In the first week of July, Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz jumped the shark.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it means the precise moment when, in this case, a politician, does something so incredibly stupid his popularity begins to slip irreparably from now on.
Katz, who could have sleepwalked to victory in the coming mayoral election, turned it into a horserace in an instant.
Despite all the media hype, Katz's opponent with the unpronounceable name, Judy Wasylycia-Leis, had everything going against her.
She has never had a real job in her adult life. Not one at the age of 59.
She has never had an independent thought in her working life. As an NDP apparatchik from her university days, she has toed the party line, breathed the party line, parroted the party line and voted the party line.
She has worked against the interests of Winnipeg in her 13 years as an NDP member of Parliament. In particular, while Winnipeg was wracked by a car-theft epidemic unlike any other city, she worked to water down any tough anti-auto-theft legislation proposed by the Conservatives while her party bragged it kept deterrence and denunciation out of the Youth Criminal Justice Act to weaken the powers of judges to sentence young car thieves.
She's essentially lived in Ottawa for the past 13 years that she's been an MP, coming home on weekends and during summer break, which even then she spent at a summer cottage out of town.
Her knowledge of civic issues ranges from pathetic to nonexistent. She has no position on mosquito control, except she's against mosquitoes. Using the floodway to control the Red River in summer? She's against flooding. A police helicopter? She's against crime. Downtown revitalization? Ottawa is a great place.
Her answer to everything is a smorgasbord of cliches and references to (barf alert) how much better things were in "the old days."
So how could Sam Katz blow his lead so badly?
He has many chinks in his political armour, flaws that a legitimate opponent could use to chop him down, some of which Judy Wasylycia-Leis has already poked with little effect.
Remember Katz's War on Mosquitoes announced in his first year in office? No, nobody else does either. That's why he's abandoned his faith in dragon flies and methoprene briquettes and replaced them with a crusade to fog sooner and more extensively.
Remember Katz's War on Crime? He sure talked the talk. He brought legendary New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani to Winnipeg to speak on how he cleaned up the Big Apple, then he failed to follow through on Guiliani's "broken windows" policies which attacked crime proactively. He introduced Crimestat, just like New York, except that Winnipeg's police hierarchy ignores it, according to retired deputy chief Menno Zacharias. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the police chief in 2005 to declare a war on gangs, then watched police spend their days providing 24-hour protection to co-eds at the University of Winnipeg when someone wrote a dirty word in the bathroom -- while the gang-related murders mounted on Magnus Avenue and police said they didn't have the resources to do anything except string up yellow tape. Muggings are up, house break-ins are up, shootings are up. Good job, Sam.
Downtown development? Housing is the experts' answer. So when a developer jumped through all the city hoops and earned the right to build an apartment building downtown, Katz caved to his rich pals and scuttled the deal to prevent the project from going up next to the Manitoba Club. Guess what? Three years later, we're still waiting for the magical appearance of housing in downtown Winnipeg, thanks to the weak-kneed mayor.
The Disraeli Bridge? Katz was all grins when discussing the public consultations that would choose which of three options the city would build. See, I'm listening, he said. He was less smiley when a year later he announced the city was building a bridge nobody had seen at the public consultations, at a cost above the most expensive bridge that had been soundly rejected by the public. What? We had public consultations, sniffed Katz.
Katz once said he treats city spending as if it was his own money. We didn't understand that he was already infected with the "politician" virus. Silly us. We thought he was saying he was careful about public spending.
He actually meant he thinks city money is his own and he can't wait to spend it.
That's why he can, with a straight face, say Light Rail Transit at an alleged cost of $50 million a kilometre is competitive with Bus Rapid Transit at a cost of $38 million per km.
That's a difference of almost $12 million a mile, assuming there's no cost overruns (hahahahaha).
It's only your money----but it's Sam Katz's legacy.
You see, in early July, Sam Katz decided to become Duff Roblin.
Roblin, the former Premier of Manitoba, died May 30. Immediately the accolades flowed forth, centering on Roblin's "vision" in building the Winnipeg Floodway to save the city from devastating floods.
Hmmm. The floodway was derided as "Duff's ditch" until it saved Winnipeg's bacon time and again. It was enormously expensive to build, $63 million back then, the equivalent of $500 million today.
Katz has his own "big idea," a pet project he's been harbouring almost from the day he was first elected.
Light Rail Transit. Electric streetcars to transform Winnipeg. Sure, they'll bitch and complain about the cost. They complained about the Floodway, and now look.
So on July 7, Katz made his move. He took a back-of-the-envelope "report" allegedly showing how fantastic LRT is compared to boring old BRT and made it the basis of a vote at executive policy committee making LRT the "preferred" expansion of the transit system.
It was all the opening Wasylycia-Leis needed. She could turn the election into a referendum on rapid transit. Put Katz on the defensive. Divert the public's attention from her shortcomings to Katz's ego.
Switching to LRT would cost Winnipeg taxpayers an additional $565 million, she told CJOB.
The hair on our heads stood straight up. Suddenly she had our undivided attention.
And with Bus Rapid Transit we can support Winnipeg bus maker New Flyer instead of the European or American streetcar makers, she said.
Hell Yeah! we said.
Today, she threw down the gauntlet. Voters will have a clear choice this mayoral election---BRT with high-spending Judy Wasylycia-Leis or LRT with no-limit-to-spending Sam Katz.
Katz should be very worried. He won the 2006 election with slightly more than 104,000 votes, compared to a total 60,600 for his two main opponents combined. That's an edge of almost 44,000 votes.
The most recent mayoral poll showed that Katz has lost about 12,000 votes, which would still put him at a comfortable 32,000 votes ahead.
But remember that Katz's best-ever vote total (104,000) is less than Glen Murray's 112,000 support in 2002.
If the NDP can motivate the Murray vote to come out, Katz is in deep trouble.
And in one fell swoop he's eliminated his aura of fiscal responsibility which clearly separated him from raise-taxes-and-spend Judy. Right now, its Wasylycia-Leis who's standing up for the interests of taxpayers.
Turnout in '06 was a shade over 169,000, well below '04 (almost 233,000) and '98 (almost 222,000). If those lost 50 - to - 60,000 voters come back this year, Katz needs to win more than his share to stay in office.
Sam Katz prides himself for doing the impossible by finding money for seemingly lost projects the way magicians find rabbits in hats.
Well, he's done the impossible again---he's evened out a runaway election against a tailor-made opponent.