Voters unlikely to embrace campaign lacking in vision
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My hopes of a big surge in voter turnout for the 2022 civic election have been officially dashed by Jenny Motkaluk.
Goodness knows, Motkaluk won’t be solely responsible if turnout tanks later this week. But no single candidate has done more to disillusion voters and make them fear for the integrity of local government than Motkaluk.
“Jenny,” as she fashions herself, ran a strong second four years go to outgoing Mayor Brian Bowman. Unfortunately, according to successive polls, she exists only as an afterthought for voters heading into the home stretch of this year’s mayoral race.
Faced with almost certain defeat, Motkaluk seems to be involved in an inexplicable process of burning her municipal political brand to the ground.
Starting over the summer, Motkaluk lashed out with a series of angry attacks on other candidates, Indigenous Winnipeggers and anyone who believes vaccines and masks are effective in battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
In late September, she defied school rules requiring mask use while participating in a University of Manitoba mayoral forum, proudly proclaiming to a chorus of boos that she was done with “masks and social distancing.” In early October, she held an unauthorized news conference at The Forks to repeat her concerns about the modified Canada Day celebrations held this past summer.
Against a backdrop of anti-vaccine protesters, Motkaluk spewed a torrent of libertarian nonsense about how she alone among mayoral candidates was rejecting “woke culture,” and “critical race theory and… collective guilt for our imperfect past.”
As it stands now, there are really only two possible explanations for Motkaluk’s ugly behaviour: first, that she knows she cannot win and is simply allowing her anger to get the best of her; or second, in desperation she has decided to embrace the far-right fantasy of motivating a great and silent majority of libertarian sympathizers to rise up at the last moment and win the election.
Although embracing her inner alt-right may be earning Motkaluk some headlines, it is unlikely to lead her to victory. It could, however, send a shock wave through the campaign that may help to suppress an expected surge in voter turnout.
Whenever an incumbent steps aside, as Brian Bowman has done, voters tend to be more engaged. That was certainly the case in 1992 (58.4 per cent voter turnout when Susan Thompson won in the wake of Bill Norrie’s retirement); 2004 (58.8 per cent in a byelection won by Sam Katz to replace Glen Murray); and 2014 (50.23 per cent when Bowman ran to replace Katz).
Unfortunately, scandal and toxicity have always been the principal tools of voter suppression. Although it started off on a more positive note, the 2022 mayoral campaign has seen a slow increase in both.
Murray, the presumptive front-runner, faced serious allegations of physical and sexual harassment. Accompanied by Motkaluk’s alt-right antics, and a lack of bold vision in most of the remaining candidates
It should be noted that in general, civic elections have horrible turnouts. The highest turnout ever in a Winnipeg civic election in the Unicity era was 60.7 per cent in 1971, when Stephen Juba trounced four challengers. However, even with that result included, over the last five decades voter turnout has averaged just 40 per cent.
To become more than it is now, Winnipeg desperately needs different thinking and tactics. We need voters to be engaged to drive civic leaders to build a better city and not just fix the one we have. Thankfully, I am not alone in ideas.
Fellow columnists Brent Bellamy and Melissa Martin have both passionately advocated for, and lamented the shortage of, bold vision in this campaign. Far too many mayoral candidates are satisfied with commitments to run a better version of the existing city hall, without any thought of what we could be.
Even when candidates have the temerity to dream big — as Shaun Loney has with a bold campaign to improve the social fabric of the city, or Murray with his idea to convince the provincial government to share sales tax to support the city — they are greeted with indifference or choruses of angry sneers.
The world’s best cities focus as much on the social welfare of their citizens as they do on the condition of their streets. And hundreds of cities in the United States are able to create that balance between people and potholes because they have access to a share of state sales taxes, or sales taxes of their own.
Winnipeg is a fantastic city, one that is often unfairly disparaged by the people who live here. But right now, the debate about our future is dominated by toxic political performance artists and angry naysayers.
There are several candidates in the mayoral race who are no doubt capable of running a viable city hall. It’s not clear that any of them are interested in transforming the city into something more than it is right now.
Even without an incumbent, it’s hard to see how the electorate is going to embrace a campaign like this. And in saying that, I have never wanted to be more wrong than I do right now.
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.