THUNDER BAY, ON ---- October 2, 2010 ----In all likelihood, your home town is in the middle of a hot municipal election campaign. Lawn signs with bold phrases and eye-dazzling colours stand like proud, crisp soldiers lining the streets of your neighbourhoods. Of course, after the first good rain they turn into limp and ragged hobos, serving as markers for the dogs marking the streets of your neighbourhood.
Equal to that in likelihood is the probability that the hottest, headline-grabbing-est race is that for Mayor. As I write this in Thunder Bay, Ontario there’s an interesting enough race for the Big Gold Chain among incumbent Lynn Peterson, multiple times contender Councillor Frank Pullia and past President of the Thunder Bay Police Association Keith Hobbs, a political neophyte who seems to be carrying whatever momentum there is. (Thunder Bay wouldn’t know a properly run poll if it sat on one. I’m going by lawn signs and conversation.) That said, were I a betting man - and I am - I’d raise if I had Peterson as one of my hole cards. Pullia will run third, but he will draw enough votes to split the anti-incumbent chunk of the electorate.
That’s no brilliant piece of insight. Matter of fact, it may be the most basic rule of first past the post politics. It even works on higher levels than municipal politics. I remember that early Master, Bill davis the Tory Premier of Ontario would bat his eyes lovingly at the NDP’s Stephen Lewis in election run-ups to chop the knees off Bob Nixon or Stuart Smith’s Liberal Opposition.
Of course, the whole deal could still blow up in Peterson’s face. If there actually is a Transit strike that remains unsettled by the time the city goes to the polls on October 25, Thunder Bay is going to look for somebody to blame and like a scythe seeking the tallest wheat sheaf, it will take down the Mayor.
Politics truly is a narrative and a fairly simple one at that - it’s a story that seeks a happy ending and when it doesn’t find one it wants the villain destroyed. We look for Heroes. Sometimes we think we elect Heroes and when they or their times are unable to produce suitable heroic miracles they are re-cast as Villains. Obama is desperately fighting that role change leading in to the American mid-terms.
The irony is if there is a Transit strike or similar cataclysm that will shake public confidence past the tipping point, a majority of the returning 10 Councillors seeking re-election will in fact achieve that goal. Historically, the name recognition factor of incumbency trumps discontent.
Last note on Thunder Bay, as the reach of this column is greater than Thunder Bay. (That said, I’ve long held the theory that Thunder Bay is the absolute sweet spot microcosm of Canada. Yes we have two NDP MPs sitting against a pretty solid Tory minority; I’m talking mood.) This has been a terribly run campaign on the part of all contenders. It boggles my mind that here we are into October and there hasn’t been one householder pamphlet arrived in my mailbox. Lady and gentlemen, let me say this slowly to you - the internet ain’t the whole game. People have to seek you out on the internet. You have to seek them out. Plus, if you aren’t identifying your vote by a canvass, then I don’t know why you’re even running. The City is hoping - this is the optimistic number - for a 50% turnout. A candidate polling at 20%, who turns out that 20% to the polls on election day can turn that into a 40% plurality.
The question I really have is: why bother? Why bother running for Mayor? Allow me to quote from the Canadian Encyclopedia:
‘In contrast to the practice in some US cities in which duties such as budget formation and appointment of certain administration officers are the responsibility of the mayor, the significance of this office in Canada does not stem from the assignment of such powers but rather from its high profile, although a mayor with a forceful personality may also be a strong leader. Variously described as "the chief officer," "the chief executive officer" or "the head of council" in provincial statutes, the mayor has little power independent of the municipal council.’
So, to borrow Tom Wolfe’s wonderful phrase, in return for a potential MauMauing as a Flack Catcher by a vengeful public what does a Mayor really get? Bigger salary, travel, the Big Gold Chain and a supreme knowledge of the contents of every buffet table in the town. But as wonderful a thing as a ‘forceful personality’ may be that is not a particularly powerful weapon in this particular version of World of Warcraft. Essentially, that can only be effective if the Mayor is able to assemble and lead vote by vote coalitions, in the manner of a municipal Lyndon Johnson; and/or if the Mayor is able to convince reluctant Councillor that they will be turfed out on their ear if they don’t get onside ... in the manner of a municipal Lyndon Johnson.
But good for all of those who seek the office. Sincerely, 99.5% of the people who run for office sincerely do so in order to do Good. Their idea of Good may not be your idea of Good, but you know what? I am guilty as any other pundit of occasionally calling various elected representatives hyperactive power-grasping space iguanas waiting for the mother ship to arrive so they can finally shed their disguise of human skin. Hyperbole and mockery have been viable tools of political commentary since the Age of Pericles. Aristophanes was the Rick Mercer of the day. But none of the politicians, anyone short of Hitler, deserve hatred. They’re just doing what they do. It’s up to us to bring order to the herd. Be seeing you.
for Lake Superior News