In Brampton’s mayoral race, the ‘unknowns’ are worth pondering
Politics dwells on the cusp of absurdity.
Look no further than the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when an orange-skinned blowhard with a message of hate and a penchant for insulting blacks, Hispanics, women, war heroes, people with disabilities, mothers of fallen soldiers, and everyone who doesn’t own a new set of Taylormade P-790 irons promised to build a wall (and a moat with a seldom-used drawbridge) around America.
Trump’s victory was driven by political estrangement and years of circular debate, extreme positions, and vile attack ads. Finding consensus on anything in America these days is like waiting for pandas to mate at the zoo.
Which brings the political discussion down a notch or two to the municipal level, and perhaps the most absurd race there is: a run for mayor.
In 2014, Brampton voters had to choose between 14 candidates. One came with a glittery CV (Linda Jeffrey, the eventual winner); another (Susan Fennell) had a back story of spending taxpayers’ dollars that so repelled voters she barely reached double digits. A third (John Sanderson) inspired a formidable band of followers, but the loss cost him his seat on council. The rest of the field was made up of Gujrats, Dons, Joes, Davinders and Jacquelines.
The turnout was low (36 percent), and so were the expectations for the winner, especially after Jeffrey got off to a so-so start. She and her pro-Linda forces supported a Main St. route for the LRT. That alienated more than half her council. It kicked off a four-year cold war. Tension mounted between two camps. Feelings were hurt. Little got done. Governing the city turned into a stalemate.
But yes, oh weary electorate, it’s time to do battle again.
On Oct. 22, Brampton will go to the polls to pick our top municipal official. Jeffrey is back, this time seeking re-election – hoping her next council is freed from those who bristled at her leadership and are now headed into retirement: Elaine Moore, Grant Gibson, Gael Miles, and John Sprovieri (a challenger in the mayor’s race).
She’s in a tight competition this time with the boyish Patrick Brown, 40, former leader of the Progressive Conservative party of Ontario. He’s running a close second in The Pointer’s commissioned-poll (conducted by Forum Research) garnering 33 percent to Jeffrey’s 41 percent among decided and “leaning” voters.
Brown, who was rudely tossed out as PC leader in January, spent the first months of the year watching the rise of its new leader, Doug Ford, who won a majority in June. Since then, Ford has tried to out-Trump Trump, cutting Toronto City Council (where he once sat) by nearly half. In another undemocratic move, he eliminated voting for chair of Peel Region – an office Brown was vying for.
Yes, Brampton voters have half the number of mayoralty candidates to choose from this time compared with the last election. They include the two front-runners, and another two with plenty of experience and street cred: John Sprovieri, the regional councillor for Wards 9 and 10 who has represented constituents for almost 30 years, and Bal Gosal, the former federal sports minister in the Stephen Harper Conservative government.
"Being called the other, or the unknown, is something I wear with pride.” Wesley Jackson
That leaves three lesser-knowns filling the rest of the roster: Wesley Jackson, Mansoor Ameersulthan, and Vinod Kumar Mahesan.
I’d like to report all seven took part in The Pointer debate Thursday, but Jeffrey was a no-show, citing illness. Who did show was a crowd, a nice mix of voters with eyes darting back and forth between the stage, the moderator and a panel of four questioners sitting at a side table: Michelle McCollum, Audrey Campbell, Sukhjot Naroo, and Dave Kapil.
Patrick Brown was smooth, forthright, energetic, and well-practised – like the lawyer he is. He delivered summations on a number of subjects: the need for more effective, modernized policing, remaking our uneven tax mix, proactively chasing future high-return development and building a consensus on council that will address issues unaddressed over the past eight years at city hall. Brown is an experienced campaigner and answers in well-formulated sentences, with a delivery as smooth as a slow-poured glass of Guinness. If he gets rattled, he keeps it well hidden. He stands erect and exudes confidence.
Which leads further down the staircase to what’s called the “others,” the “also-rans” or the “fringe candidates”: Mahesan, Ameersulthan, and Jackson.
At least one of these seldom heard voices might just be worth listening to a little more closely.
It is their inalienable right to run – even if some are not as good as others. Mahesan was very animated and made an excellent point about the lack of diversity on Brampton council: Why doesn’t it represent the demographic of the city? He also stressed that representation on council, in the police force or any other public institution has to be based on talent; and with that approach, they will naturally reflect the surrounding population.
