Karen Leibovici

Former social worker Karen Leibovici, 61, is a veteran voice on Edmonton's city council, having been first elected over a decade ago. (CBC)

It’s a quiet day in city council chambers, September sunlight spilling in from the skylight above as the councillors file into the room and take their seats behind the crescent-shaped desk that dominates the south end of the room.

It’s a spot that Karen Leibovici is familiar with. The 61-year-old former social worker is one of the veteran voices on council, occupying a seat at that desk since she was first elected over a decade ago.

She sits, attentive, as council starts a second day of debate over paying for downtown revitalization projects. On one end of the room sits fellow councillor and mayoral-race rival Kerry Diotte. On the other side of the desk – Don Iveson, the third councillor running for the top job.

Karen Leibovici sits between – a fitting analogy for her view of Edmonton’s future. Leibovici is positioning herself as the centrist candidate, midway between the competing visions of Iveson and Diotte.

'Forward momentum'

“There are competing visions of where the city will go,” Leibovici said.

“There’s a vision that says basically we stop everything, we stall. And there’s a vision that will take us in a different direction – which is the same as stopping or stalling, because you have to start all over again.”

When discussing her view of the biggest concerns facing Edmonton’s next mayor, Leibovici regularly returns to one word: momentum.

Over the last nine years under Mayor Stephen Mandel, council has put in place many projects that promise to transform the city – LRT expansion, the development of the municipal airport lands, an ambitious plan to reduce homelessness.

But now, with plans in place, Leibovici says the city needs a mayor that can shepherd those big ideas into something tangible.

“We have to finish them. It’s great to have them on a piece of paper. But if they’re not done, then they’re really on a piece of paper.

“And if they’re not done, what that will do is shake confidence, I believe, in the city as a place to come, work, live, play and invest.”

Leibovici is marketing herself to voters as the best of both worlds – a fiscal hawk with an eye on basic services, but one who would continue with the big-ticket projects that council has already approved.

“I recognized that there was going to be a void when Mayor Mandel indicated that he was stepping down. And I felt it was important that there was a continuation of the momentum that we have in the city.

“And also I believe that we need to make sure our basic services are being provided in an effective and efficient manner.”

A political path

For Leibovici, her bid for the mayor’s seat comes after a long career in public life.

She was born in Montreal; her mother raised her and a sister while her father supported the family by driving a cab in the city.

“[I learned] to be honest, work hard. My father drove taxi in Montreal for 37 years. I remember him coming home at two in the morning and then leaving again at nine in the morning.”

Leibovici received both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in social work at McGill University, as well as a diploma in management. She began working as a social worker with the Montreal school system, focusing on newly-arrived immigrants to Canada whose children were having trouble adjusting to their new home.

“I think [I received] an understanding of how the system works. Recognizing that there are policies in place that affect peoples lives, so you need to ensure the policies, and the thinking that puts policies in place, are the right ones to move things forward.”

Leibovici moved to west Edmonton in 1980 after her husband got a job offer in the city. She admits that in the past 33 years, she’s lost her grasp of spoken French, but has been using the mayoral race as a chance to re-learn.

“Within about 3 or 4 months of coming here, the bust happened,” she recalls. “We know that boom, bust, boom, bust cycle."

“Which is why the economic development in this city is so important, and the regional economic development. We have to prepare ourselves for those shocks in the oil and gas sector and to ensure that we’re strong in order to survive them.”

Leibovici continued her career in social work, eventually finding her first job with the city of Edmonton, working in the Equal Opportunity office.

Her first taste of elected office came when she was elected as Liberal MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark in 1993. Leibovici spent the next eight years at the legislature, serving as the party’s labour critic and then its health critic.

After two terms, she lost a close race to Progressive Conservative Bob Maskell in 2001 – but she did not stay out of office long. That same year, Leibovici ran for, and won, the council seat for Ward 1.

Leibovici points to a few accomplishments over her four terms on council that she is most proud of – working with retail stores in west Edmonton to help organize the Stony Plain Business Revitalization Zone, spearheading the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness and pushing to build more than 5,000 affordable housing units.

She also brought Edmonton’s influence to the national stage with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which lobbies the federal government on behalf of the country’s cities.

In June 2012, she was acclaimed as president of the FCM. In the past year, Leibovici has focused on getting more federal dollars for local infrastructure – a fight she plans to continue if elected mayor.

“You don’t sleep much. It’s a matter of managing your time,” she said.

“I can help people in this position that I would not be able to if I weren’t in this position.“

Betting on experience

With half of city councillors either running for mayor or retiring from municipal politics, Leibovici is banking on voters seeing her political experience as a vital addition to the new rookie council.

“I looked at what I could bring to the job with regards to experience and leadership ability. And also the ability to bring together a new group of councillors," she said.

“There is going to be a 50 per cent turnover on council. And I believe it is very important that we form a cohesive group, so that we can move the city forward.“

With the city’s debt load and past spending a hot topic leading up to the election, Leibovici acknowledges that opponents might use her years on council against her.

But she says she’s not worried – arguing that the city doesn’t have a debt problem. Instead, she argues council isn’t doing a good enough job explaining the city’s financial situation to its citizens.

“Our debt is being managed responsibly. In fact, we’re nowhere close to what we could borrow and still manage the work we need to do. That debt pays for things like the LRT expansion, recreation centres, libraries.

"My question to those who think we have too much debt is: which of those items would you cut out or wouldn’t go ahead with?”

Leibovici hopes that convincing people to trust in that experience – and positioning herself as the centrist choice between two other candidates with highly-motivated bases – will be the path that takes her to the mayor’s seat after Edmontonians head to the polls Oct. 21.

With files from Michelle Bellefontaine