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.

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

  1. Pingback: How Each of the Five Mayoral Candidates Can Win* | niagaranext

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