Monthly Archives: October 2014

How Each of the Five Mayoral Candidates Can Win*

The St. Catharines Mayoral election has approximately 10 more days of campaigning left. The race is wide open, and frankly, victory is available for the taking. In this post I’m going to lay out how each candidate can win the election in the next ten days.

Now, according to the Forum poll from October 10th, Jeff Burch is leading the way currently. This was affirmed by Burch himself and (mistakenly) by his two main opponents at the last debate. Burch has also been touting the poll frequently in his social media accounts and website. What’s important to keep in mind though is not that Burch is in the lead, but that only 23% of committed voters are voting for Burch. Even leaving alone that other candidates could take a bite out of that 23% support in the coming days, that means over three quarters of the electorate are not voting for Burch (at this time.) Wide open.

With only one debate and 10 days left, let’s look at what each candidate can do to win.

*Some housekeeping: as genius as I am, I can’t divine a single, reasonable way that Mark Stevens or Jim Fannon can actually win the election, but they can achieve victory in different ways.

For kicks, let’s go in ascending order based on that Forum poll.

Jim Fannon (3% in Forum Poll): As stated, I don’t think Jim Fannon has a reasonable chance of winning this election. I think Jim Fannon would admit that (he admitted he was a long shot soon after filing.) Fannon’s greatest outcome in this race would be a return to relative “Niagara political” relevance. He has been on a “relevance decline” of sorts, since at least 2006 when he was the local federal Green candidate. Since then he’s done: not much, in terms of politics, save for his CKTB radio show being cancelled after a brief run. Having shed the partisan politics to focus on local, this campaign feels like a “foot in the door” for Fannon to participate in the political conversation again.

My 10-day plan for him would consist of continuing to use humour and criticism of the mainstreamers to generate mentions, but supplement that by adding to his drastic reform ideas some reasonable, short-term ideas. He has shown he can be a part of the conversation again, now he needs to show he can be a serious candidate. This means not just needling the others, but promoting some of his own ideas (even if that means writing them down.) If he does that (and stays active during the next four years), I see no reason why he can’t be a viable candidate for Regional Council in 2018.

Mark Stevens (5%): Stevens is like Fannon. Stevens is nothing like Fannon. Okay, okay. Best case scenario for Stevens, like Fannon, is political relevance, not being the Mayor of St. Catharines. Unlike Fannon, though, Stevens is coming completely out of the blue. Yes, yes, I know he’s contributed to his community in different ways in the past and should be lauded for that. But politically speaking, he’s a brand new face/voice. In a lot of ways, he’s won already. Most, if not all, the other candidates and many media voices have praised his development over the course of the campaign. He speaks honestly and has attainable goals for the city. He asked some cutting questions of his fellow candidates at the last debate and even was endorsed by one, in a way.

My plan for Stevens is simple: be better prepared at the next debate. I fully believe he will be since he’s improved in every debate, but I think he would gain a lot of points if he could go a full debate without saying “I don’t know much about that” to a question about something a prospective mayor should know. If he can prepare for those questions and deliver smart answers, he may move from fringe candidate (5% support) to something closer to mainstream. At the last debate, Stevens mentioned he wanted to see some change so it made sense to become involved and run for Mayor. I think Stevens should tweak that goal a little bit. He can get some political capital from this campaign and if he can keep it up over the next four years, a successful run for a City Council spot could be on the cards. From there, who knows? Mark Stevens for Mayor, 2022?

Peter Secord (15%): Secord is a really tough nut to crack. On the one hand, he had a lot of momentum by announcing his candidacy very early. On the other, he took some criticism for seemingly changing his stripes upon going from Councillor Secord to Candidate Secord. On the one hand, he looked to be the conservative, “book-managing” candidate a lot of people thought St. Catharines would need after a period of spending. On the other, he has allowed himself to be trumped by the introduction of a more charismatic candidate who also had conservative support**. On the one hand, he’s a strong, mainstream candidate with a local political and business background that should see him draw on Ward support and business support. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem to actually want to be Mayor, compared to the enthusiasm, fervour and passion Burch and Sendzik’s campaigns have featured. He has specific plans, which is great, but they don’t seem to be engendering a lot of praise. I can’t figure him out, but maybe that’s my own failure.

**(Digression: the split in the small ‘c’ conservatives during this election could be a novella in itself. At a time when a conservative candidate had a good chance of winning, the big players (both prominent and behind the scenes) have got involved but after years of working together for Dykstra, Siscoe, Hudak etc., have divided themselves, for various personal and political reasons, between Sendzik and Secord. In the process they may have torpedoed their chance to have their ideology represented in the next term.  Would love to do a long post about it if I could ever get more inside information. So much intrigue for one part of one municipal race.)

