Commentary

Why We Should Have Seen This Coming All Along, but Didn't

One of my Myspace buddies won the municipal election. Can you guess which one?

By Matt Jelly
Published November 23, 2006

Two weeks ago, the 2006 municipal election was really shaping up to be a disappointment to any Hamiltonian who thrives on the kind of good political nail-biter to which the city has become so historically accustomed.

By all accounts, it looked like a sure thing that Mayor Larry Di Ianni would be re-elected by a sizeable margin, and just about every incumbent councillor would retain their seat without much blood spilled. It looked like the only fresh faces would be in the wards vacated by the outgoing Councillors Braden, Kelly, Ferguson and Sampson, and Brad Clark's assured defeat of Phil Bruckler.

Even then, we'd be electing Russ Powers back to Dundas, and a new, almost identical Ferguson, fresh off the line. It would be just like hitting the "reset" button on city council.

For the most part, that's exactly what happened. The only unexpected turn came from the Mayoral race. In retrospect, local pundits (me included) are realizing that we shouldn't have been surprised. Shouldn't we have seen this coming all along?

Larry Di Ianni
Larry Di Ianni

A Political Lightning Rod

Mayor Larry Di Ianni, whether by design or not, is a political lightning rod. That isn't an unusual position for a Mayor, Premier or Prime Minister to find themselves in. Often, when a politician becomes the spokesperson for controversial policy, the leadership is held accountable, sometimes rightly and sometimes not.

However, the success of Larry Di Ianni is that he had the ability to be that lightning rod and, with an excellent grip on language and communication, could adequately fend off most of the criticisms he received.

I think most people generally accept that there is no single reason why Larry Di Ianni lost. There are several that just happened to come to a front in the last weeks of the campaign.

The most obvious reason most people cite is the campaign overcontributions scandal. This story cast a shadow over Di Ianni that he couldn't seem to shake. It just wouldn't go away throughout his three year term, accumulating in a damaging (albeit anticlimactic) guilty plea some two months before the election.

Larry is very skilled at promoting and defending controversial policies. He is an excellent champion for specific projects, because he is a personable, passionate and capable politician. Larry's main weakness shows in trying to defend himself - not his policy, but himself.

When the charge is personal, Larry Di Ianni understandably falters under immediate pressure. This is where he starts saying things like "I'll take my lumps" in live press conferences, and reveals a more emotional combativeness that he may not realize is unattractive to the general public.

Campaign Funding Now a Mainstream Concern

Joanna Chapman is to be commended for her tenacity in pursuing Di Ianni's campaign improprieties, whether or not Di Ianni was in fact aware that his campaign had accepted overcontributions, and knowingly broke municipal election law.

In the end, what Joanna Chapman's quest resulted in is a new attention to who funds who in municipal politics, perhaps in perfect timing. It raised awareness in the voting population that Candidates are often supported by certain interests, who do so to exert their influence on civic policymakers.

The public now had reason to ask very valid questions on whether or not this environment was appropriate (or even contradictory) to the public interest. This attitude was no longer a marginalized issue, it had become a mainstream concern.

Corporate and union donors to election campaigns will argue that they don't donate these contributions in order to sway political decisions made by politicians, but rather that they enable those politicians who are in political alignment with the interests of the donor.

They are the enablers of any given political machine, but will insist that they never exploit this role for financial gain. Of course, they often do, sometimes at odds with public will, and the interest of voters.

A High-Profile Attack

I know that Di Ianni took the charges against him very personally. It was the kind of high-profile political attack that he had never faced, and for which he couldn't possibly prepare.

Di Ianni and his supporters cried foul, claiming Chapman's actions were just a political attack. Chapman's actions were indeed partly political, no doubt about that; but as the evidence mounted, it was less and less possible to wave away her actions. There was eventually enough evidence for the citizens of Hamilton to make a judgement on Di Ianni in principle, not politics.

The question wasn't whether Di Ianni knew about his campaign finance improprieties or not; I think many people began to ask instead whether a candidate for the highest political post in a city with an annual budget of $1 billion ought to have known whether all the donations were appropriate when signing the financial statement for their campaign.

Focus on the Future, Not the Past

Aside from Di Ianni's problems with campaign finance issues, several other problems led to his defeat. As I mentioned above, Larry is excellent at championing policy and projects. But in 2006, which policies and projects did Larry actually campaign on?

Larry was left to campaign on his record - projects he had already championed and were already well underway. But Di Ianni is most palatable to the average voter when he's speaking passionately about the future, not just pointing to past accomplishments.

Without the kind of main "planks" in his platform that he ran on in 2003, Larry Di Ianni was left to promote safe, popular issues, such as public safety, poverty reduction and job creation.

Some politicians are great at championing these kind of meat-and-potatoes issues, but Di Ianni is not. He likes to spice it up a little; Larry loves a good debate when he's got an issue to fight for. It didn't help that Mario Joannette was the main agitator of the campaign, a political advisor with nowhere near the ability to level the kind of measured, eloquent attacks that Di Ianni had mastered.