Vinod Kumar Mahesan
But showing serious star power was Jackson. He’s a big man, with a likeable delivery, who gets a little lyrical at times. He also showed he was serious about the issues by questioning one of the questioners over his take on development. Jackson had his own notes at the ready and read them with aplomb.
The local lawyer knows he’s a decided longshot, and this is his first election rodeo. His website articulates how he plans to fix problems. He hopes to see a government that is future-oriented and accountable, that promotes economic sustainability and attracts investment, with well-managed growth. He says it should take a systematic approach to innovation, and deliver real value for your property tax dollar. His to-do list includes better housing, healthcare, transportation and education – pretty much standard fare for anyone wanting to be mayor.
He drilled down on those issues in the debate. But what bothers him most, he says, is the fact 60 percent of Bramptonians leave the city each day to go to work. They take their spending power with them to other cities and return home at night empty-handed, ready to sleep. Do they feel part of the community? Do they participate, visit the downtown, go to the market on Saturdays, vote on election day?
Jackson wants to engage voters, but Brampton has shown faint interest in the mayor’s race over the years. The percentage of people who bothered to vote in the past three elections (36, 33, and 31 percent) was a full seven points below the provincial average, and that’s not much of a benchmark.
Brown is a familiar face: young, energetic, and eager to replace Jeffrey. She’s a career politician, quiet, unfailingly calculating, and dedicated to a progressive agenda. Gosal was sports minister when Canada dominated the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. And Sprovieri has been a Brampton mainstay for forever, on council for 30 years. He also led the chorus of complaints against the Jeffrey regime.
For those who haven’t heard of Mahesan, Ameersulthan, or Jackson: the former is a tech management consultant, the next an entrepreneur, and the last a lawyer and Brampton resident since 1982. Jackson was the most capable in articulating his positions, and was well-prepared and eager to articulate a broad vision for the future.
If Jeffrey and Brown are front-runners, Jackson is the conscience in the race, someone who might help reset the agenda for other candidates. Apologies to younger readers who might gloss over this reference; he evokes the image of Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s pre-war classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In it, Stewart plays junior senator Jefferson Smith, a young man waxing poetic about changing the political landscape, who gets caught up in the maw of cynicism and corruption. When he stands up for the disenfranchised, it comes via an exhausting filibuster speech spoken in the voice of the Everyman: “You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked. And I'm gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause.”
“Brampton should be measured by the height of its dreams." Wesley Jackson
Jackson’s message is simple: Brampton is not licked; it’s not a lost cause. But it can and must do better in this election and afterwards.
Instead of feeling rejected by The Pointer poll, which has Jackson holding a thin 6 per cent of voters, he says he’s just thrilled to be part of the battle. “Brampton should be measured by the height of its dreams. It’s time to reject all the division, strife and nonsense. I’m here to bring the dream back to Brampton.”
Jackson talks like that, almost in parables. He also offered up this gem, drawn from a Greek proverb: “Real nobility in politics is planting the seed of a tree but knowing you won’t be around to sit in its shade.” In other words, long-term planning is tough but not impossible, even when election cycles are so short.
Jackson is not just a fancy-talking lawyer, spinning ancient morals to create some sort of mystique around him. He was the only candidate on stage Thursday who offered a specific strategy to fund some of the most desperately needed services in the city, such as healthcare and higher order transit. Why not unlock some of the value currently sitting idle in land assets owned by the city? He offered the figure of $1.6 billion, according to numbers he obtained from city hall, suggesting that even a small portion of this value could be used to fund the city’s share of large capital projects that higher levels of government usually only invest in once municipalities pony up for their part.
Wesley Jackson on stage during Thursday's debate
Jeffrey’s absence took some sting out of the question of trust raised by The Pointer (it’s unlikely she would have answered it directly anyway, evidenced by her non-answer, published the day after the debate), and Brown listened carefully to charges that he might have tried to subvert a nomination process in Hamilton. He replied that he’s all in favour of cleaning up the process by turning it over to Elections Ontario or Elections Canada, adding that police in Hamilton investigating the matter have told him they’re not interested in interviewing the former party leader.
