don’t-have-a-special-event uniform of crisp white shirt, sports jacket and jeans — he looks down at the table, eyes searching. “It’s a really good question. I’ve never heard it phrased quite like that before.”
After what seems like an eternity, he finally returns to the roughest moment of his first four years in office: his public spat with True North Sports and Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman over now-under-construction True North Square while he was just months into the job. In particular, Bowman’s allegation that True North had somehow acted improperly in obtaining an option to develop land at 220 Carlton St.
“I think I would have chosen my language more carefully over 220 Carlton. I definitely think the language I used contributed to making that a more difficult file than it needed to be. But we eventually got to where we needed to go, which was to support a really fantastic project and to do it in an open and transparent way. You know, Mark and I have had some conversations about that whole issue, about things we both would have done differently.”
In a world in which politicians spend most of their time trying to distance themselves from missteps rather than apologize for them, Bowman’s admission is quite unusual. But then again, in many ways Bowman is not your typical politician.
A lawyer by profession, Bowman had no political experience to speak of when he announced in 2014 that he wanted to be mayor. He was initially categorized as right of centre and certainly seemed business-friendly, promising fiscal stability and lower business taxes. He made road repairs and fiscal stability his top issues, a campaign strategy designed to appeal to conservative voters who were initially supporting former city councillor Gord Steeves.
At the same time, however, he pledged support for issues such as rapid transit and active transportation, key issues for left-of-centre voters who may not have been keen on seeing Judy Wasylycia-Leis — the self-declared progressive candidate — on the ballot for a second run at the mayor’s office.
Bowman thrived in the middle ground between Steeves and Wasylycia-Leis, winning a commanding mandate. Once in office, however, it continued to be difficult to pin him down in ideological terms.
His work ethic is most definitely traditional. From ribbon cuttings to coffee parties and cultural festivals, Bowman embraces those “greetings from the city” duties that so many previous mayors have shrugged off in the past. At the same time, his advanced capacity to leverage modern political tools such as social media — Bowman’s intensity on Twitter and Facebook is relentless — ensures he is visible to as large an audience as possible.
On policy, however, he has been a bit less traditional.
There have been gestures towards right-of-centre voters. He has cut business taxes consistently since taking office, and has generally overseen an austere approach to budgeting. However, at the same time, he has sparred openly and often with Progressive Conservative Premier Brian Pallister over provincial funding cuts. He also introduced controversial growth fees, a move that has drawn the ire of some of the city’s largest and most influential development companies.
Right wing or left wing? Progressive or traditional? As he prepares for a re-election campaign that will begin in earnest in a few weeks, Bowman promises that he’ll continue to allow his agenda to evolve as he looks for ways to prepare this city for the future.
Front and centre will be a bit less attention to road repairs and more attention to things such as recreational and cultural amenities.
“We’ve made great progress on roads,” he says. “Where we’re falling behind is bridges and community centres. The energy you’ve seen me put into roads in the last term, you can expect to see me put the same energy into creating safe, vibrant neighbourhoods of family in the next term.”
Those watching the mayoral race certainly support the idea of a maturation of Bowman’s agenda that sees him devote less time to streets and more to social issues and long-term planning.
“We would really like to see a compelling vision for the city well into the future,” says Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce president Loren Remillard. “We’d like to encourage the next mayor and all of the members of council to tell us where they see the city in 20 or 30 years. We don’t want a mayor who wants to fixate on fixing a few potholes but isn’t worried where the road is going.”
Remillard says he will be watching closely to see if Bowman, or any other candidate, will improve upon the growth fees; the chamber supports the notion of a fee, but would like to see it used more to influence development. That would mean putting a high price on new suburban projects and giving a break to infill or other improvments in mature and core-area neighbourhoods.
“We really give Brian a lot of credit for introducing these fees,” Remillard says. “A lot of mayors wanted to do this, but he finally got it done. However, he has to be more aggressive in using the fees as a planning tool to help us build the city we need in the future.”
The view from the opposite side of the political spectrum is not in conflict with what the business community is saying, although some of the priorities of left-of-centre observers are distinct. Still, Lynne Fernandez of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says progressive Winnipeg voters want a mayor who can think well into the future.
“We had hoped that a new, more progressive candidate would come forward to get some different ideas into the campaign, but that doesn’t seem to be materializing,” says Fernandez. “That means it’s highly unlikely that many new ideas will come from the candidates we see stepping forward.”
Other than Bowman, six others have declared to run for the job: Jenny Motkaluk, Tim Diack, Doug Wilson, Don Woodstock, Umar Havat and Desmond Thomas. Motkaluk, a business development consultant, has been most visible. To date, her campaign has been rife with the “better roads, safer streets” mantra that typically sells well during municipal elections. Her campaign — managed, it appears, by some key members of Steeves’ team — also includes a pledge to keep Portage and Main closed to pedestrians and possibly killing the southwest extension of the bus rapid transit program.
Largely out of concern that the mayoral candidates would try to undo some of the progress made in the past four years, Fernandez said the CCPA tried to inject some new ideas into the campaign by releasing an alternative city budget a couple of weeks ago. It included significant new investments in cultural and recreational infrastructure, along with significant property-tax increases and a big jump in growth fees.
“We really wanted to produce a document that gave the mayor some wiggle room,” she says. “We know how tough it has been to manage the city’s finances. He really needs some additional revenue to help him with some of his goals.”
In particular, Fernandez says she hopes Bowman, or someone else, will look at a discounted transit pass for low-income Winnipeggers.
“We don’t expect him to adopt our entire budget, but it would be nice if he looked at some of the ideas and tried to find a way to make them work,” she says.
Other than shifting some focus from roads to community infrastructure, Bowman hasn’t made any campaign announcements or hinted at any new policies or projects. That will come later in the summer as the campaign heats up.
For now, the mayor is reflecting on the work of the last four years and acknowledging that there were some rough patches.
From his public dispute with Chipman to a series of swift and somewhat mysterious changes to senior administration at city hall, the term has been a bit of a thrill ride for the political rookie.
“When I first started, it was like drinking from a fire hose,” he says. “Things were moving so quickly, it was hard to get a fix on anything.”
Still, he says he’ll be proud to run on his record. The infrastructure deficit — the accumulated total of all work that needs to be done — has finally started to decrease. And Bowman says other basic economic indicators are showing that he and council have had some positive effects on the city.
“If there’s one stat I want people to focus on, it’s this: there were 698,000 residents when I was first elected; we’re now over 750,000 and growing,” he says. “We’ve seen over 52,000 new net residents come to Winnipeg in my first term. There is proof in those numbers. More people are moving to the city. More people are staying. That means opportunity, and challenges.”
Chief among the challenges is the likelihood that the provincial government will continue to choke off funding to Main Street for capital projects and operating costs. In the last year alone, the city has seen millions of dollars in almost all funding streams cut back as the premier attempts to get its own budget deficit under control.
That reality means Bowman or the candidate who beats him is going to experience a pretty bumpy ride.
“This next term is going to be much more difficult… because of the downloading from the provincial government. Whoever is mayor and on council after this election are going to have make some brutally tough decisions that are not going to be popular. There is no way around that.
“You can look for all the efficiencies in the world — and we will — but there are still going to have to be some difficult decisions on the expenditure and revenue side which will not be popular,” he says. “If you’re not well-grounded on your vision for where you want this city to go, it will be chaos. Whoever is in the mayor’s office over the next four years is not going to be very popular.”
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Friday, June 29, 2018 8:19 PM CDT: corrects typo