While 102 candidates are vying for the 23 councillor positions in Ottawa’s upcoming municipal election, the makeup of city council is unlikely to change significantly. In 19 of the city’s 23 wards, the incumbent is running again. As for the four seats that are being vacated, they account for a disproportionate number of candidates, including 17 candidates running in Orléans alone. Only 20 per cent of the 102 candidates running for city council are women. As such, the astonishing under-representation of women on council – only 4 of the city’s 23 councillors are women – is likely to continue.
The current mayor, Jim Watson, is facing 11 candidates, all of whom are men. Few of them benefit from significant name recognition. One possible exception is Clive Doucet, a former municipal councillor who ran for mayor in 2010 again Watson and then Mayor Larry O’Brien. Doucet threw his hat in the ring at the last minute, after rumoured high-profile candidates decided not to challenge Watson.
While Watson has been facing more criticisms during his last mandate (more on that below), he remains one of Canada’s most popular mayors. His popularity and, barring a major surprise, likely re-election, can be attributed to four key factors.
The first is Watson’s relentless and continuous campaigning, especially between elections. On a given day, besides attending to city hall business, Watson might be present for the opening of a grocery store, visit an elementary school and make a cameo in a play. No event is too small for Watson to attend.
The second factor is Watson’s ability to avoid blame for potentially controversial decisions, often by passing the buck to other political actors. While he has opposed in the past proposals such as making the city officially bilingual or allowing the opening of safe-injection sites, he ultimately let other actors (the province or other public agencies) take the heat and make final decisions on those files.
The third is Watson’s control over council. With the potential exception, especially over the past year, of a few, mostly progressive councillors from the downtown core, Watson has largely benefited from the support of a majority of councillors. He is rarely on the losing side of a vote and council members seldom challenge his leadership.
Finally, Watson has been relatively agile when it comes to navigating the city’s complex territorial and political makeover since his return to municipal politics in 2010. During his last mandate, he has capped property tax increases to two percent annually, as he had promised, which appeals to more conservative (and often rural and suburban) voters. At the same time, he has made symbolic gestures that have drawn praise from more liberal or progressive citizens, such as his widely publicized decision this summer to boycott the American Embassy annual Fourth of July Party.
As mentioned previously, over the past year, Watson’s management style and the city’s overall direction have been the object of criticism. Some of those issues are likely to resurface again during this campaign.
The first issue is development. The mayor is starting the campaign in the wake of a significant economic announcement: the decision of Amazon to build a new distribution centre in the east end of the city. However, Mr. Watson and the current council have also increasingly been criticized for what is perceived as a pro-developer agenda that too often brushes aside community design plans and secondary plans. Clive Doucet has made the respect of community development plans a central pillar of his campaign.
The second issue is the city’s fiscal policy and its impact, especially on infrastructures and services. The decision to cap property-tax hikes to two per cent has lead to a constantly growing infrastructure deficit and a reduction in services. Last December, eight councillors broke with the mayor and the rest of council by proposing an additional 0.5 per cent tax increase to finance infrastructures. The proposal was ultimately withdrawn after the mayor announced that additional spending on infrastructures would be paid by a higher surplus than expected. Nevertheless, it brought to the forefront the issues of infrastructure and taxation.
The third issue is the broad question of social development, where the mayor and council have been at times accused of lacking leadership, especially in light of the opioid crisis and the limited progress made on the city’s 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. In the specific case of homelessness, the announcement that the Salvation Army was planning to close its shelter in the ByWard Market and open a new 350-bed multipurpose facility in Vanier has been one of the most contentious issues at city hall over the past four years. The Mayor, as well as a large contingent of suburban and rural councillors, supported the project. Besides Vanier residents who created an organization, SOS Vanier, to oppose the Salvation Army project, it was also opposed by a number of experts and activists, as well as progressive councillors from the downtown core, who argued that the proposed model was outdated. While the project is currently on hold pending an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, the issue is likely to be raised again during the coming election, as one of the mayor’s opponents is a Vanier entrepreneur who played a leading role in SOS Vanier.
Whether the question of Watson’s control over council will be debated remains to be seen. Nevertheless, one can expect the mayor to be facing tough questions about his leadership in the coming weeks as he seeks re-election.
Anne Mévellec and Luc Turgeon are Associate Professors in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa.