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The unreported race: knock 'em down, drag 'em out in River Heights/Fort Garry

When they do a post mortem on the 2006 civic election campaign, the No. 1 question will be why the news media did such a poor job covering the hottest race in the city?

We're referring, of course, to the election in River Heights/Fort Garry where incumbent Donald Benham is pitted against two challengers, Brenda Leipsic and Jennifer Zyla.

This dust-up has turned into a surrogate mayoral election thanks to the dearth of credible candidates running against Sam Katz.

It's no wonder that the MSM has treated the race for mayor as a sideshow, given the poor quality of opponents: an unemployed fringe festival performer, a "self-employed" joke candidate, and a hard-left socialist who told a community newspaper that her proudest accomplishment in politics was an empty field of tall grass.

It's in River Heights ward that the real issues of the city resonate, with candidates who serve as stand-ins for the mayoral election.

- Benham, a former journalist and the incumbent, has been the most vocal opponent of Sam Katz at city council on almost every issue.

- Leipsic, a marketing consultant, helped organize Katz's City Summit, where former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani promoted his crime-fighting methods which Katz had adopted as the centrepiece of a new term in office if re-elected.

- Zyla, a small business owner familiar with the challenges of operating in Winnipeg, is also the first vice chairman of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba.

The Black Rod flagged River Heights as a ward to watch three weeks ago. The pundits had all given their opinion that incumbents were next to impossible to defeat. But we noticed that Benham was acting strangely

He passed up an opportunity to bash Sam Katz.

This was so unusual we drew attention to it. Why was Benham not joining in on the slam - Sam debate over leasing a slice of land for a parking lot next to the baseball stadium? Why was he apparently putting some distance between himself and his biggest ally on city council, Jenny Gerbasi?

So we began to pay closer attention to the ward. And we noticed that Benham was not acting like a confident incumbent. He was looking scared. But why?

We expected the news media to answer that question. We obviously expected too much.

Yet the clues keep coming in.

This past Saturday the Winnipeg Sun carried a story about a rally at city hall of opponents to the Olywest hog processing plant proposed for St. Boniface. The newspaper had a photo of the politicians showing solidarity with the protestors. There was mayoral candidate Marianne Cerilli. There was city councillor Jenny Gerbasi. There was councillor Harvey Smith. There was council candidate Dan Vandal.

Missing, again, was Donald Benham.

The Uniter, the University of Winnipeg student newspaper, continues to have the best civic election coverage in town with candidate profiles by Michelle Dobrovolny. In her look at River Heights/Fort Garry we noticed a startling omission in Donald Benham's answer to the question Other than previous terms on council, what experience will you bring to City Hall?

Glen Murray had been deleted from Benham's memory.

He talked about teaching at the University of Winnipeg and Red River College; about working at the Winnipeg Tribune, the Winnipeg Sun, and CBC radio; about his "time" in public relations and political communications. But no mention of ex-Mayor Glen.

Benham spent two years kneeling at Murray's right knee as his director of communications, the two years when Murray was touting his New Deal for Winnipeg. And now Benham doesn't want to talk about it?

Why? Why is he distancing himself from Glen Murray whose ideas he once embraced enthusiastically.

Election reporters haven't given us any reason to believe that challengers Leipsic and Zyla are forcing Benham to change his long-held positions. In fact, in the Uniter profile, Benham remains the odd man out when asked what is the key issue in the riding.Leipsic and Zyla said public safety and crime. Benham said roads. (Note he said roads and not the poisoning of children by nerve toxin. He's apparently doffed his tin foil hat and abandoned the anti-malathion/what-West-Nile-Virus campaign of the Moonbat contingent, at least at election time.)

Election night will show us which of the candidates was out of touch with the voters.

The most significant development in the election campaign appears to be the defection to Leipsic of two of Don Benham's biggest supporters in the last election.

Michael Radcliffe was Benham's official agent and Bob Vandewater was his chief fundraiser. A news release from the Leipsic camp says Radcliffe "said he became disenchanted with Benham because he seems to object to all issues just for the sake of objecting. "He thinks he is the leader of the opposition at city hall an attitude that is out of step with the residents of the ward." "

Both men said they doubted any of the people who endorsed Benham in the 2004 election still supported him. A bold claim, but no election reporter thought it was important enough to contact those people and ask.

In terms of election coverage, it's notable that the news release announcing the defections was reported in the Winnipeg Sun but not in the Winnipeg Free Press. Does anyone know why the FP passed on the biggest story of the most contested race in the election?

As late as today, two days before the election, the FP printed its profile of the River Heights race and still didn't mention the defections. However, reporter Mary Agnes Welch did make a last ditch effort to rehabilitate Benham by referring to his "two years on council relentlessly picking apart Mayor Sam Katz's threadbare agenda."

Old school journalism would call that editorializing, but obviously it's okey-doke at the Andy Ritchie school of journalism.

Benham, however, may be wishing he got less notice in today's Winnipeg Sun.

He made the front page in a story about someone's attempt to remind people about Benham's opinion of Pope John Paul II a decade ago. The Sun calls it a smear campaign.

But Benham acknowledged that he did, indeed, write the column attacking the Pope that was copied and placed on car windshields near St. Ignatius Catholic Church. The smear, apparently, lies in the fact Benham's picture and campaign office phone number were printed on the back.

Benham wrote, ten years ago in the tiny weekly Metro, that "At best (Pope Jean Paul II) is irrelevant, at worst a continuing menace to a fragile world." He said he later apologized for the column. But as a journalist he should know that nobody remembers apologies. That's why the Winnipeg Free Press doesn't bother with them even after fabricating quotes and reporting on complaints about the Mayor that never happened.

And if he had read the how-to-win-an-election books he bought with his city hall credit card, he would know that anything ever written or said by a candidate is fair game in an election. And crying about something so irrelevent as a 10-year-old story only raises attention to what would otherwise die a quick natural death.

But his overreaction is another sign of something brewing under the surface in River Heights ward.

If cutting his ties with the malathion moonbats, with Jenny "just-say-no" Gerbasi, and with Winnipeg "Visionary" Glen Murray (now living in Toronto), isn't enough to win the election, Benham may still have a use for those election books.

Rumour is he's already made overtures to the Manitoba Liberal Party which is always looking for new candidates.

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