In late 2009 and early 2010, there was a dream that became known as the Winnipeg Citizens Coalition.
This diverse group of political organizers and operatives formed around the idea that in any given election, a single progressive civic candidate, properly supported and well-organized, could not only take down some listless lifers on council, but also likely defeat incumbent Mayor Sam Katz.
The result, the coalition promised, would be a wholesale change in culture at city hall. A new spirit that would replace the expediency and cronyism of the Katz years with an urgent, forward-thinking age of civic enlightenment.
The WCC elected an executive, raised some money, released a poll and started looking for a mayoral candidate. The person they were looking for was not necessarily an established politician from centre-left parties such as the NDP or Liberals. A candidate who had little or no political baggage, a condition that would give them a credibility that would cross partisan lines.
It was an intriguing dream, but one that would be unrealized. Early the following year, Judy Wasylycia-Leis quit her job as a federal MP and entered the mayoral race, splitting the WCC and ending the dream of introducing a new face to civic politics.
In the election just finished, there was no sign of a coalition of any kind readying a progressive candidate. The unions were out endorsing their candidates, and business and partisan interests were out as usual lending their support to a favoured few. It looked as if politics as usual would dominate.
Enter Brian Bowman.
Although largely typecast as a right-of-centre, business-friendly candidate, the mayor-elect's platform is objectively progressive. Yes, he has supported the provincial Progressive Conservatives, and yes there was some anti-business-tax rhetoric in his platform. But throughout the rest of his pledges you find commitments to increased openness and transparency at city hall, a completed bus rapid transit system and increased investment to combat homelessness and poverty. All without simply borrowing some other party's campaign machinery — his campaign team was notable for its overall lack of political experience — or resorting to tired, populist banter about more cops on the streets and cutting fat at city hall.
For goodness sakes, this was a mayoral candidate who threatened to increase funding for arts and cultural organizations. In case you were wondering, real right-wing candidates don't promise to pump more money into cultural industries.
On the morning after his compelling victory, Bowman was at the Free Press News Café looking and sounding much like the progressive candidate the citizens' coalition dreamed about five years earlier.
"Now that the election is over, we're getting ready to govern for all Winnipeggers," Bowman said. "Whether they're on the right or left — it really doesn't matter to me. We have to build a better Winnipeg for all Winnipeggers."
Of course it is a long-standing tradition for the conquering mayoral candidate to make a conciliatory offer of a seat in the big tent to citizens of all political and ideological stripes.
Furthermore, right now we can only judge Bowman on his campaign promises. The real test of his progressive credentials will come over the next four years as he attempts to drag the rest of council toward the kind of city he described prior to the election. It will be a herculean challenge.
Even with a council that is 50 per cent new, getting councillors to abandon ward politics and think bigger will be quite a task. Particularly for a mayor with no political experience of his own.
Bowman will be trying to enact a progressive agenda at the same time he is taking a crash course on civic politics and administration. That is the political equivalent of juggling a chainsaw, a flaming torch and a sword. All while balancing on a beach ball.
That challenge is, however, the reality that any unencumbered, inexperienced, progressive candidate would face in the event that he or she was somehow able to win an election. The next four years will be an experiment in getting city hall, and the entire city, to confront ideas that were previously considered too bold or ambitious for any mayor to undertake.
Winnipeg has developed a nagging reputation as a listless, moribund city whose government is solely focused on paving streets. It has been, for many years, a place where good ideas go to die a slow, painful death by political and administrative gridlock.
Bowman's promises — and that's all they are at this point — could be an antidote to that reputation. Emphasis on "could be."
We may not agree with everything Brian Bowman said during the election. But we should all wish him luck in his endeavour.
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.