Friday, September 5, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 6: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly & the Simply Magical!

Welcome to Part 6 of an on-going series devoted to my latest hobby: municipal election watching! Note that the "Ugly" section of the original post (September 5, 2014) has been updated based on feedback I've received (updated: September 9, 2014)

The Good: Dan Melanson’s Campaign

The municipal election campaign kicked off on January 2nd, although it took some time for the current compliment of Council-seekers to collectively enter the race. A 10 month electoral period is a long time, and brings with it both advantages and disadvantages. Campaigns have to figure out how best to harness their energies. Do you go big early and risk losing momentum to other candidates later on? Or do you keep your cards close at hand and play them only when you believe the public’s attention is focused on the election?

There’s really no conventional wisdom on this issue, but there are some rules of thumb which are often followed. First, if you’re relatively unknown to the general public, it’s often best to get yourself out there as early and as often as possible. Those candidates who registered to run in early January had an advantage over the ones who have just registered last week. Have they used it well? Have they been out knocking on doors, meeting with their neighbours and neighbourhood associations? Have they been identifying their supporters, taking sign requests, recruiting volunteers and campaign contributions?

Of course, sometimes unknown candidates can do quite well without doing any of these things until the last minute. Look at Marianne Matichuk, who registered to run for Mayor on the day that nominations closed. Of course, she had two advantages which worked in her favour, even though she was relatively unknown by the general public: first, she faced a pretty lacklustre field of competitors – an incumbent who carried significant baggage, and a council member who just didn’t inspire voters. Two, she had money – lots of it. When it was all tallied up, her campaign spent close to $150,000 – more than twice that of John Rodriguez, who finished second.

Dan Melanson doesn’t have the same profile as many of his competitors for the Mayor’s chair. Clearly, though, Melanson has been doing the things that a candidate for Mayor should be doing if they are serious about winning. Melanson has inherited the machine which put Matichuk into the Mayor’s chair in 2010 – there can be no doubt that he will be running a well-funded campaign. Money matters – and although it may be the most important part of a campaign, it’s not the only important part. Knowing how best to spend the money helps, too. And having some policy proposals to hang one’s hat on are probably a good idea, too, but as with Marianne Matichuk’s 2010 campaign, these proposals don’t need to be more than a few bullet points in length (and it pains me to write that).

Melanson, though, has been initiating conversations in our community about ideas – not just policy proposals either (although he has had a few of them, such as eliminating tipping fees at our municipal waste facilities). His announcement in August regarding bringing an aerospace industry to Greater Sudbury really falls more in the “idea” category than policy. And recently, Melanson has been musing about eliminating development charges in our City, although he’s not yet committed to championing the idea (at least not that I’m aware of).

As a candidate, sticking to ideas is probably a better way to go than putting out very specific policy planks. Policy can be easily dismissed, even by those who are generally in favour of the outcome, when people get hung up on the details. Ideas aren’t nearly as easily written off, because they lack specificity, and lend themselves more towards conversations and engagement. You may not like a particular idea (for example, I’m not at all a fan of reducing/removing development charges), but the fact of the matter is, here I am writing about the idea and attaching Melanson’s name to it. Based on Oscar Wilde’s imminently relevant assessment for Society, which has considerable application for political candidates (“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”), Melanson wins.

Melanson’s ideas have gained more media exposure than his competitors have. They are also resonating more with the public, because some of the ideas/policy proposals, such as ending tipping fees, will directly impact people in a way that lobbying provincial and federal governments won’t.

Melanson has also run a fairly positive campaign so far, emphasizing both big ideas (aerospace) and little ideas (such as videotaping all in-camera meetings of Council for record-keeping purposes – an activity long championed by Provincial Ombudsman Andre Marin), as well as his leadership qualities (leadership being something which no Mayoral candidate can afford to ignore). There may be some negativity coming up, but the election dynamic has taken an interesting turn now that Auditor-General Brian Bigger has entered the race.

So far, Bigger’s strategy seems to be focused on his opposition to the day-to-day workings of City Hall, and the accountability (or lack thereof) of Council. Clearly, this strategy puts mayoral candidates John Rodriguez and Ron Dupuis in the firing range, given their current and past involvement with Council. If Bigger remains focused on this strategy (and I don’t think he will), it may allow Melanson to take the high road. While Bigger fights history, Melanson will be able to point to himself and say “I’ll rise above all of that – here’s what I’ll do as your Mayor going forward.” And that’s a compelling narrative for voters.

Although I continue to believe that Dan Melanson as Mayor would be an unfortunate choice for our City, I can’t fault him for doing what he needs to do to become that person. Melanson is running a winning campaign – he’s been running it since the day he entered the election, probably even since before that. If I’ve one quibble to make, it’s with regards to the rather sinister-looking election signs which have popped up en masse throughout the City over the past week. Black election signs should be avoided by all candidates, period. But that’s a pretty minor point, I think.

The Bad: John Rodriguez and Ron Dupuis Staying in the Mayor’s Race

So, if Dan Melanson’s campaign is the “good”, then the “bad” has to be the campaigns of mayoral candidates John Rodriguez and Ron Dupuis. Dupuis registered to run for Mayor in March, while Rodriguez threw his hat back in the ring this past May. Aside from a few statements from Rodriguez, both he and Dupuis have been largely invisible since entering the race. Yes, Greater Sudburians are a lot more familiar with both Rodriguez and Dupuis than we are with all of the other mayoral candidates – but in this election, that’s not necessarily an advantage.

