Mayoral candidates engaged in fiery exchanges at a two-hour debate on Thursday, with former councillor Gord Steeves challenging frontrunner Judy Wasylicia-Leis to repudiate the provincial NDP government's increase in PST last year.
Wasylicia-Leis, who has led all opinion polls since last December, refused to do so during an encounter at the Convention Centre punctuated by cat-calls from the well-heeled business crowd. Other hopefuls at the forum also sidestepped questions from the crowd.
Wasylycia-Leis was heckled by a handful of people from the crowd when she skirted around Steeves' challenge to criticize the government for raising the PST to eight percent.
"Answer the question," was the chant from the crowd, but the former New Democrat MLA and MP, who has led the polls since December, did not.
Other runners engaged in sometimes elaborate means of evading questions, sometimes starting off their answers with a reference to an unrelated campaign policy. On a few occasions, they used this approach to make comments relevant to the question put to them.
Robert-Falcon Ouellette, the U of M administrator who has climbed from a public unknown to fourth in the most recent polls, was asked how he would engage young aboriginal people in civic government and answered with a detailed response on his proposal to tax downtown surface parking lots at a higher rate. That can't be done under existing legislation.
With six days remaining before the contest, many candidates stuck to programmes and campaign points already long established in the campaign
The questions were based on the Chamber's Bold project — civic governance, community development, economic development, finance, and transportation infrastructure.
Not invited to participate in the debate were David Sanders and Michel Fillion.
Unlike other forums, the candidates at the Chamber event were not given the questions in advance, but were told they would be allowed to pose questions to their opponents.
That format produced a heated exchange early in the event between Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck and Steeves, when she questioned him on his failure to raise any questions on the potential for cost over-runs on the police headquarters project when he was on council and chaired the civic committee responsible for the project.
"I'm glad to know you stood for something in your time on council," Havixbeck told Steeves before saying he did nothing to alert the public about the pending cost over-runs.
Steeves' response was essentially a revision of history — he claimed a report in July 2011 identified concerns he had raised, but no such report exists, and he said subsequent reports to council stated his concerns were justified when, again, no such reports exist.
Steeves' answer to how he would bridge the divide between Winnipeg's aboriginal and non-aboriginal community explained why he skipped previous mayoral forums hosted by groups focusing on aboriginal and poverty issues.
Steeves, a lawyer, said extra measures weren't necessary because his policies would benefit everyone equally.
Brian Bowman, second in popular support according to the most recent poll, was criticized repeatedly by Wasylycia-Leis and Steeves for what they said was his failure to cost out many of his campaign promises.
Steeves dismissed Bowman's explanation on financing the construction of six bus transit corridors across the city by 2030 with tax revenue generated from development. He said the project would cost $6 billion and require the construction of two million new homes.
Bowman accused the other candidates of lacking vision about the city's future. That prompted another put-down from Steeves.
"This is not optimism, this is crazy," Steeves said.
The exchanges allowed Wasylycia-Leis, often described as a big-spending, tax-prone left-winger, to portray herself as a fiscal conservative compared to Steeves and Bowman.
"On the one hand you've got Gord (Steeves) who wants to leave things as they are," Wasylycia-Leis said. "You've got Brian (Bowman), who's presented extravagant, uncosted proposals....
"I'm not making unrealistic proposals and promises I can't keep," she said.
Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.
Updated on Thursday, October 16, 2014 at 11:15 AM CDT: Updates.
12:37 PM: Headline changed, picture added.
2:18 PM: Livestream over.
4:21 PM: Writethru.
7:01 PM: Updates writethru.