Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 5: Will Bigger Be Better?

It looks like Greater Sudbury’s Auditor-General is seriously considering throwing his hat in the ring to become the City’s next Mayor. Clearly, if Brian Bigger does ultimately decide to run for the Mayor’s Chair, his entry into the race is going to shake things up. How this might unfold isn’t apparent – but it’s not going to stop me from speculating!

Tomorrow, our Council will decide whether to authorize Mr. Bigger’s request for a leave of absence from his municipally-contracted position in order to pursue his political ambitions. I can’t imagine that the City will decline Mr. Bigger his request, as the optics will be – to say the least – detrimental to every single incumbent on Council who is seeking to be re-elected. With this in mind, Bigger could be in the race as early as Friday – but likely he’ll take some time to wrap things up at the office, and enjoy a bit of a break before he finds himself immersed in the heat of an election. Of course, his name will be on the tips of everyone’s tongues between now and his formal nomination anyway, as the public and media plays the “will he or won’t he” game. Bigger’s got nothing to lose by taking his time.

Who is Brian Bigger?

What will Bigger stand for, and on what will he ultimately decide to campaign? Although it’s quite likely that most Greater Sudburians will have a positive reaction to his entry into the race, that initial reaction could quickly be tempered by what he makes public regarding election priorities. A safer route for Bigger will be to say as little as possible during the election campaign – and run instead on his name recognition and his accomplishments as A-G. But I suspect that Mr. Bigger would find that political course a little unpalatable. After all, he’s already cited one of his reasons for thinking of running for Mayor as being his desire to say things to the public that he can’t to Council. A campaign strategy in which Bigger keeps his mouth closed on the issues may be a safer course for him as a politician, but problematic for him as an individual.

So if Bigger does start to talk about the issues, what will be the important issues for him? And how might those issues contrast to the other candidates? While we’ve seen very little from any of the current candidates for mayor, notably save Jeff Huska, and to a lesser degree Dan Melanson, we probably have a pretty good idea of what former Mayor John Rodriguez and Ward 5 Councillor Ron Dupuis might prioritize. We can probably surmise that with his training as an accountant, and given his current position as Auditor-General, Bigger may be focused on bottom-line issues. But I think that making that assumption is a mistake.

Mayor as Leader

It’s one thing to be an Auditor – quite another to be a Mayor. Counting beans, while important, isn’t the only important aspect of being a Mayor – a leader on Council. To demonstrate his leadership abilities, Bigger is going to have to aim a little higher than the bottom line. Can he do it? Probably – almost certainly if whomever is backing him is serious about Bigger’s ultimate success. But at present, Bigger’s ability to lead may be the most significant hurdle for him to overcome in a field of candidates with demonstrated (and quite different) leadership abilities.

Take former Mayor John Rodriguez. Whatever your personal feelings about Rodriguez, there’s little questioning his leadership abilities after his years of representing voters at various levels of government. That he didn’t always succeed (to say the least) does not repudiate Rodriguez’s years of public service, nor his tireless championing of our communities.

And on the other hand, there’s Dan Melanson, who worked with a small team to accomplish a truly important triumph during the last election: the election of a relatively unknown Marianne Matichuk to the Mayor’s chair. Call it what you will, Matichuk’s campaign was one which Melanson and his team should be writing books about. Further, the continued campaigning that Melanson has been engaging in since the end of the 2010 election, through an organization that he created and led, the Greater Sudbury Taxpayers Association, is a clear demonstration of his leadership tenacity, no matter how one might personally feel about it.

Does Bigger possess any of these leadership qualities? Can he be a champion for all of Greater Sudbury’s communities? Can he be a builder, as well as a cagey campaigner? Right now, we just don’t know.

Reacting to Bigger

What we suspect, though, is that the other candidates are going to have to figure out a way to react to Bigger’s entry into the race. Who has the most to lose? On the surface, it might appear to be Dan Melanson, whose small government mantra many expect Bigger the bean counter to adopt. But if Bigger does come out swinging about the ledger, starts talking sensibly about the issues and leadership, the Rodriguez and Dupuis, too, might find their campaigns at risk.