Anyway, my plan for Secord is relatively simple. At the next debate, he needs to focus on conveying why he wants to be mayor. I have no idea right now other than maybe he thought he could and it was the next logical step. That’s not enough. The worst mud you can sling at Sendzik’s intentions is that he’s ambitious. I think that’s great. There is no doubting for me that Sendzik really, really wants to be mayor. Burch, rightly or wrongly, seems to genuinely believe he’s the best candidate to carry on McMullan’s legacy. They have genuine reasons for running and let people know about them. Secord? I don’t see it. The Federal Conservatives want to get more involved in local politics so maybe Dykstra figured Secord was his best bet. But man, don’t let people think that! So, step 1: passion and belief. Step 2: new substance. As I’ve said previously, I don’t like his tax freeze idea. I think it ultimately hurts the citizens of St. Catharines long-term for the short-term benefit of a couple bucks a month to property owners. BUT, it is an idea that will appeal to a lot of residents who don’t think long-term and just want to see their tax bill go down. These residents will vote a lot. That’s good for Secord, that’s a good play. But now he needs some new plays to supplement it. I wouldn’t promote his “business council” idea any more as it doesn’t seem to be well-thought or well-supported. Other than freezing taxes, what is the city, under Mayor Secord going to do differently? This is difficult when you’re advocating a tax freeze; it is hard to promise goodies with less money. But even just in process: will there be more public open houses? Less committees? Zoning changes to promote growth? Incentives for residential development in the downtown core? Just give us something, Secord. You have the vote of those who wish to see taxes down; but it has got you to 15%. You need more. This debate is your last chance, since you don’t utilize web or social media as well as other candidates.

Walter Sendzik (16%): A quick note: I wrote the most about Sendzik in the last post. While not a conscious choice, this was likely due my being most frustrated with his campaign. This is because as a young person in Niagara, I would love to see a Sendzik-type Mayor. He is young himself, he’s enthusiastic, he’s not an “old boy” and he has shown a genuine interest and commitment to the area’s welfare in the last 8 years.  He has a long-term vision of St. Catharines and its place in Niagara and the world. The problem? That’s all it is, a vision. Sendzik has goals and they sound well and good. His vision sounds great. When I read his website, the “vision” section sounds wonderful and makes me excited to see his plan to achieve that is vision. But there is no plan, yet. I thought originally he could run on one big idea and win because he had strong starting support and team. But he hasn’t picked a big issue to run on. It is hard for me to believe his experienced campaign team thought he could parachute into this election, have the same general vision of Burch’s campaign team and win. Harder still for me to believe anyway thought his Port Place gambit was a good one. The 16% support he has now is probably the same support he had the day he announced his campaign, which is a great starting point but I can’t imagine how he thought that number would grow without specific ideas.

My path to victory for Sendzik is simple: tell us your specific plans and don’t mention Port Place, unless it is to say “these guys haven’t done anything to whip this developer into shape, I will.” We are past the point where he can drop one big concrete idea and coast to victory. We know his team uses web and social media regularly, so use that! If I were him I would start dropping concrete, specific ideas every single day until election day (and maybe this has started, he has a video about restoring beaches up as of Wednesday. This isn’t really a plan per se, but at least an idea others haven’t touched on.)  So don’t say “increase mixed-use development downtown”; say “modernize the complex zoning by-laws that hold back downtown development and provide incentives for business and residents to re-locate there.” Not “pursue business and remove barriers” but “as my first priority, use my knowledge of business needs as former Chamber CEO to reduce wait times for permits but removing two layers of bureacracy.” You want GO Transit? Great. Everyone wants GO. How’re you the one to get it? What would you do differently than Burch or Secord? Just tell us, please. Give me a plan, not platitudes. You don’t need to work so hard selling yourself; sell your unique ideas. And don’t mention Port Place or its developer in anything other than the negative light it deserves.

