The charm offensive: Valérie Plante's charge for City Hall
Go behind the scenes of Projet Montréal's campaign to beat Denis Coderre
Valérie Plante was elected mayor of Montreal in Sunday's municipal election. Here's an in-depth look at the leader of Projet Montréal we published during the campaign.
It is day one of the municipal election campaign, and Valérie Plante is leaving an east-end TV studio. She feels she just crushed an interview with Mario Dumont. She flips on her shades and struts into the midday sun.
"He takes me seriously now," she says of the acerbic host. "That wasn't the case 10 months ago."
Ten months ago, Plante surprised observers of the municipal scene by pulling off an upset in the Projet Montréal leadership race. A newcomer with little caucus support, she somehow managed to scrape together 79 more votes than her opponent, Guillaume Lavoie.
She took over a party that was divided and trailing the incumbent mayor, Denis Coderre, by a wide margin in the polls. In many ways, Projet was still recovering from the shock of seeing its founder and leader, Richard Bergeron, bolt and join ranks with the administration in 2014.
It was a tough place to start from, and at first few expected Plante would be capable of mounting a serious run for the mayor's office.
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But she quietly set about uniting the Projet caucus and assembling an experienced team around her. She spent the summer hammering the mayor on a series of controversial initiatives, including the Formula E race. In August, she unveiled a savvy media campaign, calling herself the "right man for the job."
Polls now suggest Coderre's once formidable lead has withered away. The race for City Hall is on.
Outside the TVA studios, Plante is greeted by a political aide standing next to a red Toyota Yaris. "This is the Projet Montréal car," the aide says, showing it off with a Vanna White-like gesture.
The aide then points to a black Toyota Highlander SUV parked in front of them. "That's Coderre's car."
Policy-wise, of course, the difference between vehicles means little. But it's that kind of contrast that Plante's supporters like to draw with her main opponent.
They'll point out that she bikes around the city. Coderre is driven. She's bottom-up, they'll say, he's top-down; she's focused on the day-to-day, he likes the grandiose.
But is there more to Valérie Plante's political project than just being the anti-Coderre?
From activist to politician
Plante grew up in Rouyn-Noranda. She spent long hours of her childhood driving around the Abitibi in a blue bus with her father, a travelling salesman.
When she was 15, Plante spent time in North Bay, Ont., learning English, then found her way to Trois-Rivières to live with her mother, before ending up in the anthropology department at the Université de Montréal in 1994.
She worked her way through a master's degree in museology, the study of museums and museum curation, while also cutting her chops as an activist, getting involved in campaigns against tuition hikes and hydraulic fracking.
After finishing her degree, she embarked on a career in communications, though with a social justice tint. She spent eight years with the Girls Action Foundation, a national non-profit that aims to empower young women in disadvantaged communities.
"She worked really hard to diversify our message," said Fabienne Pierre-Jacques, who worked with Plante at the foundation.
"She made a real effort to understand the contributions of different communities."
Even then, Plante was a committed environmentalist and biked to work with her two young children in-tow. "It's nice to see she's remained true to her principles," said Pierre-Jacques.
In late April, 2013, Plante attended a fundraising cocktail at an artist's loft in the Mile End. The event was hosted by Groupe Femmes, Politique et Démocratie — which encourages women to get involved in politics. Plante was a board member.
The organization's director, Esther Lapointe, recalls Plante turning to her that evening and saying: "I'm really interested in municipal politics. Do you know someone I could talk to?"
Lapointe introduced her to a Projet Montreal councillor who was also at the cocktail. Several weeks later, Plante resigned to join the party as a candidate in that year's municipal election.
But before she left, Lapointe told her something that Plante has kept in mind ever since. In job interviews, Lapointe had said, men overestimate their qualifications by 30 per cent, and women underestimate theirs by 30 per cent.
Plante went on to win a council seat in Ville-Marie by edging out Louise Harel, the former Parti Québécois cabinet minister who was then leader of Vision Montreal. It was an impressive political debut.
When her party began looking for a new leader in 2016, Plante was annoyed few were circulating names of her female colleagues.
