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This article was published 20/7/2018 (586 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
All of a sudden, there’s a buzz of activity down at the intersection of Uncertainty and Retreat. And nobody seems to know why.
Mayor Brian Bowman’s unexpected softening on the issue of reopening the corner of Portage and Main to pedestrians has many observers wondering what prompted the city’s top elected official to release his grip on an issue that was the centrepiece of his 2014 election campaign.
Mr. Bowman, who is standing for re-election this fall, announced this week that he would support a motion to include a non-binding public referendum on the Portage and Main reopening on the civic election ballot.
"I see no reason why we wouldn’t let Winnipeggers voice their views on this issue," the mayor said on Wednesday, a day before city council voted 14-1 in favour of adding a yes-or-no question about Portage and Main to the Oct. 24 ballot. Mr. Bowman added that he would treat the referendum as binding, regardless of whether public opinion favoured reintroducing above-ground foot traffic to the famed intersection or leaving its pedestrian-barring barriers in place.
What’s unclear, however, is what has caused this change of heart. Reopening the intersection is an initiative Mr. Bowman has championed passionately, both as a candidate and a mayor. His suddenly subdued commitment to the concept suggests he has arrived at the conclusion that pushing hard for pedestrian access to Portage and Main amounts to a stroll into a political minefield.
Despite his enthusiasm for lifting the barriers, Mr. Bowman is surely aware that various public-opinion polls have shown either tepid interest in, or flat-out rejection of, the idea of reopening Winnipeg’s iconic downtown interchange. In fact, it could fairly be argued that Portage and Main wasn’t really all that much of an issue until candidate Bowman decided to make it a centrepiece of his mayoral aspiration.
Recently, business consultant Jenny Motkaluk, the highest-profile contender to date for the mayor’s council chamber chair, launched her campaign by taking direct shots at Mr. Bowman’s abiding intersectional interest, stating bluntly that "the Winnipeg I lead will not spend another single minute or dollar talking about that issue."
Council’s endorsement of the referendum motion introduced by suburban Coun. Jeff Browaty and Coun. Janice Lukes — both frequent city hall opponents of the mayor — does, however, guarantee a lot more time and money will be spent on the Portage and Main issue between now and election day. The city has no regulations limiting the amount third parties can spend in support of, or opposition to, ballot questions.
Mr. Bowman, who has shown himself to be an active, well-connected and savvy public figure during his first term, is no doubt aware of the power of incumbency in civic politics. And yet, despite being armed with the knowledge that it’s almost impossible for a sitting Winnipeg mayor to be defeated by an upstart candidate, he has decided to take a step back on the defining issue of his previous campaign.
By leaving the decision of Portage and Main up to the public, he has robbed his opponents in the mayoralty run of an opposing view which could have become their signature issue. Mr. Bowman’s newfound fallback position is bound to disillusion those who voted for him based on his pledge to reopen the intersection, but he has obviously done the political math and decided that subtracting his passionate Portage and Main pronouncement will equal a greater re-election campaign result in the fall.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.