Ottawa Citizen Article by David Reevely, July 2018
Mayor Jim Watson owes former Capital councillor Clive Doucet a thank-you for registering to run against him this fall.
The vote is Oct. 22 and when nominations closed Friday afternoon, the eight-year incumbent faced 11 challengers. Only Doucet has held office before. Perhaps the next best-known is Vanier garage operator Bruce McConville, who’s run for council twice and lost.
Doucet’s got a solid base among urban left-wingers, having served four terms for his downtown ward, but he also has a solid base of enemies who consider him the ultimate downtown weenie. When he ran for mayor in 2010, also against Watson, Doucet came third with less than 15 per cent of the vote. Watson outpolled him even in Doucet’s own neighbourhood. Although weirder things have happened, it would take an amazing reversal for Watson to lose in October.
“Walking away from your life is difficult. If there had been a great candidate to run against Mr. Watson, I would not be standing here. But it’s very clear that unless I run, there will be no debate. That’s the reason I’m here,” Doucet told Postmedia’s Jon Willing as he registered close to the last minute on Friday. He’d been thinking about running but only made up his mind the night before, he said. “I’m looking forward to a very good scrap with Mr. Watson.”
An honest fight is good for the city.
Eight years in, Watson’s no longer a huge relief after Larry O’Brien’s four years of chaos. There’s plenty to criticize in Watson’s record, especially in a city as sprawling and complicated as this one. To pluck just one example, some people are angry that Watson hasn’t stopped supervised drug-injection sites downtown and other people are angry that it took so long to start them.
Watson’s tight fist on the city budget, particularly keeping tax increases as low as he has, is starting to have serious consequences. Suburban bus services are stretched. They rejiggered the city’s wading-pool schedules when parents noticed just how briefly the pools were open. In the last year, the mayor’s belatedly stuffed every free dollar into patching crumbling sidewalks and roads. Doucet can pillory him on these things, make him account for himself.
The list of groups aggrieved by Watson’s snooty treatment of people he disagrees with only gets longer. But so does the list of store openings, strawberry socials, 100th-birthday parties and village fairs he’s attended. He makes more friends than enemies. His administration has been free of major scandals; cases of corruption and waste turned up by people like the city’s auditor general haven’t had their roots in the mayor’s office.
Watson’s a middle-of-the-road guy. A bit leftish here, a bit rightish there, never too far in either direction. Other centrists don’t see a reason to challenge a mayor who mostly thinks the way they do. Anyway, most of them are fellow Liberals and it would be rude. A single challenger from either the left or the right might command support from one-third of the political spectrum but Watson, who’s no dummy, can go for the other two-thirds.
The best hope for unseating him would have been a three-way race. Paul Dewar thought seriously about challenging Watson earlier this year but his terrible cancer diagnosis put an end to that. If an equally strong candidate from the right — say, former police chief and current Conservative Sen. Vern White — had shown up, Watson might conceivably have seen his support nibbled from both sides.
That’s what happened in 2006, when Bob Chiarelli faced a left-winger in former Kanata councillor Alex Munter and a right-winger in O’Brien, plus the Conservatives were flexing their new muscles on Parliament Hill and minister John Baird used his to sabotage Chiarelli’s light-rail plan. Chiarelli, who’d seemed unbeatable just a few months earlier, couldn’t defend either flank.
Being a centrist is a major positional advantage most of the time but when it fails, it fails hard, as Watson’s former caucusmates in the provincial Liberal party recently found. Maybe Doucet will play Munter this time and McConville will play O’Brien. That it’s even a possibility is great.
Doug Ford’s provincial government isn’t as friendly to Watson as Dalton McGuinty’s and Kathleen Wynne’s were. Ford himself seems barely aware of us. He called us a town on Friday as he personally intervened to mess with Toronto’s council structure. Then, later in the same breath, he upgraded us to “a beautiful city.” But just not comparable to a real city like Toronto.
“We’re going to get things done, we’re going to run city hall a lot more efficiently than before,” Ford promised. He wasn’t talking about Ottawa’s.
Ottawa’s senior provincial minister Lisa MacLeod visited our city hall the other day for some face time with Couns. Jan Harder and Scott Moffatt, council conservatives, committee chairs, and MacLeod’s closest local allies. One of MacLeod’s early political jobs was serving Harder as an aide. She joked that they’re so tight, so similar, that people sometimes think they’re mother and daughter.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to work with Lisa and her government for Ottawa,” Harder said. “In order to really promote Ottawa, you have to have that relationship.”
Watson and MacLeod aren’t enemies (yet) but it’s clear who has the hotline to the provincial cabinet now.
A bunch of money the city has been expecting from the province’s cap-and-trade revenues that would have underwritten social-housing repairs, bike routes and transit projects suddenly vanished early this month with an announcement of the system’s cancellation. Watson has multibillion-dollar transit plans to pay for (including co-ordination with Gatineau), a LeBreton Flats redevelopment to guide, a central library to build.
To contend with all that, a clear popular mandate would sure be helpful. You don’t have one if you’ve been re-elected by default. Even if he loses, Doucet is doing Watson, and all the rest of us, a service.