Ward 7 By-Election 2016

Reflections on a Council By-Election Campaign

At some point we thought the media would finally realize that we were in this to win and cover our campaign with the weight we thought we had earned.

By John-Paul Danko
Published March 28, 2016

After 102 days of campaigning in a Ward with 40,000 eligible voters, we came up just 92 votes short.

Danko campaign map
Danko campaign map

We started knocking on doors in December as soon as my nomination was official, and didn't stop until the polls closed on March 21. In total, we knocked on 14,226 doors, dropped 9,350 fliers and put up 700 signs.

Our "at home" rate was around 50 percent, so that means we spoke to approximately 7,000 individual Ward 7 residents at the door!

Volunteer Team

First and foremost, I have to thank my campaign manager, Stefanie Sheils. Throughout the campaign she kept us organized and on task like nobody else could.

Goce Dimitroski was an absolute diesel locomotive going door to door - hustling for votes six hours a day!

My wife Dawn did a great job reminding me to keep our message positive and on point, talking about what we offer (as opposed to attacking others) and my parents and Dawn's mom were a huge help from watching the kids, to calling supporters, to knocking on doors.

We also had a handful of other dedicated, amazing volunteers who dropped thousands of fliers, knocked on doors, put up signs, designed our campaign material and offered campaign advice - thank you!

Danko campaign team
Danko campaign team

I also have to thank my co-workers at ELLIS Engineering Inc. for their patience. I was still working full time throughout the campaign, but with a lot of 3/4 days and time off to canvas - so it fell to them to pick up the slack.

In our initial planning we estimated that we would have the resources to knock and drop around 10000 fliers and secure 400 sign locations. We ended up more than doubling our door to door efforts and nearly doubled our sign locations as well which is a major testament to the incredible hard work our small team was able to put in.

Campaign Strategy

One of the most gratifying aspects of this campaign for me was seeing how successful an unknown independent candidate with a broad spectrum message can be against seasoned political party campaigners.

Campaign strategy within modern political parties is to essentially identify your base supporters, tailor your message to speak to your base and then hustle them relentlessly to get the vote out.

Our campaign was the opposite. We identified key messages that resonated with most voters and pulled support from across the entire political spectrum.

Holding campaign signs
Holding campaign signs

Ultimately, Donna Skelly was able to run a hybrid campaign - relying on focused political party tactics, leveraging her Conservative party supporter base, and her widespread appeal as a respected media personality. She won because she ran an extremely effective multi-pronged campaign.

Also of interest to me was the fact that Donna and I were pulling votes from largely the same demographics - so the central mountain looks to be much more centre-right than it may have appeared just a few months ago.

If this trend carries through to the next Provincial and Federal election cycles (especially Federally) a strong Liberal Party candidate, or even a red Tory have a very good shot at taking Hamilton Mountain back from the NDP.

Mainstream Media

If there is one glaring negative for me over the course of the campaign, its the media coverage we received - or more accurately didn't receive.

Our campaign was completely ignored by Hamilton's mainstream media institutions. AM 900 CHML, The Spectator and CHCH TV never once mentioned us as a viable contender (to the best of my knowledge anyway - I don't own a single AM radio, I don't have cable TV and I only occasionally read the Spec online - so I am mostly relying on second hand accounts of the coverage which are probably a little biased).

Danko family
Danko family

The result was that older voters for whom these media sources are still relevant (and who are of course also the most likely to vote) were never presented with John-Paul Danko as a leading contender that was worthy of consideration if you wanted to make your vote count.

The Mountain News and CBC Hamilton were little better - although both extended their coverage to Twitter which was a nice touch - at least for younger voters.

Every discussion, article and feature was sure to mention comments from those candidates with media connections, political endorsements or a political background.

In fact, the only positive coverage we received (really the only objective coverage we received at all) was from Cable 14 commentator Laura Babcock on the O-Show following the all candidates event.

All-candidates event
All-candidates event

Donna Skelly (CHCH news personality with Conservative Party campaign team), Doug Farraway (AM radio host with connections to the Liberal Party), Uzma Qureshi (endorsed by MPs Scott Duvall, David Christopherson and MPP Monique Taylor with an NDP campaign team) Howard Rabb (endorsed by Ward 8 councillor Terry Whitehead with a Liberal Party campaign team), Bob Charters (former councillor with connections to Hamilton political insiders) and Shaun Burt (former Liberal party federal candidate) were all consistently presented as the leading candidates.

Newsworthy Campaign

I understand that the media cannot (and should not) give equal weight to every candidate in a field of 22 - but at some point we thought the media would finally realize that we were in this to win and cover our campaign with the weight we thought we had earned.

