The strategist and the policy wonk – at last a contest for both

What a difference a few weeks make. It seems we have a mayoral race.

It wasn’t much of a surprise when Mayor Larry O’Brien announced his intention to seek re-election. With the passage of Lansdowne Live, he likely concluded he had accomplished enough to run on his record. Sure enough, that was the focus of his re-election announcement (as awkward as it was). O’Brien declared that he wants the election to be about leadership, which he says is about “getting things done”. “We’ve finally gotten over the constipation of amalgamation”, he said.

It’s an odd statement to make for a mayor who leads a fractured council that often split along urban/suburban/rural lines, that has flip-flopped on multiple decisions, that cost taxpayers millions by canceling the former light rail contract, and that unnecessarily prolonged a bus strike. Yet when it came to budget time, the council seemed to be able to get things done in spite of the Mayor. But is it a more functional body than when Larry O’Brien took office? Hardly. And as others have pointed out,  O’Brien is quick to claim the credit for projects that were started well before his time or which have been spearheaded by someone else. And as for those voters who have been paying closer attention, he is counting on a certain number of them overlooking the flaws, and focusing instead on the promises he has kept.

The real surprise was longtime Capital Ward councilor Clive Doucet’s entry into the race. Doucet had been rumoured to be mulling over a mayoral bid, but his announcement several months ago that he intended to retire from his council seat (followed by a rough winter marked by family illness and the loss of his parents) had most municipal-watchers figuring he had decided to set aside politics altogether. Perhaps the passage of the Lansdowne leaves unfinished business. Perhaps it felt like the last straw for a councilor who has long crusaded against what he and his supporters see as bad development and unsustainable planning practice.

There are two kinds of political junkies: the strategist and the policy wonks. Strategists will evaluate Doucet’s candidacy with an eye to his chances, or analyze the impact of his candidacy on other mayoral hopefuls. Polling results show that 53 % of Ottawa voters would support Jim Watson, while O’Brien and Alex Cullen trail at 31% and 16% respectively. How different would the numbers be had the poll included Doucet’s name? If anything he will draw the most from Cullen, who has similar views on many issues but also carries more baggage on the bus strike than Doucet. If Jim Watson continues to avoid articulating a comprehensive vision for the city, he may draw votes from him as well, from people who want to see more than “I’m not Larry” as a candidate. As for Larry, Clive’s entry to the race won’t change his numbers much – but the bleeding from other candidates means that he stands a better chance, especially if his base in the rural and suburban wards shows up to the polls.

For the policy wonks, Doucet’s campaign means an end to the snooze-fest the race has been thus far. Even those who disagree with Clive’s vision will admit that he has one – which is more than we could say for his opponents right now. Will he force the others to offer Ottawa voters more substance? Will he draw them out on issues they might not be prepared to debate – like deamalgamation?

Of course a good campaign needs strategy and substance (not to mention a good organization and a lot of money). Doucet has been proud of his “kitchen table” campaigns in the past – that won’t work at the mayoral level, especially not in a city this tech-savvy, this diverse, this geographically huge.

Sounds like it’s going to be a long, hot summer for all of them.


  1. Great analysis, Vicky. The mayoralty race is starting to get interesting now. I still find it astounding – and more than a little scary – that almost one in three people polled would vote for Mayor Larry.

  2. Good comment about the kitchen table strengths of Doucet and what it means in the context of a race for mayor. I am looking forward to Doucet’s contribution to the election campaigns since he is bristling, brimming with convictions and saying that which needs saying regarding Ottawa’s sorry situation vis-a-vis developers, and secrecy just to begin with. He sure is drawing their anger and exposing their extreme power. I am glad he is doing that, whether or not he wins, because his opinions are shared by many others. I think his candidacy moves the conversation to an interesting point.

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