The battle for Brandon East

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“I think Manitoba can be that great province again … and I’d be more than thrilled to have Len Isleifson join me in the Legislature for Brandon East, I think that would be fabulous for Brandon.”

                           — Reg Helwer, televised debate, April 14.

I just switched on the televised all-candidates debate on WCGtv.

Those were the final words from the Brandon West portion of the evening. And that’s all I needed to hear about that. PC Party’s Reg Helwer, the sitting MLA, was wrapping up his closing remarks. I didn’t need to hear from the NDP hopeful, Linda Ross, as Helwer will easily win a second term in the Manitoba Legislature. Ross is a school trustee who has consistently supported high taxes. Liberal candidate in-name-only Billy Moore was a no show at the debate.

The smart, business-savvy Helwer will very likely be a cabinet minister in a Brian Pallister Progressive Conservative government. Yes, get ready folks, all the polls and tea leaves show the province is ready for change.

Ready for change from a tired, corrupt, spendthrift NDP government that has had since 1999 to fix everything they promised to fix. But here we are with a weak premier in the form of Greg Selinger, some of the longest ER wait times in Canada, the worst level of child poverty in the country, and embarrassingly low academic results for children in schools. There are some 10,000 kids in government care — mostly from First Nations.

Yes, the NDP has spent a lot of money — throwing the province into a stinking pit of debt — and Brandon has benefitted from a good deal of that spending. NDP incumbent Drew Caldwell has a laundry list of projects — including some very expensive flood protection — he enjoys detailing at every opportunity. But a lot of that money would have flowed upstream on the Assiniboine River regardless of which party was in power.

Just heard in the background on the TV, Isleifson being grilled about his support of a horrible city budget under the last mayor, Shari Decter Hirst, which featured a substantial tax increase. It was supposed to be for infrastructure, but the mayor saw to it that much of it ended up going to city staff salaries. He deflects the question, turning it into an attack on the NDP’s broken promise of spending the PST increase on infrastructure.

Isleifson has a tough job ahead of him. Caldwell is a very electable fellow, way back since his days as president of the Brandon University Students Union. He works hard for the city. He works hard for his constituents. And I’ve been friends with him since he was a founding director of the first Brandon Folk, Music and Art Festival in the mid-’80s. I’ve included a photo of Drew and myself at the bottom of this column enjoying a nice summer evening at the Dock on Princess.

I know him well. I’ve asked him more than once what good would it be having him sitting on the Opposition benches. I asked him if he would be willing to work with a ‘Minister’ Reg Helwer. I could see the steam working up in his head.

He has told me he would support projects the Tories brought forth that he thought were good for Brandon, and aggressively oppose those that were not. Problem is, if the Tories have a majority, Caldwell would be able stomp up and down all he wants. But he won’t be in any position to do anything about it.

An interesting question I just heard from the TV debate came from moderator Kerry Auriat for Caldwell. Auriat noted that since his days on city council in the ’90s, right through to the present day, he has effectively been responsible for Brandon’s downtown.

“Many in this audience would suggest the downtown is worse than it was 30 years ago,” Auriat said.

This came after some awkward questions about the failed Strand Theatre redevelopment project on 10th Street. A project that Caldwell was intimately associated with, as his wife was leading the charge as head of the folk festival, proponents of the project.

Caldwell pointed to downtown streetscaping, some progress on the new “upper storey” project for creating apartments, and he said he completely endorses the city’s HUB plan for development of the core.

Isleifson, who was involved with the former Downtown BIA and Renaissance Brandon, said he looks at opportunities for continued growth downtown through building partnerships.

“We just need to put a little bit more effort … we have tons of potential,” he said.

The Liberal candidate in Brandon East noted that its not just politicians who are reviving downtown.

“There are community members who have a vested interest in it,” the former city councillor for Riverview Ward said, listing off the new skate park, new YMCA and numerous small businesses that have opened.