Fred Eisenberger
Fred Eisenberger

A Modest Campaign

In no small measure, the modest campaign mounted by Fred Eisenberger benefited from Larry's weaknesses without harping on them. The Eisenberger campaign, while at times combative with Di Ianni, focussed more on a series of policies that combined many different priorities, from different segments of the community.

I was among those critics who would have liked to have seen the Eisenberger campaign differentiate itself more from the Di Ianni campaign, especially knowing that his intentions were in fact different. But now that the dust has settled, I think a lot of people realize now that Eisenbeger ran a shrewd campaign with an inclusive platform.

The main complaint that many in the anti-Di Ianni camp had was that Eisenberger didn't have what it takes to win against a more tenacious incumbent. Perhaps we were thinking of the table-thumping, thumb-pointing energetic Di Ianni of 2003 rather than the muted, slightly humbled Di Ianni of 2006.

We had already seen a more dogmatic opponent in David Christopherson be defeated by Di Ianni in 2003, and as one comment on Eisenberger's myspace site asked, "So what makes you different?"

Fred Eisenberger incorporated policies similar to Di Ianni's into his platform not just for political gain, but because some of Di Ianni's policies actually worked and were worth consideration. Aside from that, Fred also incorporated the issue of integrity into his campaign, pledging to incorporate many of the suggestions that groups such as CATCH, Raise the Hammer, and Community Action Network have made in terms of accountability and integrity at City Hall.

No Political Favours

Eisenberger also took the courageous stance not to accept any corporate or union donations, taking action on these issues as a candidate who had much more to lose in doing so, especially when the incumbent had decided to continue accepting donations. Perhaps Hamiltonians like to root for the underdog every once in a while.

Eisenberger seemed to have a good grasp of modern-day environmental concerns, urban sprawl and sustainable development, to the satisfaction of the city's progressives. In the end, this was enough to constitute a positive vision for Hamilton that overwhelmed the Di Ianni plan.

Eisenberger was able to transform what could have been mere criticisms of Di Ianni into positive policies that and a platform for general reform at City Hall. The city licensing scandal seemed to bolster the public attitude that the reforms Eisenberger was campaigning for were very needed, and the Di Ianni camp hadn't sufficiently addressed these issues in a meaningful way.

Eisenberger now finds himself in a bit of a difficult spot, somewhat akin to his political second-cousins in Stephen Harper's conservatives. Having run on reform, Fred has a number of initiatives that he must act on in a way that is meaningful to those who handed him that mandate on a slim victory.

As one of Fred's supporters said to me on election night, referring to Eisenberger's refusal to accept corportate and union donations, "Fred doesn't owe anything to anyone". In terms of political favours, Fred doesn't owe any, and can govern with the kind of freedom that may have eluded Di Ianni's three year term. The only people to which Fred is accountable is the public.

A Political Tightrope

However, Fred is a new face to many of the people who voted for him, not for who he is, but who he's not. This environment may see Eisenberger walking a political tightrope, but if it's done successfully, Eisenberger may be able to mend some of Hamilton's long-broken political fences.

By doing so, the hope is that he will be able to depolarize the city by incorporating varying interests in a way that doesn't lead to the same kind of ideological conflicts we've seen in recent years. If his campaign is any indication of his ability to do so, we may be in good hands for four years.

Jelly is a local artist, graphic designer and map maker living in Downtown Hamilton, Ontario in the Central Neighbourhood. Matt is an advocate for built heritage, toxic waste eradication and the revitalization of downtown Hamilton. www.mattjelly.com

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By DiDaze (anonymous) | Posted December 01, 2006 at 13:57:13

In the end, DiAnni's downfall was one fold.

It was the inabilty of anybody, any group, or any area of the GHA to be heard..over the rumble of Team DiAnni & their agenda(s.

Voters & citizens just became frustrated with their lack of ability to change, speak, input, or contact City Hall in any meaningful way. They got tired of opening their doors to find 'Change' happening on their doorsteps without any warning, or input from them. They got tired of important decisions being made for or about them them in secret or in a vacume.

They got tired of 'Team DiAnni' & the Manager paid the price. I only wish they had benched the entire team.

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By Jelly (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2006 at 20:21:39

I disagree with you on the first point- usually nothing in politics is exactly onefold.

I do agree that many citizens felt from day one of DiIanni's tenure that City Hall was less than inviting to the average citizen, especially those citizens with a difference in opinion or ideology. There was an environment at city hall that left citizens feeling shut out of the discussion- I saw that more than a few times.

But, to another segment of the population, to certain interests, City Hall was very much open, whether by preferential treatment or not.

DiIanni may have lost, but by no means was it by a landslide- it came down to 500 votes. So I'd say there were probably 20,000 or so people who voted for DiIanni the last time who probably just didn't come out this time- regardless, DiIanni still got 50,000 votes. You and I may have been frustrated with him, but it's pretty clear that if Dave Braden hadn't removed his name from the ballot, DiIanni would have won it pretty handily.

Maybe an election in which every vote seemed to count a bit more will inspire more people to make it out next time.

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