Make no mistake, Bigger in the race is going to suck up a lot of the media oxygen – and that’s a substance which is extremely important to one’s political survival. The media has a very difficult time focusing on an election narrative involving more than two candidates – three really is a maximum number for the media (as a Green Party member, have some confidence in me when I say that). Remember what happened to Ted Callaghan in 2010’s Mayoral race? With this in mind, which candidate might find themselves bumped by Bigger?

I don’t think that it’s going to be Melanson – his run for the Mayor’s chair is an interesting story from the media’s perspective, and as a demonstrated shrewd campaigner, I just can’t foresee that he won’t have developed a strategy of some sort to offset Bigger’s entry. No, Melanson will continue to get the coverage – just perhaps less of it than he might like. I’m sure that Melanson was content to have this election be all about him, but if Bigger joins the race, it won’t be.

That leaves John Rodriguez and Ron Dupuis. Who gets left behind may have a lot to do with the strengths of their individual campaigns which, up until now, haven’t appeared to be all that strong. Rodriguez probably has the edge here over Dupuis, given Rodriguez’s past experience as Mayor. Frankly, “former Mayor challenges for his old job back” is a more compelling story than “Long serving Councillor wants to be Mayor”. And that’s why I think that Ron Dupuis’ campaign might ultimately be the one most at risk from Bigger’s entry.

Mayor's Race Drop-Outs

Dupuis already has a lot of challenges to overcome in order to be successful in his bid for Mayor. Will his backers, whomever they are, move to Bigger – a better bet for winning? In politics, this happens a lot – and with our very long municipal election campaigns here in Ontario, these shifts aren’t unusual at all. Dupuis and his team would do well to reconsider whether his pursuit of the Mayor’s chair is worth the risk of being bumped from Council all together. A much safer bet for Dupuis would be to run again in Ward 5.

Melanson, too, could drop out of the race for Mayor, and focus instead on running for a Council seat, even though a small budget campaign likely wouldn’t be his first choice of ways to sell himself to the public. Melanson surely wants to outspend his opponents – advertising, after all, is often the key to success in politics. A small-budget ward campaign is a great leveller for candidates – but those who already have name recognition – even negative name recognition – start from a position of influence. Melanson could probably win a seat in the on Council to represent the ward in which he lives, and eventually run for Mayor at some time in the future.

Rodriguez doesn’t really have the same set of choices. He was Mayor once, and he wants to be Mayor again. Rodriguez is either in or out. Given that he’s had the courage to throw his name in the ring again, I’m don’t expect him to drop out now just because Bigger has entered the field. John has to know that he faces challenges in winning voters, with or without Bigger – and he seems to think that he can do it.

Without a doubt, though, Bigger’s entry into the Mayor’s race will sideline hopefuls Huska and Richard Majkot even more than they’ve already been sidelined. Both candidates might want to think about shifting their sights off of the Mayor’s chair anyway, and play a safer game of running for a ward seat. Huska, particularly, could be an asset to our community on Council. He must realize that he’s not going to get the press – or the votes – needed to make that a reality should he continue to pursue the Mayor’s chair. Bigger’s entry into the race could be a golden opportunity for Huska to bow out, throw his support to Bigger, and instead run in a ward race (although those ward races in the inner city are starting to get a little crowded – Ward 1 might be the best place for Huska to shift his campaign to, but if he does so, he’ll be taking on a very progressive challenger in Matt Alexander, who will be a formidable challenger for that seat).

Bigger Impacts

All in all, it remains unclear at this time whether Bigger will be better for Greater Sudbury in the race for Mayor or not. Greater Sudburians do seem excited about the prospect of Bigger making a run – and without a doubt, his entry into the race will have a ripple effect on the other candidates, and potentially on the ward races as well. Whether Bigger is better may be an open question, but without a doubt Bigger will be a game changer in the race for Mayor.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

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