Tell me about running for mayor in (smalltown) Canada
July 6, 2008 9:01 PM   Subscribe

Canadian politics: If you were thinking about running for mayor of a small town in Canada, what would you do? How would you prepare?

What kinds of research would you do, and where would you find information to help you prepare effectively and do a better job if you were elected? What would you read or study? What problems would you expect to face? Where can you find information (online) about the basics of the Canadian mayoral and city/village council system?

Both hard info and anecdotes are welcome.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken to Law & Government (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Find the people who have power and gravitate to them. I am not talking about those in elected office, but the block clubs, civic organizations, business associations who get them elected. Talk to them about the issues affecting them. A small logging community will have very different issues than a Toronto suburb.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:16 PM on July 6, 2008


Politics at that level is a retail business. Hell, its a retail business at any level.

We can't tell you what to do--only the voters can. Meet with them as much as you can--personally. Again and again. They know what is needed and will tell you when you ask.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:51 PM on July 6, 2008


A few practical things:

1. There are election rules. They're different in each province. Find out what they are. They relate to spending, advertising, qualifying for and declaring your candidacy, accounting, campaigning (and what constitutes campaigning), etc.

2. Find out who else is running. See who the incumbents are, and find out who ran against them last time (and how well they did). Find out what they ran on, and if they accomplished what they said they would.

3. Figure out what the issues are that concern voters in the area. Research those issues. Think about good solutions. Test those solutions on regular folks by asking them about it. Hone those ideas into a simple platform of a few key issues and solutions.

4. Make lists. In small elections, the candidate with the best list wins. You'll spend the election period meeting people, asking them to vote for you, and making lists of those who said they would. That's called ID'ing the vote. On election day, your campaign team will go find those people and make sure they vote. It's called "pulling the vote." It's how most campaigns are really won.
posted by mrmcsurly at 10:20 PM on July 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


[Disclaimer btw: I am not personally running for mayor of anything in the forseeable future.]
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:54 PM on July 6, 2008


mrmcsurly nails it.

Know who your supporters are, and make sure they get to the polling station on election day.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:32 PM on July 6, 2008


In the months/years before the campaign, the candidate should be building their name in the community. Find a cause or causes and work on them. Get name recognition.

Once the election kicks off, get out into your town, in person, continually. Every single campaign day has to be spent knocking on doors and identifying voters. A savvy database person is a must. You have to have lists of people that you've contacted, and you need to be in contact with them to get their votes - what mrmcsurly described as "pulling the vote" - we've always referred to it as "getting out the vote", the terms are interchangable.

Warren Kinsella wrote a book called "Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics". Check it out, it has some excellent material on defining your message and controlling the message. Some of the stuff may be a bit intense depending on the size of your town, but it's worth a read regardless.
posted by davey_darling at 10:09 AM on July 7, 2008


In my area, the local community college runs a short course which covers the essentials of how to be a city councillor. I think they cover both the nuts and bolts of the job itself and the campaign rules.
posted by ssg at 12:03 PM on July 7, 2008


There are procedural things you need to know to be able to run and then to operate once elected. But getting elected is the priority, obviously. So if municipal government and municipal government elections in smalltown Canada are anything like those in the US, and I believe there are many similarities, then the following may apply, scaled appropriately to the size of the town and tweaked for local culture and practices:

To start to get a feel for what goes on on the inside, attend city government meetings. They probably happen once or twice per month and are open to the public. If they have a web site, the schedule will be on there. If not, call the mayor's office. Get an understanding of what kinds of issues they deal with and who makes what kinds of decisions. Probably there is a council or commission that works with the mayor, as well as staff, such as city managers, clerks, planners, etc. who are employed by the city to do the actual work.

Look for what kind of people show up at the meetings to petition or comment. What are their issues? Probably there will be a lot of stuff about zoning, development, etc. There may be lawyers who are lobbying for some position or decision on behalf of their clients, local business people, developers, etc.

Request a copy of the budget from the clerk, or the Canadian equivalent of the clerk. Assuming similar public records laws, you ought to be able to get any city records in a reasonable amount of time, but may have to pay a per-page copying fee or labor charges if it's a lot of work for staff to prepare. Ask for electronic documents via email where possible. If the city has a web page, check there first to see if they offer any records or searches online. With the budget from the two or three most recent years, you can see what went up or down. Often there will be a narrative included, or it will exist as a separate document, that explains and justifies the expenditures and tax changes from year to year.

If the city website has minutes of past meetings, or if you have to request copies from the city, catch up on what the big issues have been at council meetings over the past few years. Trace these issues across the multiple meetings it usually takes to resolve them. Tie them to google/news searches of those issues and the people involved. The local paper will have more coverage, because nobody outside your area cares about your sewer system, but may not be as searchable online. May have to go there in person. Do this to better understand and feel what the city struggles with and to figure out who can be held accountable for whatever screwups the city is currently living through.

Match up issues and votes in the meeting minutes with line items in the budget. Why did the council hand out 50% raises to themselves or staff while still hiking property taxes? Take it a step further and request the campaign finance reports and gift/honoraria reports of any incumbents and/or rival candidates. Try to tie campaign contributions or other forms of influence with votes on issues that benefit those contributors. Did a developer, for example, give the maximum campaign contribution to a councilman who then voted in a way that benefited the developer? Are they involved in business dealings with each other?

Who is getting city contracts and on what justification? If they weren't the lowest bidder, why were they chosen? What people own these companies? There are surely online registries of Canadian companies and their principals, hosted by some agency of government. In the USA you can usually get info from a state's Secretary of State office website, and other sites at the federal level. Are there any ties or influence between these people and the elected officials who awarded them the contracts?

