Montreal·In Depth

Smooth operator: The Denis Coderre method to staying in power

Denis Coderre will leave no hand unshaken in his quest to be re-elected Montreal's mayor for another four years.

The kid from Montreal North built a bastion, but are cracks starting to show?

Denis Coderre, on the municipal election campaign trail last month, is seeking a second term as the city's mayor. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

It is Saturday morning in Coderre country, a slice of the island better known as Montreal North.

In a community centre on Rolland Boulevard, just south of the Rivière des Prairies, the mayor tosses aside a mic stand before addressing a small crowd.

"We're all on a first name basis here," he says with a wink.

It's not the throwaway line it appears to be. He's known many of the people in the room for years. They've been attending events with him since 1997, when he was first elected as the Liberal MP for Bourassa.

Coderre has built a loyal base of voters in this part of the city. They re-elected him to the House of Commons four consecutive times, often by huge margins. And they stayed loyal when he jumped to municipal politics.

The rest of the city's voters equivocated in 2013 about whether they wanted to see Coderre behind the mayor's desk at Montreal City Hall. Not Montreal North, nor the three other boroughs that roughly overlap his old federal riding.  

The 26,000 votes he picked up in Montreal North, Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Rivière-des-Prairies–Pointe-aux-Trembles and Saint-Léonard were the votes that made the difference in a close election.

Denis Coderre, seen here talking to a group of artists at Journées de la culture event, is an avowed movie buff. The Blues Brothers is among his favourite films. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

A closer-than-expected race

As the incumbent, Coderre enters this year's mayoral race as the favourite. Montreal's economy is doing well. Construction cranes dot the cityscape.  

Even so, Coderre's chances of securing a second term have never looked so uncertain.

It was a difficult summer for the mayor. He sunk a great deal of political capital — and public money — into hosting an electric car race in downtown Montreal that attracted few fans and angered local residents. Coderre has insisted on calling the event a success but has stymied opposition attempts to get a full accounting of its costs.

And his campaign this fall was was slow out of the gate. Équipe Denis Coderre spent the first week reacting to proposals offered up by Projet Montréal, his principal threat. The party's platform, released Monday, contains little by way of new promises.

​Some are recycled from previous elections (reduced transit fares for the underprivileged), while others appear borrowed from the opposition (more green alleys).

A poll released Sept. 27 suggests the sky-high approval ratings that Coderre enjoyed mid-mandate have all but disappeared. The race is likely to be closer than initially expected.

So it's not surprising that, needing a boost, Coderre returned to Montreal North — ground zero of his political career — to do what he does best: shake hands, slap backs, and make people feel like a million bucks, if only for a moment.

At a breakfast joint in a strip mall off Henri-Bourassa Boulevard he stops at every table. En forme? Selfies. Fist pumps. Lâche pas.

"The Canadiens won last night. Are we happy?" he asks a family pouring over the sports pages of the Journal de Montreal.

Denis Coderre entered municipal politics in 2013, after having spent close to 15 years as a federal Liberal MP. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Later, going door to door at a seniors' residence in Little Italy, a woman tells him she's unhappy with the frequency of service on the 47 bus line. He jots down her name. 

"We'll take care of it," he says.

Just as fish need water, Coderre needs to meet people. Those who've worked with him say that when the going gets tough, it's best to get him out in public.

​"During the last campaign, the poll numbers were showing a close race," recalled Pierre Bélanger, who chaired Coderre's 2013 mayoral campaign.

"Nerves were tight, the mood was sombre. But he just said, 'It's all right, I'll go out and meet some people.' And it raised his morale."

To watch Coderre on this Saturday move from community centre, to greasy spoon, to mosque, to park, to seniors' home, is to watch a politician drink from the life-giving waters of human contact, of recognition.

Coderre's political grooming

As Coderre tells it, there was nary a moment in his 54 years in which he didn't want to be a politician.

"I was president of my kindergarten when I was five in the little village of Saint-Alphonse," he says, referring to the small town about 100 kilometres north of Montreal where he lived before his family moved to the big city in 1973. 

Coderre was not yet 20 when he became active in the federal Liberal Party.

As an undergrad at the Université de Montréal — his professors included Stéphane Dion — he assembled what he called the Coderre Coalition, a network of supporters that allowed him to take charge of the Liberal youth wing in Quebec.

​In 1985, he met a scrappy former cabinet minister from Shawinigan and liked the way he practised politics. Coderre would later use his network to help Jean Chrétien win the Liberal leadership in 1990.

"I felt I was like him — very close to people," Coderre says.

Coderre made three unsuccessful runs for office before his 1997 victory in Bourassa. He remained a prominent Liberal organizer in Quebec during that time, which he eventually parlayed into a job with Groupe Polygone, a publishing firm.

Denis Coderre being sworn in as secretary of state for amateur sport in 1999. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Governor General Romeo LeBlanc look on. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

He was the company's vice-president as it began receiving funds under a federal sponsorship program that was later the subject of a public inquiry.

Coderre wasn't singled out for blame in Justice John Gomery's report, but during testimony it was alleged that his riding received illegal campaign donations.

