Ambushed by a sleaze storm

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
National Post, Friday, October 30, 2009

"The real test of any mayor is how well the city is run," The New York Times editorialized the other day in endorsing Michael Bloomberg for a third term as mayor of New York.

By that standard, Gerald Tremblay ought to be a lock for a third term as mayor of Montreal in Sunday's civic election. The city's economy, and its books, are in good shape. Unemployment is lower than Toronto. The resale housing market is buoyant. And, according to Tremblay, Montreal has weathered the Great Recession better than any other major city in North America.

And while Montreal may have issues with its blue-collar workers, it hasn't had to endure a garbage strike in the middle of summer, probably the last nail in David Miller's mayoral coffin.

But the Montreal campaign has been dominated by mud-slinging and sleaze. It's the dirtiest campaign since Jean Drapeau first swept into City Hall more than half a century ago, vowing to clean the place up.

In his office at City Hall yesterday, Tremblay acknowledged that his message has been drowned out by the media noise over ethics and governance. And he frankly admitted that, in a third term, he'll have to do a better job on that front.

"Integrity and ethical behavior are important," he said. "There is a link of trust with citizens that's been broken."

It began with a $355-million water-meter contract awarded to a consortium headed by construction magnate Tony Accurso. It turned out that the chairman of the city's executive committee at the time, Frank Zampino, holidayed on Accurso's luxurious yacht. Then, when he left City Hall, he went to work for one of the companies that won the contract.

Then it turned out that Accurso made a big cash donation to Benoît Labonté's leadership campaign for Vision Montreal, the main opponent of Tremblay's party, Union Montreal. At the time, Labonté was mayor of the downtown Montreal borough of Ville Marie. When this explosive news broke two weeks ago, Tremblay's main opponent, Louise Harel, unceremoniously dumped Labonté as her running mate.

Finally, Radio-Canada and La Presse have exposed bid-rigging and collusion in Montreal's construction industry, which looks to be married to the mob. The biggest winner of city-construction contracts by far is Simard-Beaudry, headed by the ubiquitous Tony Accurso.

The two issues, campaign finance and the construction industry, have totally dominated media coverage of the campaign. It's not that Tremblay doesn't have a message -- "Montreal is on the move," he says -- but he can't make himself heard above the din.

Tremblay agrees the obvious solution to campaign finance is for Quebec to impose its own election law on the municipalities, which are constitutionally creature of the provinces. (The province's 1977 law -- which René Lévesque called his proudest achievement -- bans corporate and union donations, limits individual donations to $3,000, outlaws cash donations, and requires full disclosure. It was the model for Jean Chrétien's reform of federal campaign finance in 2003.)

Tremblay predicts that as soon as the election is over, Premier Jean Charest will act in this regard. They've already had the conversation. "Quebec has accepted to eliminate anonymous donations," he says. As for corruption and collusion in the construction industry, he is very comfortable with Charest's decision to name a police task force with the same kind of expanded powers that broke up Quebec's biker gangs a decade ago.

Tremblay would rather have a conversation about the brain gains, and the greening of Montreal, on his watch. With 150,000 university students, Montreal has the highest per-capita university population in North America -- even higher than Boston. "Half of our population is bilingual," he says. "A third speak three languages. That's a huge competitive advantage for our city." There are 100,000 people working in financial services, a fast growing industry.

Tremblay has been fortunate in his opponents in this election. Harel is a polarizing figure -- a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister who breaks Drapeau's golden rule of civic politics: Never bring the question of country to City Hall. Moreover, she was behind the 2001 forced merger of Montreal's municipalities. She won't win a single poll in the English-speaking West End of the city. The third candidate, Richard Bergeron, is also a sovereignist -- one who thinks the events of Sept. 11, 2001 were a plot by the U.S. government against its own people.

On fundamentals, leaving the ethic issues aside, Tremblay should win by about 10 points.

 
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