Make Mike Mayor
I wrote this last year for Canada Writes' Creative Non-Fiction competition. It didn't make the long list, so here it is. Harken back to the Summer of 1999.
Sweat trickled down my back as I sat fuming in my car. Ahead of me, traffic was jammed tight. Six lumbering, mostly-empty buses were jockeying for position at a singular bus stop, preventing any traffic from crossing the intersection.
I swore under my breath as the clumsy, white-assed buses generated gridlock in service of some brilliant socio-civic engineering. This wasn’t a nightmare from which I could wake any time soon—it was, in fact, the fulfilled dream of our region’s transportation strategy.
"That's it!" I hollered at the traffic jam. "I'm running for mayor!"
Over the years, I’d paid an increasing amount of attention to local politics because of the arcane by-laws that governed our town (sorry, city—our town fancies itself a city, and we all play along so that the city doesn’t have a tantrum). I wasn’t satisfied to play along. I’d ask questions about the crush of rules: “Your business can’t have a light-up sign” “No bonfires—EVER!” “The late-night coffee shops have to close before midnight.” When in doubt, the city created new by-laws. The by-law were enforced by risk adverse bureaucrats who staunched progress with a tourniquet of pettiness.
My friend, Ted, and I were of the same mind. When we talked about civic politics we amped each other up.
“They’re butchering Douglas street,” I said.
“That sucks!” said he.
They want to make neon signs illegal!”
“They’re going to raise the property taxes! Again!”
“Hell, no!” Ted said, “I’m putting my name in the ring for city council.”
I really wanted to change things, so I said, “I’m putting my name in for mayor!”
When I went down to city hall, I expected that the chief electoral officer did some gatekeeping while doling out application forms. I had intentionally shown up looking all presentable and electable, and my instincts were right; had I shown up in scrubby attire, I thought I would be told, “Sorry, son—no elections here.”
To run for office, I had to scare up three nomination signatures of my own to qualify. Who could I get to endorse me? And if I questioned getting three nominations, what made me think I could get the most votes come election night? Really: if a few nominations is of concern, winning is a moonshot. In addition to Ted's signature, I exhumed two locals:
A friend of mine on the verge of packing two cardboard boxes then flee the country to live in a friend’s spare room in the US. Those details never made into the nomination form. That was one valid resident’s signature.
My buddy, Don, worked the counter at the local pornographic video store—one block down from City Hall. I strolled in, and the startled patrons reacted like a pack of raccoons discovered on the back porch. Don, predictably, was behind the counter; he too was a proud resident of the City.
“Hey Don—would you sign my nomination papers?” I asked casually.
“Sure, Mike, you bet,” he said. He moved some smut to one side to fill out the particulars. I felt a rush of encouragement; while customers were checking out VHS tapes of “All Anal Six: The Undiscovered Butt,” I was getting one step closer to the mayor’s seat. Given what we see of politics, I figured some ethical haze was a prerequisite for office. A nomination from a smut peddler seemed fitting.
We brought back our papers back to the electoral officer. Perched on his desk was a fellow mayoral candidate—the outgoing-mayor-endorsed candidate.
Why is he here? I wondered. He was going through all of the the applications on the electoral officer’s desk and reviewing the applications as they came in—mine included. Okay, I’m really big on open government, I thought, wishing to be calm and objective. Everything should be available for review by anyone, right? Then I thought, WTF? You can’t be reading applications as they come in!
I learned that there were fourteen people vying for mayor’s seat: one anointed candidate, one political veteran, one candidate who parachuted in from the U.S. several years earlier, and eleven people who fit somewhere on the wacko spectrum. I liked to think I was the least wacko, but who in their right mind walks in off the street and try to be mayor? A reporter tried to lump all of the “fringe” mayors together as protest candidates and dismiss us en masse so that there could be there were three contenders to track and eleven sources of white noise.
As one of the registered candidates, I was invited to the all-candidate meetings. Adding to the fourteen mayoral hopefuls, there were thirty-something candidates vying for eight council seats. Between all those candidates, the audience was sometimes dwarfed by the number of people running for office. Some of the more colourful candidates were:
- A woman who put her name in the ring, then had second thoughts. She showed up at most of the meetings to tell the audience not to vote for her.
- One guy sounded like Schwarzenegger. His catch phrase was “give Hauer the Power.” Hauer frightened me.
- A former provincial MLA who had lost his provincial seat; now he was running for a municipal seat. He worked a day job as a security guard, and showed up to meetings in his security guard uniform. Who knew there was a straight line from politician to mall cop?
- The anointed mayoral candidate, who had all of the polish—almost too much polish. Whenever he was asked a question, he jumped down from his seat, armed with a massive loose-leaf binder. He would flip to an appropriate page and recite a prepared statement to grand applause and then get back up onto his perch.
A few of them were happy to tell me that I was a fraud, “You haven’t done anything, now, have you?” said one of the townspeople when I spoke with her before the debate. In the years that followed, I saw these same people dotting audiences of local town hall meetings, shaking their heads disapprovingly with clenched, wrinkled jaws. These types were all too happy to show up to stop any progress in our town.
An added bonus to running for office was the hate mail it attracted. Ted was targeted because he wanted to make a better future for his new son. How dare he make mention of his child’s gender? Ted was obviously an agent of the patriarchy . Shame on him for having offspring with a defined gender! Hostility towards candidates was pervasive. At one all-candidates meeting, a labour union wanted all of us uppity candidates to sit facing the stage instead of facing the audience. The MC kept the questions in a big, white porcelain toilet bowl and fished them out to present to the candidates. Most of the questions were about globalization, nuclear-powered warships coming to port, and free-trade. I guess they didn’t know this was a municipal election and that our town didn’t make many international policy decisions.
At the end of it all, I talked to a lot of people and garnered fifty-four votes; this was a point of pride because I didn’t know fifty-four eligible voters in the municipality, so someone out there thought I was worth voting for.
Also, I had a glimpse behind the political curtain and saw how the game was played. I learned first-hand that the common herd of politicians say what they want and rarely answer questions unless cornered. I discovered that the election campaign is the end game—the battle for office starts a year prior with the campaign for people’s pocketbooks.
People get the government they deserve. NIMBYs want the city council to stop all progress. Disaffected voters mute themselves by not showing up at the polls. Even when people get a plan in motion, good ideas get worked over in committee rooms until even the best idea has a mediocre outcome.
On a positive note, I gained new relationships with the people who I came to know through the election. A year later, Ted, my wife, my campaign manager and I teamed up to run a Fringe play where we sent up whole process. My wife played a shrill left-winger in love with the arts; my campaign manager played a stodgy old politician, darling of the NIMBY crowd; we brought in a high-energy performer to play the role of “Gordie Howe”, the personable but vacant candidate. Ted played an everyman with good ideas and common sense who was summarily ignored time and again.
Reporters who missed the real election saw our play and said, “I wish I had voted for these guys!”
Last updated date
Tuesday, October 28, 2014 - 10:48