So far, the race for Winnipeg has been a relatively calm affair. Neither Sam Katz nor Judy Wasylycia-Leis, the two front-runners, have mounted anything that resembles a knock-’em, sock-’em campaign. With the exception of a bit of a squabble over who has the answer to law-and-order in the city — primarily debated by media pundits, but attracting scarce public attention — there has been little in the election campaign that could be called a turning point or a knock-out punch, sending one candidate into a commanding lead.
Some sparks flew when the first rumours circulated that former NDP MP Wasylycia-Leis was prepared to enter the race. Katz’s reaction was that a left-wing conspiracy was preparing to take over city hall. “I will do everything in my power to make sure no political party ever, ever takes control of city hall,” he said during his State of the City address a couple of months ago.
Still, there are some who would welcome party politics openly infiltrating city hall. The argument for the entrance of political parties is that it would add a bit of spice to civic election campaigns. Those advocating this change on occasion use the argument that partisan civic elections in the U.S. heat up the intensity of campaigns, attracting widespread public attention. In Winnipeg, this would be the answer to the voter apathy that often sees only about 30 per cent of eligible voters turn up at the polls.
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 a number of years ago, 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 hasn’t 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 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. 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.”
The creation of Unicity in 1972 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. 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. 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.
Stringently-organized party politics is not a deciding factor in Winnipeg civic elections, as Winnipeggers are prone to reject political labels, while hoping that some “individual” will take the initiative and add some spice to a mayoral race. If no one does, they just don’t bother voting.