Ottawa·Analysis

The prickly politics of endorsement

MPs, MPPs and former councillors endorsing candidates during municipal campaigns is becoming the new normal. But does getting that thumbs-up help or hinder their chances?

Getting the nod from a senior politician rarely hurts a candidate's chances. But is it right?

An endorsement can help a candidate stand out in a crowded field of newcomers. (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

When residents of Bay ward picked up their phones earlier this week to a recorded message from their local MP asking them to vote for her husband in the upcoming municipal election, it raised some eyebrows.

A few took to social media, referring to the call from Ottawa West-Nepean MP Anita Vandenbeld endorsing spouse Don Dransfield as "weird."

Whether she broke any rules that limit how MPs can publicly support their family members' private endeavours is now a matter for the federal ethics commissioner.

Whatever happens, the Liberal MP's endorsement underlines a growing trend in this election: partisan politics — and politicians — crossing over into municipal matters.

Nothing new

It's not exactly new. In the 2010 election, Jim Watson, fresh from resigning his Liberal cabinet position, had the backing of the Grits, while Larry O'Brien was the Conservatives' choice.

It just seems so much more overt this time around.

Nowhere is the trend more glaring than Capital ward, where Liberal MP Catherine McKenna endorsed Christine McAllister months ago, while NDP MPP Joel Harden is publicly backing Shawn Menard.

PC MPP and cabinet minister Lisa MacLeod is supporting Barrhaven incumbent Jan Harder — no surprise there considering, in addition to sharing a similar political outlook, the two have worked together and been friends for years.

And on Thursday, both the Liberal MP Mona Fortier and MPP Nathalie DesRosier officially endorsed Rideau-Vanier incumbent Mathieu Fleury.

These sorts of endorsements are allowed. But for those who believe that politics is a closed circle that's near-impossible for outsiders to break into, they certainly don't alleviate that fear.

They also raise the question about how political representatives from a higher level of government might work — or not work — alongside a municipal councillor who didn't get their endorsement, since many local projects depend on funds from up the food chain.

If the rest of the province goes the way of Toronto, where the PC government unilaterally redrew the city's ward boundaries to match those of provincial and federal ridings, it will be that much easier for political parties to take over municipal elections.

No agenda

At the risk of sounding nostalgic for an era that never quite was, the charm of municipal politics was that candidates and councillors didn't have to slavishly follow an ideological agenda.

For instance, it's interesting to see former Ottawa mayor Jacquelin Holzman endorsing Theresa Kavanagh in this election. Holzman's politics were right-of-centre when she was in office in the 1990s, and Kavanagh is a known New Democrat. Small-c conservative Holzman wants more women on council, and decided that progessive Kavanagh is her choice.

If party politics comes to dominate municipal government more than it already does, we're likely to see fewer cross-partisan endorsements of this kind in the future.

With less than two weeks before the Oct. 22 election, there have been plenty of other endorsements pouring in, too.

The most dramatic is one from former River ward councillor Maria McRae. When the popular councillor stepped away from her role in 2014 after 11 years, she endorsed then school board trustee Riley Brockington.

But McRae has changed her mind.

From left to right, candidates Riley Brockington, Fabien Kalala Cimankinda and Hassib Reda attend a debate in River ward last week. Former councillor Maria McRae has rescinded her support for Brockington and is now backing Cimankinda. (Kate Porter/CBC)

In an unusual reversal, McRae stated she didn't believe Brockington was a strong advocate for his residents, and she's now "wholeheartedly" throwing her supporting behind Fabien Kalala Cimankinda, a community activist who has been in the news lately over questions about whether politics interfered with his receiving an award.

Other endorsements from former councillors are more conventional.

For example, outgoing Coun. Jody Mitic is supporting his former staffer Tammy Lynch in Innes ward, while Mitic's predecessor, Rainer Bloess, is helping out his former staffer, Donna Leith-Gudbranson.

Do endorsements work?

It's impossible to know whether endorsements are a deciding factor in a winning campaign, but they usually don't hurt.

This is especially true when an incumbent is retiring and a whack of candidates have signed up to run.

Consider the 2014 campaign. In addition to River ward, Somerset, Osgoode and Alta Vista were wards where the incumbent stepped down. In all three cases, the candidates with the outgoing councillor's stamp of approval won.

In this fall's election, it's too early to tell if Coun. Marianne Wilkinson, whose name is practically synonymous with Kanata, will help get her preferred candidate, Jenna Sudds, elected, or whether Mayor Jim Watson's declaration that he already voted for Dransfield in Bay ward will help him.

Even if some have qualms about the ethics of endorsements, there's a reason that endorsements are valuable. They offer voters a certain brand identity in races where it's sometimes hard to figure out the difference between candidates.

In a crowded field like Orléans, where 17 candidates are on the ballot, an endorsement from a respected elected official could make all the difference on election day. (Kate Porter/CBC)

There are 17 people running in Orléans to replace Coun. Bob Monette. So when two-term Cumberland Coun. Stephen Blais, who was central in getting LRT to the east end, endorses candidate Matthew Luloff, his name suddenly emerges from a crowded field.

An endorsement from a politician they know and respect — or even a party whose ideology they follow — can provide a helpful hint when it comes time to decide where to mark that X on election day.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.

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