Jeff Burch (23%): Burch, like Secord, is a good candidate. He has local political experience and experience within the labour movement. He seems to be generally respected a City Councillor and has strong Ward support. He has similar generalized vision points as Sendzik but has differentiated by putting out some very specific ideas on his website, such as enhancing the Enterprise Centre in St. Catharines to help businesses and his Green plan. He has generally handled himself well at debates, despite a target on his back. He has wide-ranging base of support/endorsements, from labour to politicians to educators to big business. He is the closest thing to an incumbent there is in the race, and incumbents have a great track record locally. So, having acknowledged those things…isn’t 23% a very disappointing support number? Should his campaign really be touting this as a positive that 77% of people haven’t committed to Burch?! Look, it’s a tough and big field of candidates so he gets some slack. But in a year where the conservative/corporate vote is seemingly split, and his two other candidates haven’t capitalized on opportunities, shouldn’t he have a more significant lead?!

Burch is acting like a front-runner and that is fine. I praised him for seeming mature during the last debate and I do feel he comported himself fine. But, in the last 10 days he can’t get lazy or complacent. There’s a huge chunk of people who aren’t voting for him, as of the last poll. Big or good moves by either Secord or Sendzik will seem him surpassed if he sits idle.

For the last debate, he better be prepared for the targeting and have a better answers prepared for silly questions other than just “that’s a silly question.” He will need to keep pace with the Secord and Sendzik campaigns, which should have renewed pushes in the final 10 days. It is clear from the poll that he doesn’t have the support of many, yet. How will he get that? He needs to stay active and add even more substance to his campaign. “Status quo” isn’t an exciting thing to run on. It might make sense at a time like this, but it isn’t going to motivate undecided and isn’t going to motivate supporters to make sure they vote. He needs to make it clear how a city under Mayor Burch will be improved than the city under Mayor McMullan (that doesn’t mean Mayor McMullan was bad, but people expect progress.) Finally, at the last debate he needs to come off as more mayor-like than his competitors, and that doesn’t mean remaining seated and chuckling off questions.

Everything is left to play for. Should be an exciting week. Thanks for reading.

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On the #FutureIsNow Mayoral Debate and “Front-Runner” Status

Introduction

The “Jaycees” (http://jcistcatharines.ca/) put on a debate Wednesday night at the Days Inn in St. Catharines. While ostensibly aimed at younger voters (#FutureIsNow), the crowd probably skewed a little bit older than that target demographic. Being a member of the vague “young” voters myself, my only gripe in an otherwise well-planned and executed event is that the content really didn’t differ from the other debates. There weren’t many questions (or answers) specific to young voters, but maybe young voters don’t have specific questions or maybe most election issues appeal to young and older voters alike. Again, a great event though, certainly aided by the fact this was the 6th debate; Jaycees learned well what wasn’t working at previous debates.

Quick summary if you think this post is tl;dr: much improved format with more actual debating rather than just reading campaign pamphlets, 4 out of 5 candidates acquitted themselves well (sorry Secord), we didn’t hear any “new” ideas compared to past debates but did get to learn more about the prospective Mayors’ personalities and the Jaycees put on a great event.

Summary

A standing-room-only crowd met for the 6th St. Catharines Mayoral Debate Wednesday night. At stake, 33% of the electorate, anywhere from 9,000 to 15,000 undecided votes according to the most recent poll (but more on that later.) If I had to guess, I would say most in the room were decided voters, but obviously the content of the debate would reach more than just the 300-400 present.

The Jaycees are a young professionals organization, but this debate wasn’t really for young people, as witnessed by make-up of the crowd (a lot of politicians or candidates, many middle-aged or older decided supporters.) Having said that, it was encouraging to see a sizable contingent of young people, who (by my estimation) skewed pretty evenly between Burch and Sendzik supporters, though the latter probably had slightly more. (Speaking of politicians glad to see it took Andy Petrowski about six seconds to embarrass himself; shouting from the crowd at Burch during his first answer. Petrowski (and another young Sendzik staffer later for a similar infraction) had to be silenced by the moderator. Burch quickly quipped “don’t vote for Andy Petrowski.”)

The format gave each candidate a one minute introduction, several general questions that all answered, candidate-to-candidate question, answer and rebuttal, and a closing statement from each. The candidate-to-candidate questions were by far the most interesting parts of the night, inducing much laughter, oohs and cheering from the crowd.

In my opinion, the biggest issue we are currently facing in this election is we can’t find a big issue, and that continued Wednesday night. Like in the other debates, candidates generally agreed on just about every “what” and only had minor squabbles about “how”. All agree Port is a mess, all agree jobs are important, all agree downtown needs continued revitalization, all agree integrated public transit and GO are important. Now that’s not too damning an assessment of this race, as most of those things would be agreeable to most mainstream candidates.