Rodriguez, the incumbent Mayor, ran and lost the Chair’s seat in 2010 by a healthy margin to a political newcomer who, despite being well-financed, had a number of challenges to overcome (and again, I can’t help but suggest that somebody in the know really should write a book about how Marianne Matichuk became our Mayor in 2010, because the campaign which led to her election was brilliant). In short, what I’m getting at is voters rejected Rodriguez in 2010 – what’s the compelling reason for voters not to do the same now?

Rodriguez was openly musing that he was going to run for Mayor as long ago as the fall of 2013. Say what you want about Rodriguez, given his past electoral successes as Mayor and, before that, as federal MP, Rodriguez commands respect in a way that few Greater Sudburians do – and with that respect comes access: access to the media, access to organizations (and their infrastructure), access to information. Yet, since joining the race in May, Rodriguez has done very little to provide voters with anything resembling a compelling reason to vote for him this time around. Essentially, he’s squandered 4 months and will now have to play catch-up to Melanson, and face an unknown in Brian Bigger.

And if John Rodriguez has done little since entering the race, Ron Dupuis has been all but invisible. It may very well be that both Rodriguez and Dupuis have been quietly working away on their campaigns, behind the scenes, building up their war chests and getting ready to unleash some sort of shock and awe campaign with which to overwhelm the media and the voting public.

But probably not.

Dupuis signs are starting to crop up throughout the City in a way that Dan Melanson’s signs aren’t – which is to say, they are few and far between, and hardly indicative of electoral shock and awe at play. Yet, they are signs of life nonetheless, although maybe more accurately they are signs of a campaign on life support.

If Dupuis and Rodriguez were in classic frontrunner campaigns, their silence on issues might be expected (the Justin Trudeau campaign model). However, if Dupuis and/or Rodriguez think that they’re the frontrunners in this election by virtue of both having been on Council (experience lacking in all of their competitors), well, let me just say politely that’s not the case.

The Dupuis and Rodriguez campaigns aren’t the “bad” per se. What the “bad” is has more to do with the fact that both candidates appear to have made the decision to stick around in this election, after Brian Bigger announced that he would be seeking the Mayor’s chair. Given where Bigger has been going with his election strategy so far, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that both Rodriguez and Dupuis will find themselves playing defense far more often than they’ll get a chance to play offence. If one were an incumbent Mayor, it might not be so bad to run on one’s record, even a controversial one. But Dupuis, although on Council, isn’t the Mayor – and Rodriguez already took a drubbing in 2010 when he ran on his record then.

Dupuis and Rodriguez each need to present a compelling case to voters regarding why, now, we should vote for them. With Bigger in the race, their media oxygen is at risk of being used up defending their records, rather than on enunciating their ideas and platforms. Essentially, they risk becoming Bigger’s whipping boys.

The “bad” is that both have decided to stay in this race.

The Ugly: Lynne Reynolds' Accusation

I’m not sure what the “ugly” is here, so let me tell the story. The other day, I came across a tweet from Ward 10 candidate Lynne Reynolds, which accused current Ward 10 Councillor and election candidate Terry Kett of using taxpayer’s money to fund his election campaign. Reynolds tweet included a link to her blog, where she expanded her accusation, and accused Kett of violating the Municipal Elections Act. And those are pretty serious accusations to make.

So, what’s her evidence? In her blogpost, Reynolds accuses Kett of distributing a newsletter in which Kett asks voters to re-elect him. Since my original post, Reynolds has updated her blog to now include an image of the "newsletter". The question is whether this "newsletter" is really campaign material, given that it's emblazoned with "Re-elect Terry Kett" across the Councilor's picture. Kett's contact information includes an email address which appears to be in keeping with the format of the City of Greater Sudbury's email addresses for employees and Councilors - which, if the newsletter were campaign material, might be problematic. All of this begs the question: what's really going on here? It remains unclear who has paid for the distribution of this newsletter - something Terry Kett really needs to address - properly, this time.

The Magical: Ward 8 Candidate Stefano Presenza

Municipal election candidates come from a wide range of backgrounds. In this election, we’ve got a number of real estate agents, administrators and even a hard rock miner running for positions on Council. None of that is particularly unusual, and may even be considered typical for an election in Greater Sudbury, or elsewhere throughout Ontario.

However, in Ward 8 candidate Stefano Presenza, I think it’s fair to say that Greater Sudbury can boast the only magician who is seeking municipal office in Ontario! I mean, think of the opportunities created by having a real, live magician on Council. Need to increase taxes to maintain service levels? Abracadabra – look, no tax increases and the books balance!

In all seriousness, though, Presenza has just announced that he’ll be hosting an interactive website where responses to voter questions will appear in videos within 24 hours - “almost as if by magic”! (see this link in the September 5th edition of the Sudbury Star; or, go here to submit a question to Presenza to get your very own video reply). It’s a great, innovative idea for candidates (and later, for Councillors) to use when communicating with the public – an idea that I’m certain other candidates will try pulling out of their own hats. And that’s good for Greater Sudbury.

Bravo, Stefano!

(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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