Judy Wasylycia-Leis is an admirable politician, talented populist and skilled policy-wonk who has remained at least 10 points behind current Mayor Sam Katz in all public opinion polls over the course of the summer.
Her inability to fully resonate with the average voter has been blamed on several ill-advised campaign decisions. As the media has tirelessly observed, Wasylycia-Leis announced her candidacy for mayor without a campaign manager, a functional website, an office space or a policy platform. She has delayed comment on everything from property taxes to the new football stadium.
It is important to note, however, that thousands of Winnipeggers genuinely like and personally trust Wasylycia-Leis. They are far more suspicious of an 11-year-old provincial government that continues to bridge the gap between itself and city council. In their minds, she continues to represent the Manitoba NDP and will defend her party over the interests of the city as a whole.
These concerns are not unfounded.
The provincial government’s ludicrous manipulation of civic candidates has strengthened public opinion against Wasylycia-Leis while providing extra clout to Katz’s continued indictment of civic partisanship.
“Members of the NDP have basically said that they want to take control of city council,” the mayor said after January’s State of the City speech. “They’re endorsing candidates to run in different wards and on top of that they’re getting candidates to run against other candidates.”
Before this year, Katz’s accusations would have carried little weight. The NDP have always been involved in city politics and have directly endorsed civic candidates for decades. The endorsements were meant to give ordinary NDP members the power to decide who gets access to party resources (like membership lists) that are otherwise acquired through backroom deals between the civic candidate and the provincial party.
Previously, NDP endorsements were rarely contested. If two or more civic candidates sought the endorsement, the matter would go to a nomination meeting, whereby party members would decide who received the party’s support in a particular ward.
Last year, the NDP decided to change that process to make it less democratic and more open to corruption.
The process now puts considerable power into what the party calls community endorsement committees (CECs), which are made up of one appointed party official from each provincial constituency that overlaps with a municipal ward. These committees interview each NDP-affiliated candidate to decide which one receives the party’s endorsement.
NDP-endorsed candidates will always have the resources to do well in areas that contain large swathes of NDP voters, especially in the North End and East-Kildonan. Through the CEC process, the party can nearly guarantee an election victory by asking candidates to run and then subsequently telling committee members who to vote for.
The party effectively gave itself the power to push out incumbent councillors and handpick a slate of young, politically attractive candidates to compliment Judy Wasylycia-Leis with the hope they will play nice with the provincial government.
Before 30-year councillor Harry Lazarenko fell ill earlier this year, it was predicted that a CEC attempt would be made in the inner city Mynarski ward in order to strip him of his endorsement.
In Daniel McIntyre and Elmwood-East Kildonan, incumbents were either pushed out by the process (Harvey Smith in Daniel McIntyre) or had previously retired to clear the way for “fresh blood” (Lillian Thomas in Elmwood-East Kildonan).
Despite the party’s best attempts to sell the CEC system as legitimate, the process has severely backfired.
In Elmwood-East Kildonan, the absurdity of the whole thing was spotlighted this past summer. After losing a nomination vote that only took place because former CTV reporter Shaneen Robinson gathered enough signatures to force the party to be democratic, school trustee Rod Giesbrecht decided to run for city council without the endorsement of the NDP. In return, he had his party membership revoked.
The provincial party actually punishes its members when they run, unsanctioned by the NDP, for public office.
Municipal politics is an area of public life that attracts committed and passionate people who believe wholeheartedly in safeguarding its independence. The Manitoba NDP should be vilified not only for endorsing candidates to begin with, which generates a major conflict of interest, but for attempting to use a corrupt, unprecedented political maneuver to their advantage.
Because of the NDP, Wasylycia-Leis will be branded over and over as a party hack and the leader of an effort to conquer Winnipeg’s non-partisan city council.
If she loses in October, which is likely, she can thank her own party for the demise of what may be her last campaign.
Ethan Cabel is a beat reporter for The Uniter.
Published in Volume 65, Number 2 of The Uniter (September 9, 2010)