A media personality just thinking of running was news. A media personality announcing their candidacy was news. Former politicians joining the race was news. Endorsements from politicians were referenced in every story. Pundits and experts talked about which media personality, former politician or party candidate was leading the race - with no mention of us.

I'm not sure what else we could have done to show the media that we deserved coverage as one of the leading candidates (more cat photos maybe). We sent out press releases, we were in contact with reporters we responded to the few inquiries for comment we received (even though not much was actually reported) but nothing we did seemed to garner any interest at all.

We tried very hard to keep our message positive and focused on our strengths and the strengths of Ward 7 and Hamilton as opposed to attacking other candidates or making unattainable campaign promises.

I don't think that positive and realistic messaging was what the media wanted to hear (even though our messaging seemed to do very well with the general public).

There wasn't much conflict between camps during the campaign, but what there was seemed to be overly represented in the media which was disappointing to see (although we all know that negativity and conflict sell). We did have a few ideas for attack ads on the table and in hindsight maybe they would have at least gotten our name into the news.

Danko family campaigning
Danko family campaigning

Voters asked us repeatedly for a source where they could find out more information about all candidates, but without going online to Hamilton's long format independent media sources - the Hamiltonian especially, but also Raise the Hammer, the Bay Observer and Joey Coleman, voters were limited to a 100 word Spectator bio and a 150 word Mountain News bio.

At the risk of sounding like sour grapes (which a lot of this probably already does), with a 92 vote deficit against a well known media personality, this lack of attention essentially decided the election.

In the end, despite a lack of attention from the media, we soundly beat out the NDP campaign machine in an NDP stronghold. We more than doubled Shaun Burt's vote count, even though he nearly won a federal seat just a few months ago. In the case of Farraway, Rabb and Charters, we received more votes than the three of them combined - so at the very least we proved that an independent candidate can be successful even with zero coverage by the mainstream media.

Lessons Learned

Looking at the poll by poll results, it is very gratifying to know that we crushed the vote at my home poll Queensdale. It is extremely rewarding to know that my friends, neighbours and local community came out to support us so strongly.

I am also very happy with the efficiency of our campaign - our expense to vote ratio was roughly $10 (with a voter turnout of just under 25%) which I am sure is going to be substantially lower than any of the other top ten candidates (except for maybe Tim Gordon).

We also did very well in the Brigade neighbourhood, and surprisingly poorly at Lawfield - so its worth delving into our canvassing statistics a little deeper to see what happened there.

Overall I have two big take-a-way lessons from this campaign.

1. I needed to be more involved in the community before running for public office.

I have been fairly involved within my local community, but not so much in terms of volunteer work, memberships and involvement with larger organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce, charitable organizations, cultural and religious groups and even volunteering for other political campaigns.

I don't think this hurt us in terms of direct votes - but it certainly made it much harder to recruit volunteers from outside of my personal circles and to secure donations.

We had a core of a half dozen volunteers but we really needed at least a dozen more to balance the work load and allow us to really blitz strategic areas, especially in the last few weeks of the campaign when we were all feeling pretty burnt out.

2. Party tactics work.

At the beginning of the campaign we knew that we would have to work smarter than the political party candidates in order to have a chance. I love strategy, so this was one of the most exciting aspects of the campaign for me.

I think that we were able to achieve that - in fact, I felt that we were one step ahead of everyone else for the entire campaign and were able to control the message from start to finish: we made living in the ward, political party affiliation and credentials all ballot questions.

However, we also underestimated just how involved the three political parties would be in this race. The NDP, Liberal and Conservative party candidates all heavily relied on their supporter lists to secure both sign locations and core votes (and likely campaign donations as well).

Conversely, our campaign had to start from scratch. Every single one of our 700 sign locations was from someone we talked to personally at the door. Every single supporter we identified was someone we canvassed.

Again, in an election that came down to 92 votes, that core political party base vote was a deciding factor.

Next Steps

Yes, I am disappointed that we came up just short of winning (or as my wife put it - we're like the Tiger Cats in their last two Grey Cup appearances: underdogs that nobody thought had a chance and couldn't quite secure a last minute victory).

However, I am also very proud of the hard work our team put in and the outstanding results that we achieved.

Now that the campaign is over, I am personally looking forward to spending more time with my friends and family (I think we owe the kids a family vacation in the near future), getting back to work, re-focusing on my businesses and all of the general day to day tasks that I have been neglecting over the last three months.

I have a few projects in my local neighbourhood that I am looking forward to advocating for as well: a splash pad for Bruce Park, a stop light at Inverness and Upper Wellington, a signalized pedestrian crossing at Upper James and Inverness, bike lanes on the Claremont Access and Queensdale Avenue and rehabilitation of the Hill Park recreation center all come to mind.