I drifted away from listening to the debate as my thoughts went to Hamilton. She’s another good friend of mine. The first time I saw Hamilton was during a debate at Brandon City Hall in 2010 when she made an unsuccessful run for school trustee. We eventually became friends and we go for lunch or to a movie now and then. The photo at the top of this column shows Isleifson, Caldwell and Hamilton at an earlier debate.

I think Hamilton made a huge mistake by quitting city council less than half-way through her first term and I’ve told her so. She was doing quite well as councillor. Certainly far better than her critics thought she would. I think she would have had a bright future in civic politics.

Hamilton, a former NDP organizer, switched her colours a while ago. I think later she was caught up with the Trudeaumania 2.0 of last fall and I also believe a poll taken late last year, showing the NDP in last place in Brandon East, with the Liberals in second, was the final push she needed.

That, and the promise of a refreshed Liberal Party under the ambitious Rana Bokhari.

However, rookie Liberal leader’s campaign quickly fell apart after the writ dropped March 16. In fact, after losing six candidates for various reasons, Bokhari has looked like a deer caught in the headlights, stumbling and bumbling through answers in scrums and debates. She’s been disorganized, has few support staff behind her, and she has come across as someone who is not ready for the big leagues.

That not only will mean the Grits will be lucky to maybe gain one more seat in the Legislature — veteran MLA and former party leader Jon Gerrard has held the only Liberal seat and should win again — and it might not be Bokhari’s Fort Rouge spot.

As for Hamilton, despite the promise of the December poll, will finish in third place in Brandon East. I believe the hard campaigner and reasonably steady debater will receive a higher number of votes than previous Liberal hopefuls, but a lot of them will be angry NDPers or some federal Liberals who hold a torch for Justin.

Am I also friends with Isleifson, you might wonder? We’re friendly, and I enjoy talking with him about politics, but I don’t know him personally very well. He has been extremely competent in the debates I’ve seen and has never appeared flustered or at a loss for words in front of the media. I’d say he would be a very competent rookie MLA.

Oops, what was that? Back to the TV debate. Hamilton just referred to the NDP boss as “Selinger” as she started to answer a question. Caldwell interrupted her: “that’s ‘Premier’ to you.” Moderator Auriat asks Caldwell to direct his comments to the audience. Yes, there is some bad blood between Caldwell and Hamilton. Personally and politically.

So who’s going to win Brandon East on April 19?

Caldwell has a mean machine backing him up. He has at least one city councillor, Lonnie Patterson (South Centre) actively working for him. He has another, Kris Desjarlais (Rosser) who tweeted out his support for Caldwell with a photo of the pair hammering in an orange lawn sign. There are union supporters who will work hard for their man in the Selinger labour friendly government.

Caldwell has been a major force in Brandon: His refusals to compromise his personal beliefs even if they clash with the party policy of the day; his tireless work to promote Brandon to the cabinet table and to promote himself to the media; and his grinning mug comforting the bottoms of hundreds of bus riders with his famous bench ads.

But Caldwell’s support for Selinger — the country’s most unpopular premier, who faced an unprecedented cabinet revolt — will drag him down. In fact, the NDP’s slide down the polls will have to have some effect on Caldwell’s chances.

Drew is Drew. You really can’t help but like the guy. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a local poll came out in coming days showing him and Isleifson in a real horse race.

The Tories also have developed a strong backing team for Isleifson for this election. They smell blood in the water. Or maybe that’s just some odours from the Maple Leaf kill floor at the city’s eastern industrial park. That was a joke, enjoy.

I think a lot of Brandon East voters will vote for Caldwell the man, rather than Caldwell the NDPer. But given the fact that polls are clearly indicating a potential Tory majority government, wouldn’t it be better for Brandon if Reg Helwer’s words at the top of this column rang true?

Then we would finally have a true Team Brandon in the Legislature.

The dullish debate just ended on TV. But despite my background as a Tory staffer, and the fact I write this column from a right-leaning perspective, I’m not going make a prediction of who will win Brandon East.

Sure I want Isleifson to win, for the good of Brandon under a Tory government. But then there’s my 30-year friendship with Drew…

I bet that’s a conundrum many Brandon East voters are facing.