WINNIPEG — Mayor Sam Katz plays many different characters at city hall. There is the angry mayor (the one reporters get to see quite often), the giddy mayor (usually when in the company of a celebrity), the sad mayor (saved for Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce speeches) and the “what-me-worry?” mayor (which surfaces whenever he’s being confronted by allegations of impropriety).
However, these pale in comparison with his most accomplished, most effective persona: Katz the poker player.
The very best poker players all feature a “poker face,” the ability to remain expressionless regardless of the hand they have been dealt. Players who tip their hands are guilty of “tells.”
Katz, known to love a good game of cards, has demonstrated a stone-cold political poker face every time someone asks if he will seek re-election. A face so absent of a tell that, already well into the campaign, nobody knows for sure if he’s in or out.
As a result, the question of his candidacy is hanging over the early days of the campaign like an omnipresent fog.
Despite the fact he is not yet a candidate, he is present at every campaign event. When a new mayoral candidate registers to run or makes a policy announcement, they are automatically asked about Katz’s plans.
The most notable names in the race — Coun. Paula Havixbeck, former councillor Gord Steeves, former MLA and MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis and lawyer Brian Bowman — try to put forward a rehearsed disinterest in Katz’s future plans. And yet, all would acknowledge if he does run again, it would change everything.
What has Katz said about his plans? He has promised to make his intentions known sometime in June. As for tells, there is little to go on.
Going back slightly more than a year, Katz was asked if he would put his name forward again. The mayor in turn asked, “Can you think of any reason I should not run?”
When reminded that seeking a third term would violate a two-term limit he once supported in a council vote — a measure that was defeated — he teased reporters more: “I’ve always said, ‘Council is supreme.’” Keeping his plans secret is a remarkable achievement for a man who ensures so much scrutiny. Sources at city hall, other levels of government, the business community, agencies and commissions and special interest groups — all of whom have direct contact with Katz — are all stumped.
(A city councillor confided he was recently visited by two council colleagues. The first person came in to say he was absolutely convinced Katz was running for re-election. A few minutes later, a second councillor arrived, equally convinced Katz was retiring. The councillor remarked this was a perfect example of the “fog of uncertainty” Katz has created.) Even the tried-and-true tells of the past have been useless in the Katz fog.
In the past, you could measure the state of Katz’s election readiness by the number of evening and weekend events he attended. Candidates try not to miss a single coffee klatch, bake sale, church bazaar or religious and ethnic celebration during a campaign.
However, this mayor is well-known to save most of his evenings and weekends for his family and for trips to his Phoenix home. In between elections, he’s frequently a no-show at events most politicians would never pass up.
Prior to the last election in 2010, Katz ramped up personal appearances at events he would have previously dismissed. It was a sure sign Katz the mayor was gone, and Katz the candidate for re-election was back in the hunt.
This time around, Katz has been spotted at more events than he would typically attend in non-election years, but has no-showed at many others. If it’s deliberate, it’s a clever ploy to keep his opponents guessing.
It would be easy to assume, following two years of nearly non-stop controversy over his chummy connections to key players in the development and construction industries, and a series of botched policy initiatives, Katz would use his 10th anniversary in elected office as an excuse to take his leave.
That would still require Katz to show a modicum of self-awareness. He would have to accept because of his propensity for conflicts of interest, he had by his own hand gone from one of the unassailable elected officials in Manitoba to a wounded duck. It’s not clear he is ready to accept that.
It’s also not clear he would lose. Underestimating the lingering power of the Katz brand would be foolish.
Will Katz roll the dice and run despite his diminished personal brand? Or, will he leave well enough alone and retire from civic politics to avoid further scrutiny and grief?
In the absence of a bona fide tell, only the fog knows for sure.
» This article also ran in our sister paper, the Winnipeg Free Press.