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Municipal Politics


Lessons from the Ottawa Mayoral Contest


By Walter Robinson


departments, agencies, board and commissions. However, beneath the veneer of this city best known for Parliament Hill and the Rideau Canal, lies Ontario’s second largest city of 900,000 citizens who cast their ballots like all other municipalities in the province on October 25th


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council and school board candidates. And yes, similar to other elections across Ontario – not to mention the recently completed mid-terms south of the 49th


parallel – the tide of change grew to tsunami-


esque proportions in Canada’s usually comfy capital. The incoming city council which takes office on December 1st includes a new mayor and 10 new councilors (6 of whom knocked off incumbents while the other 4 filled vacated seats). In fact, these 11 faces on a council of 24 represent a seismic shift in local politics not seen in over 30 years in Ottawa. The message from voters was crystal clear: after four


tumultuous years with hi-tech CEO- turned-Mayor, Larry O’Brien at the helm in which he presided over a council of municipal veterans who fought amongst them- selves more than the characters on Survivor, voters wanted a more measured and mature performance from a much younger (on average) council contingent over the next four years. While many council races were fascinating including


two wards which went down to the last poll count and saw incumbents lose by 88 and 181 votes respectively, the race for the Mayor’s chair understandably garnered the most attention. And it from this race, the key lessons can be drawn for future reference. Mayor-elect Jim Watson, a former Mayor (1997-2000)


of pre-amalgamated Ottawa and seven-year mid-level Cabinet member in the McGuinty government, political branding since the day he filed his papers back in Febru- ary perfectly reflected culture and temperament of Ottawa voters: cautious, competent and confident. This branding


24 Campaigns & Elections | Canadian Edition


or most politicos across the nation, Ottawa is the battlefield of federal politics and the seat of our na- tional government with its associated machinery of


for mayor,


was also authentic. Lesson #1: Be yourself, not who your handlers want you to be.


And despite all the claims of the impact of social me- dia and new technologies to identify, convince and deliver voters to the polls, the Watson campaign tactics were a salute to old-school, tried-and-true and local politics max- ims. The most effective and efficient way to earn votes is stile door-by-door, event-by-event, and voter-by-voter. Lesson #2: Voters have a hard time voting for can- didates they do not know or have never met. While incumbent (and now outgoing Mayor) Larry


O’Brien lambasted Watson as a “professional politician” at every turn, but it was futile. The always affable and articu- late Watson turned his two decades of uninterrupted pub- lic service into a virtue. Moreover, at a more fundamental level, Ottawa is a city of bureaucrats, journalists, accoun- tants, engineers and consultants (aka: a city of bilingual professionals) that interacts with professional politicians on a daily basis. Lesson #3: Know your voters and what messages will – and will not – resonate with them. For his part, Larry O’Brien’s defeat (he received 24% of the vote compared to Watson’s 49%) was not a big sur-


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