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No political parties
Oct 13, 2006

Among suggestions to add some spice to civic election campaigns is the implementation of party politics at the municipal level.

In American municipal elections, candidates do run under the banner of a particular political party. For example, Rudy Giuliani, the guest speaker at the City Summit held at the Winnipeg Convention Centre last spring, was a Republican mayor of New York City. Because of his leadership during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York, he earned enough national media attention to be touted as a possible candidate to succeed President George W. Bush as the next Republican Party presidential candidate.

As a true Republican, Giuliani while mayor of New York preached a “law and order” platform, slashed welfare rolls, promoted private-sector jobs and fought his city’s massive deficit. For his efforts, Giuliani was said to have made New York a “great example of urban renaissance” by Time magazine, which had just a few years earlier commented on “The Rotting of the Big Apple.”

Actually, Americans have a long tradition of party politics entering even the most mundane positions in local government. County elections can be for everything from dog catcher to sheriff. Party politics are pervasive in civic government with

Democrats and Republicans vying against each other in hard-fought campaigns to divvy up the spoils, something that has happened since the days of the political

machine at Tammany Hall.

Canadian civic politics have been

relatively tame by comparison.

When Winnipeg was incorporated in 1873, there was little thought given to party politics since those that ran in the first civic election came from virtually the same background. The first mayoralty candidates, Francis Cornish and William Luxton, were both originally from Ontario, a province that was the template for

Manitoba’s system of municipal government and provided the bulk of the the first civic leaders in this province.

As the Manitoba Free Press said prior to the January 1874 election, Luxton ran at the urging of “liberal-minded men,” and disavowed “being the ‘tool’ of any party or clique ...,” something also said of Cornish.

The reality was that early civic politics were the domain of the business elite of the city, not a particular party. Stringent property requirements, which continued well into the 20th century, gave them the power to dominate political life in the city.

If there were any divided camps that evolved in Winnipeg politics it was between labour and business. Business would endorse its candidates, while labour did the same, though there was no real

attribution of a candidate serving any

particular political party, rather they could be serving a business or labour interest. There were two camps in the mid-1900s, labour and the Citizens’ Election Committee which was a loose coalition of anybody but labour — a class-polarization rather than party affiliation. 

The loose nature of the coalition was

revealed by Winnipeg Tribune editor Tom Green, who said that during the 1940s he “had the impression that some of the city

alderman (now termed councillors) were more candidates of the Street Railway Company than the Citizens’ Election Committee.”

By the 1960s, class distinctions had

virtually disappeared as so-called foreigners became fully integrated into the civic landscape and settled into a more comfortable middle-class existence; thus party allegiance could come from any quarter — a small business owner was just as likely to vote NDP as Conservative or Liberal.

The election of Steve Juba, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, as mayor in 1956 marked the end of any formal class distinction in civic politics and showed the path

toward more independent candidates vying for positions at city hall.

The creation of Unicity in 1972, the amalgamation of 12 formerly independent municipalities with the city proper, may have originally been seen as a method of instigating strict party discipline in civic government, but this didn’t happen. Instead, Mayor Juba insured the independence of his office. City voters considered him a “”populist” — a man of the people — and not a representative of any particular political movement, a position he intently courted, despite the fact that Juba was more apt to promote business interests. His political savvy allowed him to appear to be on the side of the “common” man or woman even when he sided with business.

The creation of another loose coalition of Conservatives and Liberals called the Independent Citizens’ Election Committee — future Conservative Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon and Finance Minister Eric

Stefanson were members — could also be termed somewhat unencumbered by political affiliation. 

Only the NDP tried to instill a sense of party politics, though with limited success; electing just seven councillors out of 50  on city council in 1974. At the same time, 10 true independents were elected. The other councillors elected in 1974 came from the ranks of the ICEC.

A coalition of the left was formed under the banner of Winnipeg Into the Nineties, or WIN, of which former Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray was a founding member. Again there was only limited success and the movement died out. After city council was downsized to 15 councillors, even the ICEC vanished.

Today, the NDP does endorse civic election candidates. In fact, it rolls out its party machinery to help the election campaigns of even school board candidates. On the other hand, the Liberals have no formal endorsement process and the Conservatives merely encourage, not endorse candidates. Now entering the civic scene is the Green Party, which is sponsoring the campaigns of a handful of candidates this time around.

Still, stringently-organized politics is not a deciding factor in Winnipeg civic elections; it really never has been. That’s probably how the majority of city voters prefer it to remain, as they look at the

alternative exemplified by the histrionics in the Manitoba Legislature, Canadian House of Commons or in the U.S. that result from partisan politics.