With about five weeks to go before the City of Winnipeg’s election ballots are set, the list of potential mayoral candidates is the longest in 30 years.
As of Friday, there were 14 candidates registered to run for mayor. If they all decide to proceed to the next stage of the electoral process — nomination papers must be submitted in mid-September — Winnipeg voters will have more mayoral options than they’ve had since 1992, when there were 17 people on the ballot.
That very long list of candidates was the result of a wide-open mayoral race. Bill Norrie, who had served as mayor since 1979, decided 13 years in office was enough.
While 17 would-be successors jumped into the political void, Winnipeg voters only gave serious consideration to a handful of big names.
Almost 97 per cent of the vote coalesced around four candidates that year: retail store owner Susan Thompson, who won the race, and city councillors Greg Selinger, Dave Brown and Ernie Gilroy.
Susan Thompson, seen here in 2017, won 39 per cent of the popular vote in a 1992 mayoral race that featured 16 other candidates. ( Marouane Refak/Radio-Canada)
The 1992 result is instructive for campaign strategists who believe their candidate could win this year’s race with a very small fraction of the popular vote, given another long list of candidates.
This is unlikely. Voters tend to gravitate toward candidates they not only like, but who appear to have an actual chance of winning an election.
No rush to join council races
This is also why polls are so important throughout a campaign: the longer the list of candidates, the greater role opinion polls can play in shaping the field, dividing the candidates into apparent contenders and bit players.
That’s what happened in 1992, when there were four contenders and 13 also-rans.
Given this tendency, it would be a surprise to see Winnipeg’s next mayor earn less than a third of the popular vote on Oct. 26. It also wouldn’t be a shock to see the winner do even better than that on election night, perhaps even surpassing Susan Thompson’s achievement of attracting 39 per cent of the popular vote.
While the list of mayoral candidates is long this year, there is no such rush for candidates to sign up for city council races.
As of Friday, there was no race in six of the city’s 15 wards. Only one candidate is registered so far in Elmwood-East Kildonan, Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry, North Kildonan, Old Kildonan, St. Norbert-Seine River and Waverley West.
(There was also one candidate in Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood — realtor Brad Bross — but CJOB talk show host Hal Anderson says he will soon joining that open race, created when Coun. Kevin Klein decided to run for mayor.)
The deadline for joining the race is Sept. 20. That gives prospective council candidates just over five more weeks to give provide some competition for the six incumbent councillors who are so far unopposed.
The power of incumbency
University of Winnipeg political science professor Aaron Moore suspects the power of incumbency may be scaring away prospective challengers.
Incumbents enjoy better name recognition, and tend to attract more money and endorsements.
“While three incumbents did lose in the 2014 election, the norm in the city is for an incumbent to win handily with a majority of the vote,” Moore said.
Paul Thomas, a professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, also suggests the job itself is becoming less attractive.
People who enter public life suffer a loss of privacy, and are not compensated very well for a demanding job that requires them to attend lengthy, compulsory public meetings for 11 months a year, plus dozens of other meetings and events.
They earn between $110,000 and $123,000 a year, depending on committee duties. While that’s well above the average Winnipeg salary, it’s below the level of a private-sector executive job with a similar time demands.
Councillors may also be frustrated by their inability to alleviate major issues such as poverty and homelessness, as the City of Winnipeg does not have anywhere near the sort of taxation and spending powers the provincial and federal governments enjoy.
That means idealistic people who run for council with the intent of improving the lives of their fellow citizens face the prospect of disillusionment when they discover much of the job involves deciding whether or not to approve zoning variances.
Increasing incivility a deterrent
There’s also another, relatively new factor that may be dissuading people from running: increasing incivility.
Nastiness, says Thomas, has “become part of the political process in recent decades, especially towards women seeking and holding public office.”
It takes an unusually resilient person to seek a job that practically guarantees they will become the subject of abuse, both online and in person.
To be clear, politics has always been nasty. But the intensity of incivility has been magnified by online echo chambers to the point where it’s easy to understand why otherwise community-minded people would be reluctant to subject themselves to public life.