WINNIPEG – With a controversial bikini photo, an admiration for Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and the misspelling of a candidate’s name, the Winnipeg mayoral race has already produced some head-scratching moments with more than two months to go.
There are eight people so far running to replace Sam Katz, who is not seeking re-election on Oct. 22. They include longtime politicians and political neophytes, and people in both camps have learned that running a campaign can produce a series of embarrassing incidents.
The biggest and most serious controversy exploded Friday, when an anonymous Twitter user circulated a four-year-old Facebook post by Lorrie Steeves, wife of former city councillor and current mayoral contender Gord Steeves. In her 2010 post, she referred to aboriginal panhandlers as “drunken native guys” who collect welfare and harass people downtown.
She issued a written apology in which she said felt terrible about having made the comments. Aboriginal leaders have said the comments reflect a not-uncommon view held by Winnipeg suburbanites.
Far less controversial gaffes and slip-ups have been made by some of the campaign teams.
Political newcomer Mike Vogiatzakis, a funeral-home owner who lives just outside the city, has run into trouble on social media.
He was criticized by some people on Twitter for posting a campaign picture in which he posed with three women in bikinis.
His reply? “I’m at a water park. Did you expect the ladies to swim in jeans?” After more criticism, including one person who asked why no men or children were pictured in bathing suits, Vogiatzakis deleted the picture.
He also got some heat for a tweet that praised Ford, although not for the Toronto mayor’s drug consumption or drunken stupors. “I’ll be like Rob Ford in one sense, in that I’ll save this city lots of money,” Vogiatzakis said.
Candidate Robert Falcon Ouellette, a director of aboriginal programs at the University of Manitoba, has hit a few hurdles out of the blocks. The first news release sent from his campaign misspelled his last name repeatedly. There were a half-dozen other typographical errors as well.
He then got a bill for his campaign launch at a rental hall that was much higher than he expected, prompting him to shake up his campaign team, including changing his campaign director, Bob Axworthy. The bill totalled $1,000, Ouellette said, which consumed almost one-fifth of all the donations he had raised as of last week.
“There have been a few incidents … which I think are almost cardinal sins in almost any campaign,” Ouellette said in a frank assessment of his team’s efforts to date. “Failure leads to catastrophe for any organization, any enterprise, anything in life.”
Axworthy said he didn’t write the news release and defended the rental hall as the best option available on short notice. Axworthy said he remains with the Ouellette campaign in a volunteer fundraising position.
Steeves’ campaign also hit a few bumps in the road that now appear very minor compared to Friday’s revelation. He launched his campaign in the spring in a nearly empty room after his team did not round up supporters. He initially announced his candidacy last fall, but faced questions over whether he had violated campaign rules by spending money prior to the city’s official election period.
The reason for some of the mistakes, suggests one political observer, is that virtually anyone can run for municipal office in Winnipeg. Unlike provincial or federal politics, there are no parties to vet and manage candidates for municipal council, said Paul Thomas, a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba.
“It’s less of a team sport at the city level, so it’s more of an individualistic political enterprise. You decide, ‘Well, I’ve got a beef about how city government is operating, so I can step into the arena and throw my hat in the ring.'”
There are also few financial requirements and little in the way of paperwork that needs to be filed. Candidates simply need an official agent, a qualified auditor to oversee their finances and a nomination sheet signed by at least 250 voters.
“To have more voices is not a bad thing in a democracy. It would be nice if everybody came with a well-stocked cupboard of ideas to offer you and had spent some time preparing themselves better … but that’s not going to be the case,” Thomas said.
Other candidates in the race range from the very experienced to political rookies who tout their outsider status as a fresh alternative to the status quo.
Judy Wasylycia-Leis, a former member of Parliament and the Manitoba legislature, and Paula Havixbeck, a municipal councillor, have political backgrounds.
Brian Bowman, a privacy lawyer and former chairman of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, and David Sanders, a former senior bureaucrat, have experience dealing with governments at all levels.
Also running is Michel Fillion, who operates a booking agency for musicians and exotic dancers.
More candidates are expected to enter the race before the Sept. 16 cutoff, which could make for unwieldy debates. Still, the prospect of a large field of potential mayors should be viewed as a good thing, Thomas said.
“Politics is a discredited activity these days and it’s harder and harder to get good people to run. And so when people put themselves forward, we shouldn’t put too many barriers to entry in the political field, it seems to me.”