Oct. 17, 2012 - Issue #887: Dedfest
With municipal elections one year away, the chance of unseating incumbents seems dim
Disgruntled citizens looking forward to significant change on Edmonton City Council following next year's municipal election should probably brace themselves for
According to University of Alberta political science professor Jim Lightbody, incumbent councillors seeking re-election are successful about 84 percent of the time. The few exceptions are cities which have adopted partisan systems. "In Montréal, Quebec and Vancouver," Lightbody explains, "voters will often decide to boot an entire party out of office." Otherwise, he says, across Canada in all cities and across a generation, 84 percent is the rule.
From 1980 until 2007, council was comprised of the mayor and two representatives from each of Edmonton's six wards. In 2010, the city moved to a system wherein one councillor is elected in each of 12 wards. A review of the past three decades' election results confirmed Lightbody's assertion. Since 1983, the first-time incumbents elected under the new system could seek re-election, only four seated mayors and 10 seated councillors have lost. Incumbent councillors who ran for mayor and were defeated are not included in this total. The biggest upheaval during the period occurred in 1995 when the incumbent mayor and five councillors were given the old heave-ho.
In an analysis he wrote about the 1992 mayoralty race, Lightbody noted that a familiarity with the way city hall works favours incumbents because their "awkward phraseology and unfamiliarity with technical terms" are used to question the credibility of political novices.
Along with name recognition and a better understanding of how the city operates, campaign fundraising capacity also plays a large part in providing incumbents the edge. But a big budget doesn't always guarantee re-election. Councillor Don Iveson was first elected in 2007. Although his campaign team recognized that incumbent Mike Nickel had greater name recognition and a larger budget, Iveson's team executed a well-thought-out campaign strategy with military-like precision. A large and extremely dedicated volunteer base helped Iveson deliver polished and clear messaging through social media and a massive door-to-door campaign. In the end, Iveson and his $22 000 campaign budget defeated Nickel and his $62 000 budget by over 2200 votes.
In Nickel's case it would be difficult to suggest his defeat stemmed from any particular thing he had done. In other instances of incumbent defeat, it is much easier. Take, for example, Catherine Chichak. Shortly after the former PC MLA was elected to represent voters in Ward 2 during the 1989 election, city bureaucrats discovered Chichak owed $8400 in unpaid business taxes, rendering her ineligible to stand for office. She was eventually convicted and fined under the Local Authorities Election Act for signing a false statement. While the court determined she wasn't qualified to run, Chichak was allowed to keep her seat because she had paid the tax bill before trial. The 1992 election saw voters more than happy to let the alderman know what they thought of the matter: Chichak placed a distant sixth.
There was one other alderman during that 1992 election who would have surely been included in our defeated incumbent tally had he not decided to run for mayor. In 1991, Ward 6 alderman Ken Kozak pleaded guilty to assaulting his estranged wife. After spending more than a year fending off calls for his resignation, he announced he was running for mayor. While it is quite possible Kozak felt his proposal to deal with Mill Woods' gopher hole problem by introducing a program to provide the gophers with birth control would help voters forget his domestic violence conviction, it did not. He received 3938 votes in his bid to unseat incumbent mayor Jan Reimer, who was easily re-elected with
113 085 votes.
Barring an incumbent opponent like Chichak or Kozak, newcomers on the civic election scene know the deck is heavily stacked against them. "It's hard to be new. It's hard to break in," Andrew Knack says, who has twice faced off against incumbents in Ward 1. Asked why he would enter a race when the odds were so clearly against him, Knack explains that he'd always been active in politics and decided to take the plunge as a candidate in 2007 because he wasn't "overly impressed" with the representation he had received. "Back then, I figured running and losing was better than not wanting to vote at all," he recalls. Knack has already announced he will be running again in 2013.
Feelings about current representation play a large part when rookies enter the civic election field. When he first started thinking about running for office, Dan Dromarsky considered running for councillor. "But I really liked how Ed Gibbons was representing us," he explains, "so I decided to run for Mayor instead." After finishing fourth in a field of seven in 2010, Dromarsky hasn't decided if he will run again next year. "If I do," he says, "it will be for a council seat."
We'll see at least two new faces in council chambers following next year's election as Councillors Iveson and Anderson have both indicated they will not be seeking re-election in their wards. If you are a political neophyte looking for a way to "break in", Wards 9 and 10 might be a very good place to start. The next municipal election will be held on Monday, October 21, 2013.
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