Wide-open mayoral race in Brandon, but few candidates entering race so far

With less than a month left to register civic election campaigns in Manitoba’s second-largest city, few people are looking to put their names on the ballot in Brandon — including just one candidate so far for the open mayoral seat, multiple wards with only one candidate, and one ward that has no one registered to run at all.

The small pool of Brandon candidates is surprising in comparison to Winnipeg, which so far has 14 candidates running in a “hotly contested race” for mayor, said Kelly Saunders, a Brandon University political science associate professor.

“In the second-largest city in the province, you know, we see quite the opposite in terms of the … number of people that are willing to put their name for it,” Saunders said.

Jeff Fawcett, currently the city councillor for Ward 1 (Assiniboine), is the only person who has so far registered a campaign to replace Rick Chrest as Brandon’s mayor, according to a list of registered candidates provided by the city on Friday. Incumbents are so far running unopposed in half of the city’s 10 wards.

The municipal election is on Oct. 26. Mayoral and council candidates have until Sept. 20 to register campaigns.

Politics can be a challenging arena to enter, Saunders said, because it can be a nasty business — especially with social media opening the door to intense scrutiny and personal attacks.

“It’s a very challenging, very demanding job at the best of times. But you add on those those challenges … and it can really be an extremely difficult, thankless job,” Saunders said.

The small selection of candidates in Brandon this year is not a one-off, Saunders said — there has been a trend of declining interest in public service.

During the 2018 civic election, the city reported a voter turnout of 16.86 per cent — 6,185 ballots cast, with 36,675 eligible voters — marking a drop of more than 50 per cent from the 42 per cent turnout in the 2014 election.

These low numbers are disappointing as the community grapples with pressing issues like health care, climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and housing affordability, Saunders said.

“The challenges are significant.… We need talented, dedicated people that are willing to step up and put their name forward,” she said.

“But I think … we as voters have to be mindful of how we treat our public servants.”

‘Thick skin’ needed for politics

Chrest, who has served two terms as Brandon’s mayor and was acclaimed in the 2018 election, is not running again this year.

He’s trying to promote interest in the city’s mayoral, council and school board races. 

He’s surprised there hasn’t been more interest in the mayoral seat this year.

“You know, you’re going to get to take your … place in our community’s history” as mayor, he said. “That part is rewarding. And the most rewarding part of all is just getting to help people.”

Incumbent councillors are currently running unopposed in five of Brandon’s 10 wards. No one has registered so far to run in Ward 1. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Public engagement has changed since Chrest first took office as a city councillor in 1995 — a role he filled for three terms.

Those who enter the race now need to have “a little bit of a thick skin,” he cautions.

“What I’ve noticed lately is a little more polarization … [people are] a little more polar in their attitudes about things and sort of really standing up for themselves, if you want to call it that,” Chrest said.

Reg Atkinson, who served as Brandon’s mayor from 1997 to 2002, says the role marks a person for life, and needs to be treated seriously. He’s still recognized 20 years later for his time serving on city council, he said.

Atkinson’s first election was a competitive run — there were seven candidates when he became mayor in a 1997 byelection. When he ran again in 1998, he faced two competitors.

This year, “I’m surprised … there isn’t more running for mayor right now without an incumbent,” Atkinson said.

A man in a blue suit leans against a wall with multiple photo portraits on it.
Chrest stands in front of photos of past council members at city hall. Amid increasing polarization, people going into politics now need to have ‘a little bit of a thick skin,’ he says. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Heather Ewasiuk, Brandon’s senior election official, is also surprised there hasn’t been more interest in running this year, especially in a mayoral race without an incumbent.

“We were hoping to have a little more interest at this point,” she said.

It’s not unusual for incumbents to run unopposed, Ewasiuk said, but an open seat creates an opportunity for people to step in and become part of decision-making for the city.

While there is no “magic wand” to promote civic engagement in the municipal election, Ewasiuk said there will be a social media push to encourage candidate and voter turnout.

“I think everybody appreciates the democratic process and would rather see a contest in all wards, as opposed to several acclamations.”

Registered candidates as of Aug. 26

Mayor:

  • Jeff Fawcett

Ward 1

  • No candidates

Ward 2

  • Dale Bates
  • Phillip Emerson

Ward 3

  • Barry Cullen (incumbent)
  • Quentin Derhak

Ward 4

  • Shaun Cameron (incumbent)

Ward 5

  • Sunday Frangi (incumbent)

Ward 6

  • Bruce Luebke (incumbent)

Ward 7

  • Shawn Berry (incumbent)

Ward 8

  • Michael McCormick
  • Jason Splett

Ward 9

  • Glen Parker (incumbent)

Ward 10

  • Tyson Tame
  • Franco Chartier
  • Kevin Chambers

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