They certainly have tried to differentiate themselves and it is nice that Port Dalhousie finally got extended more airtime after being bizarrely absent from the first debate. From what I can tell, at this point, each candidate has tried to sell themselves as the following:

Burch: status quo, leadership experience

Sendzik: business-friendly, leadership experience

Secord: two-year tax freeze, business experience

Stevens: blue-collar, non-politician

Fannon: drastic reform, positivity

Those are all fine planks to establish (except Secord’s disastrous one-issue platform, but at least he’s being bold.)

So what did we learn about each candidate and their platform Wednesday night?

Candidate by Candidate

Jeff Burch: Handled himself well despite having a big target on his back. Sendzik caught him out with a question about why Burch didn’t step down from a taxpayer-funded job at the Folks Arts Centre when he announced his candidacy. Burch never really answered, but was able to score points by reminding of the Chamber’s much-maligned survey to candidates while Sendzik was still CEO. I thought he was a bit soft on Port Dalhousie, but does have a record of being against the development. Answered a couple of other tough questions well. Stevens asked why he said he’d only run if McMullan wasn’t and whether he’s running on “more of the same.” Burch answered each honestly; yes, he is running on status quo (more or less) and that respecting McMullan’s ability as mayor doesn’t mean he lacks ambition or self-belief. Of all candidates, he came off as the most mature; I’m not sure other candidates will score a lot of points against his personality. I don’t think Secord or Sendzik will win by impugning Burch, he’s too solid (if unexciting); they should focus on selling themselves and their ideas (but more on that at the end.)

Walter Sendzik: I believe Sendzik knew this was a good opportunity for him; a debate set up by “Walter”-type people (young business pros) and had a lot of support in the room. Whether he took the opportunity is up for debate. Like I said, there weren’t many new ideas but it was a new atmosphere/format. Sendzik went for a sort of rah-rah speaking style that I’m not sure suits him and allowed the other candidates (mostly Fannon) to apply the “snake oil salesman” label. I don’t think that is fair and others might have preferred his style over the laid-back Burch and Secord. What I’ve yet to really get from Sendzik are specifics. He’s selling himself on success as Chamber CEO and I think he has a solid background to run for Mayor, but so do at least two of his opponents. He backed away from “One Niagara” that the Chamber has been associated with for a long time and instead insisted his focus was on “one Niagara economy.” Other than Port Place (more on that in a second), I’m not really sure what Sendzik’s specific plan is or how it might differentiate from Burch’s. The four things listed under his “Vision” on his website are almost comically vague (“Residents First”, “Establish St. Catharines As a Leader”, “Grow The Local Economy” and “Enhance Our Community Life”.) I think it is absolutely fine to run that you’re a strong leader with a genuine interest in your community…if you weren’t running against another strong candidate. I don’t think Sendzik has responded to the challenge of another opponent with a solid background/base. His campaign slogan is Fresh Thinking, New Ideas, but I haven’t seen the latter.

As for specifics of the debate, I think he got his message across well (again, I don’t think it’s a specific-enough message, but it’s his message.) He had good, incisive questions for the other candidates and answered their questions well (smartly “endorsing” Stevens when Fannon tried to trip him up by asking who Sendzik would vote for other than himself.) The one thing that the other candidates did catch him on was selling the success of the Chamber while simultaneously blasting the current state of employment in St. Catharines. Did you bring jobs or are there no jobs? He may want to have a better answer for that next time.

Now, as for the one issue where Sendzik clearly stands apart, is on Port Place. Sendzik (and Secord, for the record) were original and committed supporters of the development. That’s fine, many in the city were at the time. The problem is, for the last couple of years that development has been a nightmare and the developer considered a bit of a pariah. Sendzik, maybe in an attempt to differentiate or maybe because he genuinely still believes in the project (or both), has attached himself to the developer. This is just a very strange political move. I’m not sure what Sendzik stands to gain by attaching himself to someone who is universally loathed. Maybe he figures he wasn’t going to get many votes in Port Dalhousie so he’s punting that ward, but the only people who might be “won over” by this stance are probably already-decided Sendzik voters in the business community (and I can’t imagine any of them would publicly support this developer.) Odd, odd, odd. A better stance might be: “Port Place is an unmitigated disaster and the developer has been a nightmare, but Secord/Burch have had years to navigate the disaster and done nothing; it’s time for a new voice.”