His ties to Polygone were enough to make Coderre politically radioactive for a time. Despite having earned a reputation as a hard worker while immigration minister under Chrétien, he was shuffled out of cabinet just before the Gomery inquiry began.

By the time Michael Ignatieff took over the leadership, Coderre's reputation had been rehabilitated. He was an early backer of the academic-turned-politician and was rewarded by being named Ignatieff's Quebec lieutenant.

Their relationship quickly soured, however. 

Coderre objected to how a riding nomination was handled, believing party mandarins in Toronto were meddling in his backyard. He quit his lieutenant post, and didn't go quietly.  

Denis Coderre makes no secret of his love of baseball and has made the return of the Expos a priority for his administration. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

It was an ugly, public split, that Ignatieff later said contributed to the party's poor performance in the 2011 election.

That clash may have started Coderre's rethinking of his future in federal politics, said Marcel Proulx, who served as Liberal party whip between 2010-2011.

"I think Denis understood that there were always going to be objections to his approach," Proulx said. "It was the right time for him to go for mayor. Denis became the man of the hour in Montreal."

Man of the hour

The 2013 municipal election came at a dark time in Montreal politics.

Mayor Gérald Tremblay's administration had collapsed amid corruption scandals. His successor, Michael Applebaum, was arrested seven months after taking office.

Montrealers were, by then, accustomed to seeing top municipal officials doing the perp-walk. City hall had become an embarrassment. They wanted change.

Coderre knew his chances in that year's mayoral election depended on assembling a team that would represent a break with the past.

He charged Anie Samson, a former member of his Coderre Coalition, and Bélanger, his campaign manager, with vetting potential candidates for his ticket.

Together, Samson and Bélanger administered a 20-page questionnaire aimed at filtering out those with controversial pasts. It became known as the "Coderre filter."

"A lot people said he was just Tremblay 2.0," said Bélanger. "But he said no to a lot of people who wanted to run with him."

The Formula E racetrack encircled a whole east-end neighborhood, enraging residents and merchants. (Alex Savoie/Facebook)

It wasn't an eruption of Coderre-mania that carried him into office. In a three-way race, he managed 32 per cent of the vote, the lowest of any mayor in modern Montreal history.

His first months as mayor were a flurry of activity aimed at restoring the city's reputation.

He appointed an inspector general to review city contracts and centralized snow-removal norms. His bullish opposition to the proposed Energy East pipeline and Canada Post's plans to phase out home mail delivery bolstered his popularity.

​Halfway through his mandate, he was enjoying approval ratings in the 70 per cent range. The Tremblay years suddenly seemed like nothing more than a bad dream.

Pit bull bylaw bites back

But in the last two years, Coderre has exposed his limits as a legislator.  

In the spring of 2016, a video of a Montreal calèche horse colliding with a car went viral. Coderre promptly announced he was shutting down the industry for a year to rethink how it should be regulated.

Denis Coderre compares himself to Jean Drapeau — another mayor, he says, who was close to the people. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

The Quebec Superior Court ruled, however, that he had overstepped his authority. Coderre relented.

Later that summer, Coderre reacted to news that a Montreal woman had been mauled to death by a pit bull-type dog by proposing to ban the breed outright.

He forged ahead with the controversial bylaw despite attempts by animal rights activists to argue that breed-specific legislation is unfair and ineffective.

Just this week, the coroner tasked with investigating the mauling death agreed with the activists. 

The SPCA responded to the ban by withdrawing its services from nine boroughs. Dog owners across the city have vowed to vote against him.

'Brash ... but honest' – and grandiose

This year, Coderre was seen by many as pursuing his grandiose plans for celebrating Montreal's 375th anniversary at the expense of the everyday concerns of citizens.

The Formula E race, for instance, disrupted life in a whole east-end neighborhood for weeks.

"I think he's brash. He shoots from the hip and, sometimes, that gets him into trouble," said Marlene Jennings, a former MP from Notre-Dame-de-Grâce who sat alongside Coderre for many years in the Liberal caucus. "But he's honest. If he makes a commitment, he actually carries through on it."

That doggedness can be difficult for those who stand in his way, who dare to disagree.

The opposition at city hall notes it is rare for members of Coderre's team to vote against the mayor. Borough mayors chose their fights with the administration carefully.

He is a relentless partisan.

Just ask Marvin Rotrand, who spent 16 years on the board of the city's transit agency before being turfed in June when he refused to join Équipe Denis Coderre.

Coderre, for his part, readily identifies with that tradition of strong Montreal mayors, those who surge forward despite opposition, convinced of their vision for the city.

"If Jean Drapeau had just listened to the critics, Expo 67 wouldn't have happened," he says. "Sometimes it's tough. Sometimes you take decisions."

"Be able to take the heat. Four years later, you will see the results."

In Coderre country, the afternoon sun is beginning to set as he jumps back into the black SUV that takes him around the city. There are always more hands to shake, more people to meet — a boundless supply of energy for Coderre to draw on.

Read about Projet Montréal's mayoral candidate here:

With files from Sarah Leavitt