With the mayoral election approaching, (it’s Wednesday, October 22nd, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock) it’s time for an assessment. For a change, Winnipeggers are blessed. In past races it has not been unusual to have a choice between a mere two candidates who appear to be both serious about wanting the job and capable of handling it. This time, I count five such candidates among the seven who remain in the race. (Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you who they are.)
How to choose? I always recommend starting with practical considerations. A mayor’s first responsibility is to be capable of doing whatever it takes to command a majority on council. Failing that, it’s impossible to accomplish much.
Sometimes failure to command a majority becomes an excuse for inaction. I remember an instance in which one mayor, questioned about his/her inaction, shrugged and said, “I only have one vote on council.” Sometimes such inaction is a result of naïveté. We once had a mayor who wanted to run the city “like a business” and declared that s/he didn’t do politics. After losing a long string of votes on council this mayor figured out how to do politics and, in the end, registered a solid record of achievement – by getting councillors to vote his/her way.
What does it take to command a majority? To be effective, a mayor needs a persuasive tongue and a strong presence, to entice others into seeing things his or her way, and to overawe waverers. S/he must be a skilled dangler of carrots and brandisher of sticks, have the judgement to distinguish between the doable and the impossible, and the willingness, when necessary, to compromise. Doing politics is an art, not a science, and the same is true of the exercise of judgement it takes to pick the best candidate.
But most of us don’t do politics for its own sake. So let’s look at the things we want our mayor to achieve. For my money, the most important issues are almost always social ones – such things as welfare and employment. Most of these are federal and provincial responsibilities, but there is one area where a mayor can play a significant role: homelessness.
We western Europeans and North Americans live in the wealthiest society in world history. We should not tolerate homelessness. We should make it our business to help those who are sleeping on our streets to get their lives sorted. Failing that we should make sure there’s a roof over their heads. We — with the participation of all levels of government — can afford that, and an effective mayor can provide leadership.
I have a similar comment to make about the shameful reality of missing and murdered aboriginal women, which has received public attention recently. I have heard comments to the effect that police would be paying more attention to these tragedies if the victims were not indigenous women. Speaking, not as a professor with relevant expertise, but simply as a concerned citizen, I’m sceptical of that claim. There could be racist cops, but their professional reputation is based on their success at apprehending criminals and bringing them to justice. It’s against their best interest to let personal feelings get in the way of doing their jobs.
By the same token, I believe that the victimization itself has a great deal to do with the ethnicity of the victims, and therefore with racism among the public. The bullies among us will find it easier to attack and exploit those who are the targets of invective in locker rooms, bars, and on the street. Police should, by all means, redouble their efforts to track down offenders — no doubt they are doing so. But what is most needed is some serious self-examination, of our own words and gestures, and of the language we tolerate in our presence.
Policing policies and procedures are largely a matter for the police themselves and for police boards. What the mayor can do, in this as in the matter of homelessness, is to take advantage of his or her position of leadership — in the words of former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, use the mayor’s “bully pulpit” — to help set the tone, influence the attitudes of the public at large, and, when desirable, encourage joint action at all levels of government.