Peter Secord: Wasn’t his room and frankly he didn’t seem too interested in being there. He does have a reputation on Council as a smart, if unexciting guy and I would say that has looked accurate so far. Not a lot of passion and basically took every opportunity to bang the only drum he seems to have, the “two-year tax freeze.” I think that’s a horrible idea and maybe that is making me biased against him overall. Tried to go partisan against Burch and labour/NDP, which was bizarre as Burch quickly pointed out that Rick Dykstra, Federal Conservative MP was a big part of the Secord campaign. Ended up squabbling with Fannon a lot and I don’t see much to gain there. Again, probably just not his room; can’t imagine a single person under the age of 40 voting for him but I’m sure that’s fine to him as the tax-freeze will appeal to the older voting demographic. Weird night for him, which ended with him touting his wife’s new business, for some reason. Other than appealing to older voters and siphoning some of Sendzik’s support, not sure where he fits in this campaign.

Mark Stevens: Came across about the same as he has in previous debates. He asked a lot of good questions of the other candidates and clearly has done some research on their platforms and background. As for his answers to questions, it is very odd that he’s so unprepared, answering a lot of questions (honestly, which is better than making stuff up) with things like “I don’t know much about that.” His speaking style has improved from debate to debate but he hasn’t seemed to have learned which questions he was going to be asked. Other candidates generally treated him as a non-threat, except maybe Fannon who impugned his intellectual capability at one point (for some reason?) For Stevens, I understand why he’s running and believe he has a somewhat genuine campaign. He mentioned at one point the only way to get experience is to run and be elected, which is true, but odd he would go right for top spot. Either way, he’s been a beneficial part of the conversation and has brought a different background to the race. Not sure who he will “take votes from” on Election Day; probably Burch.

Jim Fannon: Where to begin? Was probably the most entertaining candidate at the debate. I’m just not sure that’s actually a good or beneficial thing. He obviously has some personal history/issues with Secord and Sendzik that bleed a bit into his anti-business platform (though this might also be genuine seeing as he was a Green Party candidate.) Mentioned he was a realtor a lot, for some reason. Fannon’s biggest problem is the campaign already had a fringe/outsider candidate in Stevens before Fannon signed up so he doesn’t really have a role. Having said that, his needling of the three mainstream candidates was humourous and put them in awkward positions frequently. Unfortunately, all three handled these situations well, which probably wasn’t what Fannon was going for.

About Jeff Burch, “Front-Runner”:

Burch was targeted like a front-runner because, according to a new poll, that’s exactly what he is. Here’s why that wasn’t wise: he has a slim lead according to a single poll and was given more speaking time than the other candidates (which they only have themselves to blame for by asking him so many questions) because of it. Even if that poll is accurate (and I believe its validity, but has a 4% margin of error and we have seen how different polls can be in the Toronto race) here’s what that lead would mean. Here’s where the Forum poll had each of the three front-runners.

Burch: 23%
Sendzik: 16%
Secord: 15%

In the 2010 municipal election, 29,372 people voted for mayor. If we use these numbers and project them onto those Forum percentages, the election results would look like this in 2014:

Burch: 6,756
Sendzik: 4,700
Secord: 4,406

Even if this poll is 100% accurate, the third place challenge is only behind 2,350 votes; which isn’t many when 9,693 are undecided. And again, this is one poll and uses a voter count that is likely significantly lower than this year’s election. If we use a number like 38,000 (like the last time the incumbent didn’t run), that would mean 12,540 undecided voters. On top of that, another winning strategy might be to target not just undecided, but the 60,000 non-voters as well. Between undecided and non-voters, that’s approximately 72% of total potential voters (or 10 times the amount of committed Burch voters.)

Given how many votes are up for grabs treating Burch like a clear front-runner was a poor political move. When so many votes are up for grabs, don’t concede that status to a rival who only has approximately 7,000 committed voters. Theoretically, at this point, “getting out the vote” from your base might be the determiner of this election. In my mind, Sendzik and Secord should have gone after the other’s support (which they did, less so) while trying to attract a large chunk of that 33%. By giving Burch more air time, they gifted him more opportunity to woo that 33%. If they knew Burch to be a gaffe-prone buffoon, it may make sense, but they know that he is a polished politician.

Now you might say “how many undecideds were even at the debate?”, but that would suppose I’m only speaking of this debate whereas the truth is the debate was a microcosm of the campaign. Instead of promoting their own vision/connections/ideas/traits (or, at worst, going after each other), Secord and Sendzik have ceded front-runner status to Burch. And from this they may have a difficult time recovering.

With one debate left, and so much to play for, let’s see if they change tack.

Thanks for reading and would love to hear your comments below or on Twitter.