10/22/2014 04:00 EDT | Updated 12/21/2014 05:59 EST

NDP veteran, business-backed lawyer among contenders for new Winnipeg mayor

WINNIPEG - People across Manitoba vote today in civic elections that include a roller-coaster race to become Winnipeg's next mayor.

Seven people are running to replace outgoing three-term mayor Sam Katz, and polls in the summer suggested a sizable lead for Judy Wasylycia-Leis, a former New Democrat politician who lost to Katz in 2010.

She is facing two candidates who could have split the right-of-centre vote — Brian Bowman, a privacy lawyer and chamber of commerce head, and former councillor Gord Steeves.

But Steeves's campaign suffered a setback in August, when an anonymous Twitter account circulated a four-year-old social media message by his wife in which she had complained about "drunken native guys" panhandling. Polls after that showed much of Steeves's support shifting to Bowman and one opinion poll earlier this week suggested Bowman and Wasylycia-Leis were in a virtual tie.

The two traded barbs in a radio debate. Wasylycia-Leis labelled Bowman as inexperienced in the world of politics, while Bowman said Wasylycia-Leis's experience was primarily as an opposition member, not a leader.

The main issues in Winnipeg have been potholes and buses. Wasylycia-Leis has promised to fix city roads and build rapid transit through measured property tax increases. Bowman has promised to scrap property taxes and replace them with a new municipal sales tax.

Wasylycia-Leis's support may be affected by Robert-Falcon Ouellete, a young aboriginal candidate who seemed to have come out of nowhere early in the campaign. A newcomer to politics, he has promised to address the divide between aboriginals and non-aboriginals in the city.

The focus on the front-runners has left other candidates — Coun. Paula Havixbeck, former bureaucrat David Sanders and entertainment agent Michel Fillion — struggling to get media attention. Fillion even held a news conference inside a strip club, while dancers were on stage.

In Brandon — Manitoba's second-largest city — Mayor Shari Decter Hirst is seeking a second term and is facing three opponents, including longtime deputy mayor Rick Chrest.

Decter Hirst was praised in some quarters for playing a role in bringing commercial airline service to Brandon, and for the city's 2011 flood response that saw sandbags and dikes raised to hold back the swollen Assiniboine River.