Who misses council meetings? Who shows up late? Who always seems unprepared? It's in the meeting minutes. Little things like this can be turned into effective hits. Maybe in Canada everybody is nice and doesn't do this kind of ugly nitpicking. If not, start slinging.

Check out the public records of your opponents. Who pays their taxes late? Who gets code violations? Who has unpaid parking tickets? Who is in debt, especially to the city via fines, liens, etc.? Who has been sued and for what? Who owns what properties? What businesses do they own? Do their financial disclosures reveal any damning investments? In the US the city clerk is usually the best place to start for these kinds of records, but the tax collector, property appraiser, clerk of court, etc. have info too. Is anyone a scofflaw or a big fat hypocrite or can they be painted as one? If you can back up a bit of spin with solid documented fact, you have some ammunition.

Through this kind of research, you can get an idea for what really happens within city government, who wields power and influence, and what strengths and weaknesses and exploitable closet skeletons and albatrosses each elected official has. All of this is only background, however. It will help you determine some of the themes you will focus on in your campaign. They have to be boiled down very simply to be effective ("Peter Jones is in the pocket of developers" "Susan Davis's vote can be bought" "Reginald FitzDonnally-Smythingtonhaugh is a rubber stamp for the timber lobby.")

If this town is like most American ones, few people will know about, understand, or be able to summon up any interest in what happens inside local government - but you can bet they'll be pissed about one or more of its effects on their lives, whether it's taxes, over-regulation, sprawl, traffic, sweetheart deals and boondoggles, law enforcement, property values, development and construction, public facilities, roads, schools, jobs, utility rates, whatever. Your messaging will have to account for what happens inside government, how it is reported in the media, and how that is perceived and regurgitated amongst the voters (with most emphasis on the latter two, sadly)

I don't know how campaign finance works there, but if it's like here, start fundraising early. To better accomplish this, you need name/face recognition, contacts, and clear messaging. This means networking and visible civic involvement. Volunteer, join civic clubs and chambers of commerce, etc. Use that visibility and those networks and contacts to ask for money and votes and for people to spread the word. If there is a motivated group who has been getting the shaft from the sitting government and you feel your platform can accommodate their issue, create a plank from it and hit them up for money and support. Watch out for too much special-interest money, though, or it will be your vote that people think is for sale.

Websites are cheap these days. Get one with your name in the url, "firstnamelastname.whatever" if possible or "joeformayor.com" or "suebrown2008" or something. It needs to look crisp and professional, but even turn-key sites can offer that these days. Get a simple site professionally done if possible. Put a professional or otherwise very good photo of yourself on it, smiling in a firendly and confident yet gravitas-y way. Don't forget some maple leaves. Put your sanitized and well-written bio on there, touting any accomplishments, experience, and stuff that humanizes you. Also include your key messaging, any press clippings as they come out, a small photo gallery of you doing stuff out in the community, contact info, where to send contributions or a way to accept them via the site, and information on how people can get involved with your campaign. You might even have a blog about things going on in the city but beware of providing casual fodder that can be taken out of context and used against you. Google the names of any candidates you know and use their sites as examples.

If you can spare a few thousand dollars to hire a professional researcher to look into your own records, background, accomplishments, and weaknesses, or those of your opponents, do so. They'll just do a lot of the public records legwork I mention above and it'll save you the hassle and the learning curve.

Speaking of money, decide up front how much of your own money you are willing to spend on your campaign. Read up on any laws that prohibit or limit this practice.

Use volunteers for as much as you can.

Learn how to speak and write in soundbites for the papers and tv. Stay on message. Use any and every question from the media as an opportunity to talk about your same handful of key messages. "Yes, schools arts programs are important, Tracy, which is why I will push for developers to be required to pay 100% of the impact fees for any new development, so that we can spend our tax dollars on things that matter to the people of Maple Town."

There's a lot more, but these are some basics.
posted by Askr at 12:18 PM on July 7, 2008


Go to community events and shake hands. Knock on doors and shake hands. Stand in the street and shake hands. Buy Purell. Name recognition is probably the number one determinant of voting behaviour at the municipal level.

Elections Canada has poll-by-poll breakdowns on its website of the voting results from the last election (I think you have to pay to get the actual poll maps). Figure out which candidate in the last federal election was closest to your views/platform, then focus your door-knocking efforts on the polls where s/he did best (e.g. if your platform focuses on lower property taxes, you're probably better off not campaigning in polls that the NDP candidate won).

Keep in mind that the average voter is very uninformed. (See e.g. the results of the latest Dominion Institute survey). This is especially true with respect to municipal elections. So think about positioning, but in very broad strokes, and pay attention to vote splitting. During the Free Trade election of 1988, for example, a majority of Canadians opposed the FTA. But the votes of those opposed were split between the Liberals and the NDP, and the votes of those in favour went en masse to the PCs, thus ensuring an enormous majority for Mulroney.
posted by ewiar at 3:29 PM on July 7, 2008


Thanks to everyone who answered so far. I'm particularly interested in the minutiae of the rules and roles and the nuts and bolts of things, but the general info is good too. Please feel free to add anything else that comes to mind!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:31 PM on July 7, 2008


The rules are all different based on where you run. Can you tell us which province you're thinking of running in? Also, how small is the town?
posted by mrmcsurly at 9:52 PM on July 9, 2008


I may be mistaken (and someone may have already said this) but don't many mayors frequently start as councilors? That gives you a chance to learn the issues, the politics of council, and the workings of the city before being thrust in the limelight as the mayor. It'll also give you some name recognition and a record (which can be a good or a bad thing depending on how it matches with the wider community.)
posted by Jaybo at 12:55 PM on August 30, 2008


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