Written by: Aaron Moore
With only a few weeks left until the 2018 Winnipeg Municipal Election, it seems all but certain that incumbent Mayor Brian Bowman will be re-elected. With only one challenger of note, whose support is largely confined to right-wing suburban voters, and no left-wing challenger, the centre-right Mayor should easily coast to victory. By adopting a low-key campaign and refusing to engage his main rival, Jenny Motkulok, in a one-on-one debate, the mayor is steering away from any hot-button issues that could derail his re-election bid.
As a result of the mayor’s muted campaign and lack of any major challengers, Winnipeg voters appear to be tuning out of the election. Turnout this October could be well below the high of 50% in 2014, when a number of strong candidates, including the mayor, former MLA and MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis, and current MP Robert Falcon Ouellette, ran in absence of an incumbent. The lack of any important defining issue so far in the campaign could also keep voters away from the polls.
So far, the one issue dominating the election has been the question of whether the city should open the intersection of Portage and Main to pedestrians. The Mayor made a pledge to open the intersection in his 2014 campaign, but was unable to realise his plan during his first term of office, leaving him open to attacks from Jenny Motkulok and his opponents on council, who argue that opening the intersection will increase gridlock in the downtown and cause safety issues. In a risky bid to limit this avenue of attack, the Mayor agreed to support a non-bidding referendum on this issue in the upcoming election. This will be the first referendum held in the city in over two decades, and may drive some ardent supports in favour of opening the intersection to the polls (where they face an uphill battle). However, a probe poll conducted at the end of August found that 76 percent of respondents were already “… tired of hearing about Portage & Main.” While Winnipeg’s news media have tried to made Portage and Main the defining issue of this election, it is clearly not a primary concern for many voters.
Despite the general malaise currently gripping the electorate in Winnipeg, the outcome of council elections could significantly shake-up city hall and negatively impact the Mayor. Winnipeg’s mayor appoints councillors to serve as chairs of standing committees and to serve on an Executive Policy Committee (EPC) that oversees the budget and determines the general policy direction of the city. The committee comprises the mayor and 6 councillors, or roughly 43 percent of the vote on the 15 seat council (plus the mayor). Over his first term in office, Bowman has relied heavily on members of the EPC, and two additional councillors (known as the EPC plus two), to push much of his agenda through council. This election could result in a significant shift on council, making it increasingly difficult for the Mayor to find reliable allies to support his agenda.
Three of Bowman’s closest allies through his first term in office are not seeking re-election this fall. And their replacements are not guaranteed to be supportive of the mayor. In total, 5 of 15 wards have no incumbent running. In addition, due to recent changes to the city’s ward boundaries, a close ally of the mayor, and the city’s current Finance Committee Chair, Scott Gillingham, is now facing-off against fellow incumbent Sean Dobson, a strong opponent of the mayor, in the newly created ward of St. James. While Brian Bowman should easily win reelection—barring any significant event occurring in the next few weeks, the outcome of the council race could affect his capacity to govern for the next four years.