Brad Woodside, Mike O'Brien battle in Fredericton mayor's race
Fredericton's longest-serving mayor is facing a strong challenge from a veteran city councillor
It's starting to look as though it could be the closest race in years for mayor of Fredericton.
Two of the city's political veterans are vying for the job on May 9 and each comes with a history of success to back them up.
Incumbent Brad Woodside is the capital city's longest-serving mayor and is running for a record eighth term.
But he's facing his toughest challenge from Coun. Mike O'Brien, who's well known in the community for his work promoting affordable housing and social causes.
What makes the race even more interesting is that strains are beginning to show in the relationship between the two men who've known each other for more than two decades and have worked together for 15 years.
Woodside is campaigning on his record as mayor over the years.
He points to two multi-million-dollar community centre rinks — Willie O'Ree Place and the Grant-Harvey Centre — along with the city-wide trail system and successive councils that cut costs and brought taxes under control.
O'Brien shares in those accomplishments but said the city needs to look forward.
He said Fredericton needs more vision.
It doesn't take long before the gloves come off in debates, especially when the two mayoral candidates explain the differences in their campaign for the city's top job and who's more qualified to lead.
"You know, Mike says quite often in a lot of his comments that we can do better," Woodside said.
"Well, you know, I think we can too but at election time is not the time to come up with all these fantastic ideas."
O'Brien shakes his head at that description of his approach.
"I've been talking to hundreds and hundreds of people and door to door and there's issues in the city that they're looking for a mayor to dig into and embrace and at least find out more information and see if it can take it back to the council and the staff and see if it's feasible and if it's not, it's not," O'Brien said.
He stepped down in 1999 for a failed attempt at provincial politics.
Woodside's trip into the political wilderness ended five years later when he returned to the mayor's chair in 2004.
He entered the mayor's race late in the campaign and then defeated prominent councillor Joel Richardson by 746 votes.
Woodside won a landslide victory in 2008 with 70.9 per cent of the vote and won another sizeable victory in 2012 with 62.9 per cent.
O'Brien, meanwhile, has been on council since 2001.
He served the northside ward in the Fulton Heights, north Devon area of the city.
An engineer by training, O'Brien worked for NB Liquor for 30 years and briefly served as interim president and chief executive officer before he retired.
The two mayoral candidates have been staking out different positions on key issues facing the city.
The importance of the arts, however, is one area that both candidates agree on.
Woodside concedes that's a sea change compared to campaigns in the past when arts and culture did not feature prominently in civic elections.
For the first time in his career, Woodside said he now feels comfortable going before members of the arts community to talk about whether the city is moving in the right direction.
O'Brien said Fredericton's year-old cultural plan last year is his guiding vision.
"We have a cultural plan that says we will help foster this industry. We will make it part of everyday life in the city," he said.
"We will engage the community actively to solve problems together."
It's one thing to express support for the arts community during a campaign, but the candidates' actual support for the arts will be put to the test in the upcoming term.
The next council will need to decide on moving forward with a new performing arts centre to replace the Playhouse.
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Woodside said it's been identified as the city's number one priority and council is ready to commit $14 million to the estimated $40-million project.
"I've also made it abundantly clear that this requires federal and provincial and the private sector to be involved," Woodside said.
O'Brien said he likes to think of the project as far more than replacing the Playhouse.
"How can we use that [building] to launch a whole new level of public engagement in arts and culture... create a centre of excellence for music, art, culture, engaging the youth," O'Brien said.
"[Provide] that opportunity and inspiration to the part of the city that's not engineers, IT and government workers. That's what I see this facility being able to bring to the table. "
Woodside and O'Brien say transit is another big topic at the door but both politicians say it isn't an easy problem to solve.
Bus service to different parts of the city became controversial in recent years, as council has cut back on transit service.
O'Brien said all wards deserve access to bus service.
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"It's too critical and important. To be a modern progressive city, you have to have transit. It's a critical piece of infrastructure," he said.
Woodside said the city could haul out all the studies that have been done on improving transit and solve everyone's concerns but it won't be cheap.
"We can fix it but you have to open your wallet," he said.
Woodside said the city could increase bus frequency, purchase more buses and offer expanded hours, admitting the bus service in Fredericton, "is not a good service."