Sprovieri said trust is all about transparency and questioned Jeffrey’s honesty in saying one of her reasons for wanting a proposed LRT line running up Main Street is that it was a prerequisite to a university campus. Jackson was more conciliatory. “I don’t think she [Jeffrey] lied to the city, but what she believed was quite wrong.”
Questions were raised about development and how Brampton is infested with too much residential property in comparison to employment lands. Who is the best candidate to secure more tax-rich industrial, commercial or office development? Sprovieri thinks Brampton should lower development charges, and voila, business will come rushing in. “We have lots of land in east Brampton (2,000 acres) for development,” he said.
The need for more healthcare (even a third hospital—really a second full-service hospital) was discussed, and everyone was in favour of reimagining a future course for the city, working toward a broad economic vision that would allow Brampton to compete with other cities, such as Kitchener-Waterloo, or its neighbour to the south.
Brown evoked the name Hazel McCallion a number of times – the urban icon who led Mississauga for nearly two generations. He said she represents the gold standard when it comes to attracting new business and standing up for her city when needed. Her defiant leadership during the infamous train derailment crisis in 1979 set a tone that she would follow throughout her career.
Brown and McCallion have one thing in common: they both love hockey and politics. Sometimes being successful in either means going into the corners, with elbows up.
Brown didn’t mention that McCallion was also dubbed “the Queen of Sprawl,” and that Mississauga’s hyper growth was among the factors that prompted Queen’s Park to impose its Places to Grow legislation, putting a governor on growth and forcing buildings to rise up, not out. Brampton got the same message, but so far, it lags well behind – lousy industrial numbers, no office space to match Mississauga’s, and more and more people coming, eager to score a single-family home. Sprovieri warned the crowd that 300,000 more people are coming to Brampton over the next 20 years, so the mayor in charge had better be prepared to lead a city already groaning under the burden of growth.
The debate ended with a question about leadership, and whether Brampton can ever function as a team. Jackson said yes, and that “civilized debate doesn’t have to lead to dysfunction. Conflict often leads to good ideas,” he added. “But once the debate is over, let the united force of a mayor and council work as one.”
Jeffrey’s absence didn’t stymie the discussions, but any criticism directed her way led to an empty chair. After the debate, Jackson spent a few minutes going one-on-one with this interviewer. He expressed frustration with the political gridlock at city hall over the past few years. “It’s been nothing but confrontation, with each side trying to beat the other one up,” he says. First, it was Fennell, then Jeffrey. “We need to elevate the dialogue and respect the ideological differences of each of us.”
Jackson remembers how Ed Broadbent, former leader of the federal NDP, was always dignified in debate and often dined with his friends from other parties. “We’ve slid into an American style of politics,” says Jackson.
He fully expects the debate between the two front-runners to get nastier over the next few weeks.
“Hopefully, these [debates] will be the beginning of a more unified Brampton.” Wesley Jackson
The only thing Jackson doesn’t like about his run for mayor is being called a “fringe candidate.”
“It implies this is just a publicity stunt,” he says. “I’m trying to advance ideas. Being called the other, or the unknown, is something I wear with pride.”
Some say democracy is an outdated concept. It allows people to run for office who have no real credentials. Like Trump. He promised voters he would tell it like it is, and he did – even if it wasn’t. He lied, he buddied up with Russians, and he tilted the economic playing field even further to the right in favour of the .01 percent of the 1 percent. He got votes from the never-haves, but represents the never-have-enoughs.
Still, his ascendency might change the political paradigm. He spurned the standard process to achieve power. He’s given a home to every longshot seeking office. Jackson is Trump’s polar opposite – a bright, articulate, made-in-Brampton success story. The father of two, wants to bring new ideas to a city that he says is bankrupt of them.
He’s okay with the fact he might get 6 per cent of the 36 per cent who bother to vote in the October election. He thinks his agenda is starting to seep into the platforms of the front-runners and one day might manifest itself in new policy decisions on council.
He hopes whoever is named mayor on Oct. 22 scores “a clean win,” which means a whole slate of like-minded, but independent-thinking councillors following in behind him or her.
On Oct. 23, a new tone has to be set at city hall. Even if Jackson isn’t setting it, he’s had a chance to play a small part in pushing the debate forward.
“Hopefully,” he says, “these [debates] will be the beginning of a more unified Brampton.”
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