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.

Niagara’s Red Herring – Why “One Niagara” Should Be Taboo

“Everything would be better if Niagara was One Municipality instead of 12.”

This is a phrase heard regularly by those who travel in political circles or those who care to discuss the multitude of issues currently facing Niagara.

Don’t say this phrase or some version of it. Don’t believe it or some version of it. And certainly don’t vote for any politician who says this or makes it a part of their platform for election.

red her·ring (noun)

red herring is a figurative expression referring to a logical fallacy in which a clue or piece of information is or is intended to be misleading, or distracting from the actual question

 

“One Niagara” is the most popular Red Herring around Niagara these days. Politicians offer it as a cure-all. The business community presents it as a game-changer. Citizens see it as a money-saver. Usually, the “One Niagara” idea is presented by a party and accepted by all those present as Right and Good in about the same amount of time (and with a corresponding level of consideration) as drinking a Pickle Shot at Sheehan’s.

So why is this idea bandied about so frequently and examined so rarely? There are a few reasons why “One Niagara” is such a popular idea:


 

  • “It’s simple!”

    We live in an instant-gratification society and the number one thing going for the “One Niagara” idea is that it allows us all to be lazy. It should be apparent to all who care to think that there are various complex and unique issues facing Niagara and its communities. But that sort of rational thinking gets swept away when presented with a one-size-fits-all, immediate cure for what ails us. “One Niagara” let’s us believe there is a one way to make this area great again. And look, we barely had to lift a finger.


  • “It’s not MY fault”

    Not taking responsibility is a time-honoured tradition for the human race, and I’m loathe to speak against it, but it has greatly aided and abetted the One Niagara red herring. Politicians (often elected but especially prospective) love One Niagara. You’re a city councillor and you can’t balance the budget? Lack of One Niagara. You’re a regional councillor and you can’t figure out a transit system? Lack of One Niagara. Pretty much every prospective official has to spout One Niagara because, as I said, we all love it so much. “My opponent has been Mayor for four years and yet, here are, still without One Niagara. Elect me, Jimmy Blowhard: One Niagara guy.”


  • “I’m smart and engaged”

    Saying One Niagara immediately gives off the perception that an individual knows and cares about Niagara. Whether they can elaborate on the specific solutions One Niagara gives isn’t relevant. This is a person who GETS IT and further discussion of the social, economic or political issue at end is not required. Why examine the condition of the working poor when we can’t even figure out One Niagara?


  • “Governments are bloated and there are too many workers gorging themselves on the money of taxpayers”

    This will always be popular among voters and politicians alike. Even NDP-leaning politicians would never run on “More Public Sector Employees Making More Money”. Use of taxpayer funds is a popular and sensitive subject simply because it affects all taxpayers, which is almost every Canadian in one form or another. Cutting public sector jobs and salaries is always going to play with Joe Taxpayer. One Niagara feeds off this because it is easy to make the connection between amalgamating cities and amalgamating positions. From 12 mayors to 1, lickety-split savings. It would be terrible to find out this thinking was flawed, wouldn’t it? Let’s go to the Toronto Star from earlier this year for more:

What about the idea that amalgamation will allow us to cut down on bloated government spending and pass that savings onto residents or into improving services? From the Toronto Star in January 2014: “It was dubbed the Common Sense Revolution — Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris’s 1995 campaign to slash the province’s bloated public sector through massive municipal government restructuring, to the tune of $250 million in taxpayer savings. But new analysis has found that while amalgamation technically decreased the number of municipalities in Ontario — down from 850 to 445 — and 23 per cent of elected official positions were axed, more people than ever are working in Ontario’s municipal governments. “The conclusion is very strong: amalgamation didn’t reduce the size of municipal government,” said Timothy Cobban, political science professor at Western University and lead researcher.” (http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/01/13/amalgamation_brought_fewer_ontario_cities_but_more_city_workers_report_finds.html)


Here’s the thing about One Niagara that’s the real kicker though: it is a horrible idea. The worst part about the idea isn’t that it is lazy, or that it allows politicians to pass the buck or that it curtails discussions of actual problems and solutions, or even that it is based on flawed logic. The worst part of “everything would be better if Niagara was One Municipality instead of 12” is that it is wrong.

Proponents of amalgamating Niagara into one city will often point to Hamilton or Ottawa. Both of these cities have amalgamated with area municipalities to form One City in the last 13 years. The process for both was similar: an already-existing Regional Municipality consisting of lower-tier municipalities was absorbed by its largest urban municipality to form a single-tiered municipality. Here’s the problem with these comparisons: Niagara doesn’t have a single, large urban municipality that the entire region revolves around. Niagara has three urban centres of a similar size in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland/Port. Furthermore, none of the “disappearing” municipalities from Ottawa/Hamilton had a strong tourism identity/economy like Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake do. How many tourists travel to Ancaster and Smith Falls a year? These are the two most obvious reasons why we aren’t like Ottawa and Hamilton, leaving alone issues surrounding population density and Niagara’s unique geography (far-flung cities, the Welland Canal and the escarpment, for example.)

Amalgamation was a far more obvious choice in Ottawa and Hamilton, single urban centres that absorbed their supporting surrounding communities. And guess what? In spite of their more apparent rationale for amalgamation, they have hardly been successful.  From the Rural Council, representing the communities lost in amalgamation: “Amalgamation: The Costly Experiment That Failed” (http://www.ruralcouncil.ca/amalgamation.htm). In Hamilton: “Singing The Amalgamation Blues” (http://www.raisethehammer.org/blog/872/). I could post links all day that mention the same problems, but these two give a succinct idea of the effects of amalgamation in those communities.

Ok, but what about smaller communities that amalgamated like Kingston, Central Elgin or Chatham-Kent? If Niagara isn’t like Ottawa and Hamilton, maybe its amalgamation will succeed rather than fail. Nope: since their amalgamation 17 years ago, citizens have strongly responded that their tax dollars are being used worse than before amalgamation:

“Contrary to the provincial expectation that amalgamations would result in more efficient service delivery, in every jurisdiction the majority of respondents felt that the value they were receiving for their taxes declined since amalgamation” (http://www.cjrs-rcsr.org/archives/26-1/siegel.pdf).

Citizens also have generally been more against amalgamation than for it in all three places.


 

Amalgamation has failed in every municipality it has impacted. It will fail here. We won’t see lower taxes, we won’t see less spending on politician/public sector salaries, we won’t see higher employment rates and we won’t see improved transit as a result of amalgamation. One Niagara would only make our issues worse, not better.

Everyone suffers from confirmation bias, myself included. So it’d be fair for you to think that I just found the sources that told me One Niagara was bad because that’s the conclusion I wanted. That’d be fair. So look into the issue yourself. Take the time to be able to back it up before spouting One Niagara.

As for me, I won’t ever be voting for anyone who says One Niagara is our solution; they either: 1. haven’t done the research 2.  Have done the research and are not competent or 3. Are simply trying to pass on finding real solutions to issues.

Let’s expect more Niagara. Let’s focus on real solutions and not fall victim to a red herring.