Candidate Profile: Kerry Diotte

Kerry Diotte, 57, says it is time for the city to budget for "needs over wants," and promises to focus attention and taxes, debt and infrastructure should he be elected mayor.

"I'm listening"

It isn't the most polished campaign video. But councillor Kerry Diotte's online spot called "Better Deals" – with its rough lighting, sound and acting – has exactly the kind of do-it-yourself, grassroots appeal his campaign is going for.

And even though Diotte took down the video after a complaint, it did get people talking in this case, about Edmonton's controversial $480-million downtown arena deal.

And while Diotte himself is a little blurry and out of focus in the two-minute video, his message isn't.

Setting the agenda and keeping his message simple is a strategy Diotte, 57, has adopted early in the campaign, with the arena deal a lightning rod for one of his favourite words: "Stinks."

The video, produced by some of his volunteers, begins with two women about to sip a couple of fancy coffees in an upscale diner. One of them winces and asks: "Do you smell that?"

"Yes, what is that?" asks the other.

"I'm so sorry," says the wholesome-faced server, looming over their table. "It's actually that downtown arena deal. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars gifted to a billionaire. It stinks."

The trio complain about how much Oilers owner and arena partner Daryl Katz is benefiting, how bad the city's roads are how much property taxes are going up before throwing up their hands in a flourish, repeating in unison: "This deal stinks!"

Cue soft piano music as Diotte appears, standing on a tree-lined street, top button of his shirt undone, cup of coffee steaming from his hand, and his distinctive grin inching up the side of his face.

He agrees: the deal does stink, and juts his free hand forward with each sentence: "We will finance it. We will build it. We will own it, and yet we won't get one red cent of profit for it."

His two main opponents, Karen Leibovici and Don Iveson, pounced the day after the video was posted. They pointed out that Diotte has no intention of cancelling the deal or reopening negotiations.

"If he's not prepared to reopen the deal, I don't know why it keeps coming up, frankly," Iveson told reporters.

Despite the criticism, Diotte soldiers on with his message that the arena, along with roads, debt and taxes, are the main issues, accompanied by his gift of terse, to-the-point language honed through years as civic affairs columnist for the Edmonton Sun.

From critic to leader?

In two decades at the Edmonton Sun, Diotte was consistent with his messages. He hammered successive city councils for tax and budget hikes ("the new nymphomaniacs of free spending"), while calling for renewed focus on "core services."

"What do you think the vast majority of Edmontonians want from their civic government?" Diotte wrote on March 14, 2000, in an article foreshadowing his main campaign themes for 2013.

"My answer: Water and sewage treatment, police and fire protection, garbage pick-up, a good road system and decent public transit."

Diotte earned plenty of critics himself, most notably Edmonton police, whose photo radar tickets he slammed as a "cash cow."

In 2004, Diotte was targeted in a drunk-driving sting, an operation the Alberta Law Enforcement Review Board ruled was unfair and handed a traffic sergeant a suspension for ordering it.

The board ruled Diotte had a right to author critical articles without fear of police reprisals. Diotte sued police, but details of the outcome are uncertain because he will only say it has been "resolved."

Things did not end cordially with his former employer either. Before running for council, Diotte sued the Edmonton Sun for $2.28 million after he was demoted as legislature bureau chief to general reporter.

Diotte said he was humiliated and mistreated by Sun management, while the paper argues Diotte was simply not doing his job. The suit is still before the court.

From mainstream to social media

Diotte left the Sun in 2009, parlaying his name recognition mixed with ample door-knocking to win baby-boomer rich Ward 11 in southeast Edmonton in 2010.

Diotte, who brands himself as a grassroots candidate, turned his regular reading audience into Twitter followers, who now number more than 5,000.

He says the online support he receives is evidence that he "cares" and "listens." He favours surveys and plebiscites to test public opinion, suggesting that if a majority of people wanted more photo radar, for instance, he'd even agree to that.

After three years on council, he says his greatest accomplishment was his push for a review of snow-removal after Edmonton's punishing winter of 2010/11  an effort that helped lead to clearing benchmarks.

He isn't against the highly popular LRT expansion to the city's southeast, but stresses he wants it built as efficiently as possible.

Still, Diotte seems keen to appeal more to drivers as a key to winning the election, focusing more on fixing potholes than pushing for LRT expansion. The proportion of Edmontonians who commute by car is higher than any other Canadian city of over 600,000 people, according to Statistics Canada.

"Admittedly, potholes [are] not a sexy issue, but it's an issue that's on everybody's mind," he said.

He also wants tax increases no higher than inflation.

A newbie in the running

While the Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native has quick turns of phrase and a folksy style, he lacks the political experience of his two main contenders, who have both been on council for longer.

There have been few warm words from his council mates, with the biggest criticism coming from outgoing Mayor Stephen Mandel who recently told CBC: "I don't have a lot of respect for him and the kinds of things that he does and his tactics."

The day Diotte announced he was running for mayor, Mandel trashed Diotte on morning TV shows.

"He hasn't done anything as a councillor," Mandel told one station.

"Other than he comes to council meetings and tweets the whole time. He doesn't pay any attention to what's going on."

For his part, Diotte says this election is all about change, and noticeable change on council is on its way. Only six incumbents half the number of councillors are running as ward councillors, giving the next mayor a chance to take council in a different direction.

"I see myself as someone who's very much into win-win," Diotte said in a sit-down interview with CBC.

Taxes, debt, infrastructure

Diotte says his priorities are backed up by what he hears while door-knocking. He says some seniors he encounters are in tears when they talk about cost of living.

"This poor woman said, 'Please stop upping my taxes. I can't afford to live in this house anymore,’" Diotte said.

"So, that really strikes home."

When the topic of affordable housing comes up at a mayoral forum, Diotte repeats his story of the tearful senior, proposing that the best way to house seniors is to keep property taxes down so they can remain in their homes.

As for the city's debt, Diotte says the figures he's been given peg it close to $3 billion by the end of 2013 – a number some have accused him of misrepresenting in his "Diotte or Detroit" slogan  which compares Edmonton's situation with the Michigan city that filed for bankruptcy and whose debt is $18 billion.

Asked if it is fair to say that Edmonton could be on the road to financial ruin, he insisted: "We could be if we’re not careful, that's all."

He added: "Rome didn't think it was ever going to fall."

On council, Diotte voted consistently against most budget increases for everything from community groups to city hall departments. He says the city has to focus on basic infrastructure, citing "needs over wants," "people before palaces."  

Diotte provides few details when asked about his long-term vision, pausing when asked where he sees Edmonton in 10 years.

"I think it's going to be quite amazing. We're growing at a very fast rate right now. And I think that our downtown will become more vibrant. We're going to be growing up as well as out."

Five others are running for mayor: Kristine Acielo, Don Iveson, Karen Leibovici, Joshua Semotiuk and Gordon Ward.

With files from Michelle Bellefontaine


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