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If you talk it, ya gotta walk it

If Caldwell thinks he can do better, then he should throw his ball cap into the ring

Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell relaxes with friends on a Friday night at The Dock on Princess.

JAMES O'CONNOR Enlarge Image

Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell relaxes with friends on a Friday night at The Dock on Princess.

I’ve known Drew Caldwell for 30 years.

Friday night political debates can get quite animated at The Dock.

Enlarge Image

Friday night political debates can get quite animated at The Dock. (JAMES O'CONNOR)

And over that time, we’ve become very close friends. 

Since I moved back to Brandon in 2004, I’ve been a keen observer of the political makeup and machinery in Brandon and Westman.

And since Caldwell is a veteran politician — starting as Brandon University Students’ Union president, then a three-term city councillor (once acclaimed) and now in his fourth term as Brandon East MLA — I’ve learned a lot from him. 

And many of those conversations about politics, people and our private personal relationships have been hashed out at our favourite watering hole at 1133 Princess Ave.

We started going to the 95-year-old former auto-repair shop and Knights of Columbus hall when it was converted from a sketchy pool hall into Clancy’s Eatery and Drinkery a half-dozen years ago. 

Since Caldwell and I are rather an odd couple of friends — he’s a life-long social activist and a member of the left-wing NDP; I’m a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist and definite conservative — our conversations can get somewhat heated in a good-natured way.

Over time at Clancy’s, Caldwell and I would be joined by an assortment of close friends and other acquaintances, such as Shari Decter Hirst, Dr. Derry Decter and Caldwell’s wife, Shandra MacNeill. 

It was a chance for me to meet folks through Drew and it was a chance for people to have access to the Brandon Sun’s managing editor to offer feedback on what we have done or should be doing.

When Clancy’s closed and the venue was renovated a year ago into the upscale pub The Dock on Princess, Drew and I returned and discovered a new type of crowd had invaded our old haunt.

By the way, in 2007, a team of Sun reporters investigated the belief that the building is haunted. 

From the story: "There’s just no dodging the fact that strange, weird and odd things happen on a regular basis in that old building."

And an odd thing did happen there just recently. More on that later in this column.

As Caldwell and I would continue to meet each Friday after work, we were increasingly joined by others: staffers and freelancers from the Sun, the occasional city councillor, several local business folks, BU students interested in our political banter and a number of people from the administration side of our two post-secondary learning institutions.

Our one table would often grow to a chain of three or four, with a dozen or so folks coming and going over the course of the evening, which would usually wind down for Caldwell at about 7 p.m., with myself hopping into a cab often by 10 p.m.

While Caldwell and I wouldn’t be able to discuss some more sensitive topics that we perhaps used to debate, we certainly enjoyed having the chance to blow off some steam after a pressure-cooked week at work. That seemed to hold true for all of the folks who joined us around the table for beverages and meals.

Having once been a political spin doctor at the Manitoba legislature, I’m usually very aware of what I’m saying in a public situation and often push buttons to get a specific reaction for fun, or because I actually hope to learn something.

There is no real expectation of privacy at such gatherings — we all cringe a bit and push away drinks when someone pulls out a camera phone — but we also are comfortable knowing we are among friends or at the very least, sympathetic well-wishers.

All that changed on a recent evening.

Now Caldwell has long been critical of some aspects of what goes on at Brandon City Hall. 

Obviously, with the experience he has from sitting at the council table representing Rosser Ward in the ’90s, he has an insider’s perspective as to how things might work better. In his opinion, of course.

And while it’s usually verboten for a member of a senior government to publicly lambaste those at a junior rank, I always found Caldwell’s comments to be refreshing and, for the most part, close to the mark.

His frustration with the current regime on Ninth Street is at times quite palpable.

I’ve heard Caldwell state various versions of his thoughts on improving city hall for a while now, but they were never made in an official manner. 

They were always in the context of a discussion between friends or in a venue where conversations might be repeated, but never recorded, such as the weekly community coffees at the Brandon Sun.

These types of observations by Caldwell were commonplace during the latter part of the reign of former mayor Dave Burgess. This especially after Burgess refused to support Brandon’s casino bid and he also threw a stick in the spokes of the Strand Theatre redevelopment project when it was seeking federal infrastructure cash in the late ’00s.