As a Ward 7 resident myself, I don't think that Donna Skelly is the type of Councillor who will focus too much energy on filling potholes and getting cats out of trees. So from a big picture perspective, I'm genuinely excited about the change in direction that I expect to see from her at City Council with a new focus on business development and city building on the central mountain - its certainly a positive change overall.

Despite the loss, I feel good knowing that we did everything we could have done to be successful and I want to sincerely thank each and every one of our supporters!

First published on John-Paul Danko's campaign website.

John-Paul Danko is a professional engineer and small business owner.


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By ryanssockpippet (anonymous) | Posted March 28, 2016 at 08:34:39

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 29, 2016 at 08:14:47 in reply to Comment 117299

Forgive my ignorance, but what's a pedestrian parkade? The only use of the term I'm familiar with is a structure for parked cars.

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By ryanssockpuppet (anonymous) | Posted March 31, 2016 at 07:15:10 in reply to Comment 117323

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted March 28, 2016 at 09:55:26

We tried very hard to keep our message positive and focused on our strengths and the strengths of Ward 7 and Hamilton as opposed to attacking other candidates or making unattainable campaign promises.

The last general municipal election demonstrates the enormous advantage enjoyed by the incumbent.

Not that I want to appear cynical, but this enormous advantage of incumbency makes unattainable campaign promises a viable strategy. In other words, promise whatever it takes to get elected, no matter how unrealistic or absurd that may be.

After the election, when people ask you to fulfill those promises, introduce the motions at Hamilton City Council, argue noisily for them and get lots of media coverage. But since they are unrealistic, odds are the other members of Council will vote them down.

When the next election rolls around, you are the incumbent! Good luck to anyone trying to defeat you. And your re-election platform is to tell everyone that you fought hard for them and for their unrealistic promises. Make a bunch more unrealistic promises and repeat this winning formula for re-election after re-election.

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By notnews (anonymous) | Posted March 28, 2016 at 10:04:23

Wow, that was a little too close for my liking. Anyone who openly quotes Ayn Rand outside of college or university (a forgiving time indeed) does not deserve the kind of attention or votes you received.

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By negatory (anonymous) | Posted March 28, 2016 at 11:40:17

Wow, such negativity in the comments!

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By Basement (anonymous) | Posted March 28, 2016 at 11:43:57 in reply to Comment 117305

It's a cool, rainy day and the fireplace is working just fine in Momma's basement apparently

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By RobMullan (registered) | Posted March 28, 2016 at 11:48:09

The closeness of this campaign, the vast number of candidates, and the low voter turnout really doesn't make clear what vision or direction the residents of Ward 7 want to have for the next couple years.

As an invested voter in this election, I found I could determine what some of the candidates were looking to do if they were able to attain office with a little research. But for a casual voter, I don't think a person would be able to figure out much more than name, basic employment background, and maybe if the candidate was a resident of the ward. The media made this an election about a quantity of candidates, with little attention to issues or ideas.

This should mean that until the next municipal election, Councillor Skelly won't be looking to make too much of a splash with any big or potentially divisive decisions, preferring to wait until a better mandate is given to whomever wins the next round.

Which is a shame, as many ideas have been put forth on this forum by JP and others that would be great to have support at the Council level. Instead, we will wait until the next election, and see if that one can be made about issues instead of names and free media coverage.

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By mdrejhon (registered) - website | Posted March 28, 2016 at 13:33:57

John-Paul Danko, thank you so much for running.

I hope you are encouraged to do a 2018 run!

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By cyberfarer (registered) | Posted March 29, 2016 at 20:15:04

"Also of interest to me was the fact that Donna and I were pulling votes from largely the same demographics - so the central mountain looks to be much more centre-right than it may have appeared just a few months ago"

Don't read too much into the relatively small demographic who actually vote in municipal by-elections. It would be a mistake.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted April 01, 2016 at 07:59:25

Thanks for these insights, Jean-Paul; I've shared them with a number of friends who have previously run for office or are considering it (in other jurisdictions). We had a pretty lively discussion about the outcomes, and the edges (big and small) that things like lists give you, vs. the effects of elbow grease (i.e. knocking on doors).

I suppose the saddest part of the story, though, is about the state of democracy in general, because the new Councillor has the active backing of something like 5% of the ward's voters. I.e. 95% of (potential) Ward 7 voters did not vote for their councillor. This is a damning indictment of FPTP, and our municipal system in general.

What kind of mandate does a "winner" like this really have?

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By JPDanko (registered) - website | Posted April 01, 2016 at 12:22:06

I started to write a response to the low voter turnout, but I think it will work better as a standalone article...

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