She initially wasn't considering running herself. After all, she had only just been elected to public office for the first time.
But when no other female candidate stepped forward, she remembered what Lapointe had said, and thought "OK, well, maybe it's me."
The force of personality
Plante is in her sparsely decorated office, eager to give her first news conference of the campaign. But Coderre is occupying the same spot outside City Hall, and his news conference is running long.
"They're just trying to mess with our schedule," says Plante's press secretary, Marc-André Viau, rolling his eyes.
(Viau would later return the favour and call attention to the fact that Coderre's campaign signs in the Old Port ran afoul of election laws. Coderre's team was forced to take them down.)
Viau joined Plante's team shortly after she won the leadership last December. He was a natural fit.
As a former NDP press secretary, he had progressive bona fides. Moreover, he worked the historic 2011 federal election campaign, when the NDP went from one to 59 seats in Quebec. He, better than most, can testify that in politics no one is unbeatable.
During his first week on the job, he sat down with Plante and made her explain why she wanted to be mayor. "I had to be able to buy into her vision too," he says. He was quickly convinced.
Plante's personality is one of her greatest political assets. Those who know her say she has the capacity to walk into a room full of strangers and not just make friends, but make them believers in her cause.
Haroun Bouazzi, who heads the Association of Muslims and Arabs for a secular Quebec, hosted a gathering at his home as part of the "Faut qu'on se parle" projet launched last year by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. He invited Plante to speak.
Of the dozen people who attended, said Bouazzi, few had ever been involved with municipal politics before. "But after the meeting, most of the people signed up to help her out."
Even one-time rivals are compelled to acknowledge the force of her personality. "She's an open book. What you see is what you get," said Harel. The two now occasionally go for coffee.
"There is a lot cynicism towards politicians these days. I think there is a demand among the public for the kind of authenticity that Valérie brings," Harel added.
The Plante factor
Viau's challenge is using those natural interpersonal skills to create a connection with a wide cross-section of voters.
His experience on the federal election campaigns of 2011 and 2015 taught him the power of narrative. Jack Layton had one. So did Justin Trudeau.
Valérie Plante needed one.
In the weeks before the official start of the municipal campaign, Plante's team rolled out a series of ads, unusually polished for city-level politics.
There was the much-discussed "right man for the job" poster. That was followed by a video featuring a series of clips of Coderre looking angry, and another of Plante, smiling, taking part in a triathlon.
The contrast was not meant to be subtle.
With the anti-Coderre narrative in place, the Plante campaign is now attempting the harder sell: policy. Projet is saddled with a reputation from the Bergeron years of being overly idealistic, anti-car, deaf to economic concerns.
To counter that image, Plante has promised to cut regulations for small businesses and slash the welcome tax for families. But the centrepiece of her campaign is public transit, and the promise to build a new Metro line linking Montreal North to downtown (she has estimated the cost at $6 billion but provided few other details).
Coderre laughed off the proposal as "magical thinking." For Plante, though, it fits within a series of proposals aimed at revitalizing neighbourhood life, making it possible for people to both live and work within the city.
"This is where there is a big contrast with Coderre who likes big projects and festivals," says Plante. "I believe tourism is important for the economy too, but there is also local neighbourhood life that attracts people and that is good for the economy."
But the success of Plante's campaign hinges not only on being the anti-Coderre. Indeed, it's far from clear Montrealers are even looking for change. She must also generate credibility for Projet's alternative vision of the city.
The party has been around since 2004. It's established itself as the social-democratic option at City Hall. But in the last two mayoral campaigns it hasn't mustered more than the 25 per cent of the vote. The difference, this time, is the Plante factor.
"I know what I bring to the table," she says. "It's an ability to connect with people, to humanize my party."
The small red Yaris drops her off on St-Laurent Boulevard. Plante chats up the owner of a decades-old Hungarian delicatessen, then dashes across the street to an upstart fashion boutique, before braving the lunchtime crowd at Schwartz's. Everywhere she goes, it's the same simple message.
"I'm Valérie Plante. I'm running for mayor."
CBC Montreal's municipal election team release its profile of Denis Coderre on Tuesday.