But I digress. 

On that recent Friday evening, somebody either recorded Caldwell’s comments or made scrupulous mental notes and they ended up in the highest offices at city hall.

Reflecting on my time working for the provincial cabinet, there were many times I shared statements I overheard made by the opposition with the ministers I was charged with assisting. But the info would generally rest with that person.

In the case of Caldwell vs. City Council, I have to wonder why I know that they know what he said. And how do I know that phone calls were made from city hall to at least one other person who was at The Dock in an attempt to find out more details.

I have spoken to the mayor informally about the situation, but she refused to go on the record with any reaction.

A city staffer who was at The Dock that night also hasn’t returned my emailed request for comment. 

If Caldwell was wrong about the current group at city hall being dysfunctional, folks around the table that evening would have shut him down in a strong defence of the mayor and her hand-picked staff. That didn’t happen.

Also, the fact I know that some of those who came under the lash of Caldwell’s sharp tongue couldn’t keep the info to themselves and even reached out to others who were there for more dirt could well be symptomatic of the dysfunction of which the MLA speaks.

It’s simply not a healthy thing when the MLA who is the legislative assistant to Premier Greg Selinger, with special responsibilities for Westman, is at odds with the mayor of the region’s largest centre.

It’s also an odd thing that the NDP MLA and the NDP mayor aren’t finding some way to find a campfire and sing a few union tunes in solidarity.

But again I digress.

This isn’t a great situation for Brandon.

And as we head into an election year, I will pull out the hackneyed phrase that this will be one of the most crucial votes in the city’s history.

We have a mayor who was voted in riding the wave of change.

Our first female mayor.

Our first NDP mayor.

Our first known Jewish mayor.

And should she decide not to run next year — she has said she’s going to wait until after the budget process to announce her intentions — she could sip white wine with her cronies and boast about a fairly decent record during her four years wearing the chains of office.

She convinced the Association of Manitoba Municipalities to bring back its lucrative convention here every other year. She then guided a nervous city through a flood of historic proportions in 2011. And her crowning achievement was playing a large role in securing daily commercial air service back to Brandon.

And she’s also set the stage for some solid work on easing the low-income housing crunch in Brandon.

But should she run again? That decision will be hers and hers alone to make.

As for Caldwell, I really believe he needs to either put a sock in it or step up to the plate.

If Caldwell were to let his name stand for mayor, he might go unchallenged and be acclaimed.

And if Caldwell was mayor by this time next year, he would be in a position to lobby his friends on Broadway for more than a year in the lead-up to a provincial election in 2016.

And in that year, as common wisdom and poll numbers indicate the NDP could end up losing to the Progressive Conservatives, the Selinger government would be desperate to keep all of its seats — especially Brandon East.

So I’m sure readers can imagine the provincial spending orgy that we could enjoy in the Wheat City if that were that scenario.

I believe Caldwell would be a good candidate for mayor of Brandon. 

Note that I’m only stating he would be a good candidate, among several potential other people, for the voters of Brandon to choose from. 

It has always been in the back of his mind to run for the job after he has done what he can for Brandon in the legislature. 

I think the time is nigh.

Those words Caldwell said about the city came out of his mouth for a reason. Everything in life happens for a reason. 

Caldwell talked the talk. 

Now he needs to walk the walk.

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 14, 2013

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It would not hurt if Mr. Caldwell were to first distinguish himself as an MLA, something which he has yet to do.

I am REALLY sickened by ALL of the tattlers and runners within this city.

There should be CONSEQUENCES for the individual/s involved in running with this information.

This is the WORST PART of living here.

It appears that there isn't much going on within some people's lives in this town and therefore running with stories, tales, salacious words that are overheard, either true or made up gives some individuals the attention and fifteen minutes worth of notoriety that they are so desperately seeking.

I have had this happen to myself on numerous occasions as well and none of it is factual in any way.

Perhaps charges should be sought for those involved in spreading what they have overheard.

The level to which this occurs within this city is ridiculous.

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I’ve known Drew Caldwell for 30 years.

And over that time, we’ve become very close friends. 

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I’ve known Drew Caldwell for 30 years.

And over that time, we’ve become very close friends. 

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