How to influence the Ottawa election

"Two for the mayor's debate, please" ( fortunately, plans to charge $10 for last night's mayor's debate were dropped )

If the performances at the opening mayoral debate are any indication, Ottawa voters may be left scratching their heads in confusion this election season. The two so-called front runners used the opportunity to cajole and verbally headlock each other, while the other candidates sputtered and grasped at the remaining time.

Media reports on the debate focused on the few moments of true debate between Jim Watson and incumbent Larry O’Brien, with brief mentions of how the oldest candidate in the race stormed out of the very hall that is named after him.

Andrew Haydon, about twenty years from his first retirement from politics and well past his political prime, guaranteed himself media coverage with a last-minute entry into the race. Then he earned only a little more through a dramatic storm-out after failing to attract significant interest from the audience and then refusing to continue debating (but not before returning to the mic to denounce the debate).

As an aside, much of Haydon’s behaviour had younger Ottawa residents asking aloud “Haydon, he’s still alive?” and pondering whether parks, buildings and other monuments shouldn’t wait for politicians to be truly done with their efforts before receiving such an honour.

Now, back to the mayoral race itself.

Watson and O’Brien both have a vested interest in keeping this to a two-person race. Watson looks to his left and sees Clive Doucet, while O’Brien looks to the right and sees Andy Haydon. Neither of the two perceived front-running candidates want to lose votes to an upstart. And let’s face it there are very few Watson/O’Brien switch voters.

Doucet’s underdog challenge to Watson’s position as assumed frontrunner is more of a threat than the non-existent Hayden camp is to the well-funded and slick O’Brien machine. But, Doucet is also vulnerable to criticism that his long-time favoring of low buildings has contributed to urban sprawl and that his proposed delays to the redevelopment of Landsdowne Park could cost the city millions in legal costs. Doucet’s campaign has more “get up and go” than the Alex Cullen campaign ever had, but lack of money will continue to plague the his campaign because many of Alex (the best mayor Ottawa never had) Munter’s biggest financial backers are now on the Watson team.

Haydon is running his campaign to continue his lobbying for a bus tunnel and a ring-road. In essence his unfunded, disorganized campaign is wasting precious space in the debate, yet voters, media and other candidates will pay more attention to him the crankier he gets.

Mark my words: the best clips from all of these men are yet to come.

Jim Watson and Larry O’Brien are poised to make this Ottawa mayoral race personal. Watson is already taking a far more aggressive and offensive stance than most of Ottawa is used to. Meanwhile, O’Brien appears uncertain how to react to the once meek Watson, so he lashes out with less than flattering language (“scaredy cat”, “little old lady”, “goldilocks”).

If all of this has you a little bit depressed about local politics in Ottawa, I can’t blame you. I am too. But there is a bright spot in this election! Engagement with candidates will be at an all time high. The candidates are all moving towards embracing social media and seem to be exposing themselves regularly to regular people. Many debates are scheduled, and the candidates are seemingly open to changing their minds on previously held positions (case-in point: Watson’s smart reversal on the borough system he once opposed).

Ottawa users of the popular social media tool Twitter have responded to this mess of a race by starting to declare the values and positions they want Ottawa’s next mayor to have. Kicked off by Kaitlin Wainwright, the hashtag “#iwantamayorwho” is taking Ottawa by storm. Most of the responses are thoughtful, interesting and…no one has stormed out. Through Twitter, CityVote columnist Vicky Smallman introduced readers to Cleo McMarten – the pug who would be mayor – and this type of online voter engagement is going to be key to electing a council that can work together with whoever wins the mayor’s seat.

Political campaigns are largely about how well a team can deploy tactics to support their strategy towards election. Candidates shouldn’t be the only ones with a plan. So, Spacing Ottawa team, what is our strategy for creating the change we want to see in council and the mayor?

Our goal: Ensure that the mayoral candidates positively engage with the issues and Ottawa voters, and not simply attack each other for over a month.

And I’d suggest we – like the candidates campaigns are – deploy specific tactics to influence the mayors race:

First focus: What are your core set of issues? What do you want council to do in the next three years? How would you like them to behave while doing it? Answer these three questions and you have your core messages to candidates. Write it all down. Blog it. Tweet it and post it as a status update.

Second, be creative. Engage the field of candidates – send them email questions, ask for interviews and stop them on the street to talk about your core-issues. Write, blog and tweet about the reactions you get from ward and mayoral candidates. Mark all that material with with the tag #ottvote and #ott2010

Attend local debates, ask questions and engage on other people’s forums or blogs and join in the #iwantamayorwho conversation on Twitter. Ask candidates how they plan on working together, how they resolve conflict, and if they are open to changing their mind when needed. Treat the election like a job interview and demand the same quality answers from candidates as you have to provide when getting a new job.

Let’s join Kaitlin and Cleo and turn the tables on candidates who would rather fight amongst themselves rather than have a real conversation.

Two weeks from now I’ll return with video of several communities in Ottawa with their questions for the candidates.

photo by Richard Eriksson


  1. Great article Ian 

    I for one am also sick of the infighting and name calling and agree that you must engage the candidates one on one to truly get a sense of who they are. 

    I think that people should ask the candidates  the big city wide questions , but don’t be scared to ask them about ward specific things as well, if you don’t get back fire and passion on ward questions ask yourself is this really the person to represent you and your ward.

  2. And let’s face it there are very few Watson/O’Brien switch voters.

    Don’t be too sure of that.

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