Anytime I walk into an election candidates forum I almost immediately think of this great scene from Season 3 of the West Wing. Maybe I am a dreamer, but I hope that one day I will witness a debater who reaches the level of President Josiah Bartlett.
I was not sure what to expect when I ventured into the packed auditorium at Harry Ainlay High School on Edmonton’s south side. Walking the halls of the giant high school, I remembered the last time I had been in that building was for a Ward 5 (now Ward 9 and 10) all-candidates forum in 2007. I remember that auditorium three years ago being packed with skeptics of then-Councillor Mike Nickel and supporters of first-time challenger Don Iveson.
Last night, I entered the auditorium two minutes before the candidates took to the podium and I wedged myself into a seat in the back row next (which ended up being right next to City Clerk Alayne Sinclair and elections staff, who were overseeing the event and updating the @EdmontonClerk twitter account).
While last night was nothing comparable to the Bartlett-Ritchie debate in the video about, it was a raucous evening. Over the course of the evening, the boisterous crowd jeered, cheered, and heckled the candidates when different issues various pet issues mentioned (the City Centre Airport, the Art Gallery of Alberta, and… David Suzuki and climate change).
First time candidate Dan Dromarsky was the most likable among the candidates. While answering each question, Mr. Dromarsky beamed with genuine concern for Edmonton and demonstrated that he had also done his homework when it came to a lot of the issues. His performance last night made me wish that he would have decided to run for City Council, instead of a Mayoral position that he has no chance of being elected.
Although he did not have a huge impact on the debate, Daryl Bonar has positioned himself as the most aggressive alternative to Mayor Stephen Mandel. His “fight back” campaign and actual platform positions presented a contrast to the other challengers who appeared unprepared for their candidacies.
The most entertaining candidate of the evening turned out to be Bob Ligertwood, who used every opportunity to decry the Internet and Facebook (even stating at one point that the Oil City Roadhouse should be shut down so that the Police could monitor computers at the public libraries). Candidate Andrew Lineker touched on some fair points about the transition of EPCOR to Capital Power, and Dave Dowling was remarkably subdued in light of his previous runs for Mayor.
David Dorward seemed like a nice man who would probably be a great financial adviser, but his focus on repeating platitudes and grasping for political points left me wondering if had the leadership skills or vision to lead an entire City. His campaign has the backing of Envision Edmonton lobby group and the support of their wealthy financial backers, which puts him in a financial advantage over the other challengers. Mr. Dorward has only made one policy announcement (on seniors taxes yesterday) and his campaign has yet to show that he has the policy depth to be a successful Mayor.
It is unfortunate that his campaign feels like it was thrown together at the last hour. Had Mr. Dorward began preparing his bid earlier in the summer, rather than a week before the election period started, the Edmontonians in the room last night probably would have seen a more vigorous debate centered around ideas and vision, rather than platitudes and talking points.
Two-term Mayor Stephen Mandel was the most confident and answered questions with a confidence that none of the other candidates had. He fumbled a few questions, but gave the impression that of the three serious candidates (himself, Mr. Bonar, and Mr. Dorward), he was the only one who actually understood how governance works.
I voted for Mayor Mandel in 2004 and 2007, and I generally believe that he has done a good job over the past six years. I also support City Council’s decision to close the City Centre Airport over a phased period of time and redevelop the lands.
On some other issues, I have been less impressed with the Mayor. I am not comfortable with his cozy relationship with the Katz Group in light of their request for City funding of a downtown arena and I am skeptical about the City’s bid to host the 2017 World Expo. As a young Edmontonian, I also feel that the City should be more aggressive in promoting the construction of family-orinented densification and infill in the urban core, something that none of the candidates spoke about last night.
Most of Mayor Mandel’s challengers demonstrated a fairly evident lack of understanding of how our democratic process and representative democracy functions. Mr. Dorward’s supporters in the crowd jeered at the Mayor and the challengers charged that it was undemocratic for City Council to have rejected a plebiscite on the City Centre Airport redevelopment. None of the challengers thought to mention that the petition was ruled invalid under provincial law. If a candidate cannot demonstrate that they understand how a clearly laid out petition process works, then it is difficult for me to imagine them tackling the macro-level important issues facing the City.
Edmontonians deserved a better debate last night and Mayor Mandel deserved a more serious challenge in this election. Unless the challengers undergo a miraculous change between now and October 18, we may have to wait to see what October 2013 has to offer us.