Quebec, Ink. — Enough already with the insta-mayors

Will he or won’t he? On Denis Coderre’s dance with City Hall, ghosts of politicos past and the dangers of handpicking municipal party candidates.

As the bodies continue to pile up on the pyre of political corruption in Quebec, federal Liberal MP Denis Coderre dances on the sidelines, coyly teasing media and the public with his potential candidacy for mayor of Montreal.

Now, Coderre is an odd duck. A glad-handing, perpetually tweeting populist, he has long and publicly aspired to become either the leader of the Liberal Party or mayor of Montreal. But since his buddy Justin Trudeau is expected to easily take the Liberal crown, Coderre is now looking to City Hall. Everyone expected him to announce just that at a fundraiser last Friday (Trudeau even tweeted to that effect Friday), but Coderre instead announced he would only decide after the Liberal leadership race ends April 14. The reason? He said it wouldn’t be “fair” to his constituents to announce it any earlier.

Well, that’s just a pile of poop, poppycock and horse feathers.

Coderre didn’t announce his candidacy on Friday because he hasn’t got a party yet, and Quebec municipal politics make having a party pretty essential.  Not that it’s such a huge obstacle: three of the last four mayors of Montreal formed their own parties to assure they’d be the candidate. In recent memory, only Montreal Citizens Movement (MCM) candidate Jean Doré had to actually convince party members to give him the chance to run for mayor. Jean Drapeau (Civic Party), Pierre Bourque (Vision Montreal) and Gérald Tremblay (Union Montreal) just created their own clubs. The latter two even had their names added to the official party name — just in case you forgot who the party belonged to.

(As a successor to Bourque, Louise Harel’s name was later sewn into the Vision Montreal campaign sweater, just like a kid sister at summer camp.)

* * *

When I worked at Hour in the mid-’90s, I once wrote that legendary Montreal city councillor Nick Auf der Maur loved parties but never stuck around long. It was a reference to both his reputation as a boulevardier and the fact he was constantly forming and quitting parties. He helped found at least three, and ran for six, including the Mulroney Conservatives.

But Auf der Maur was too much of a curmudgeon to imagine a party could ever coalesce around him as leader. He didn’t want to mould something in his own image, but instead strove to pound away at its edges so it could better resemble his own rough ideals. And when the pounding ceased to have an effect, he would quit, sit as an independent, form a new party or jump ship, even to former enemies like the Civic Party.

Most Montreal mayoral candidates these days don’t need to switch parties — they are the party. They have little concern for the programs, policies and debates that are inherent in a true political party system. They don’t want input, they fear dissent and they abhor public embarrassment. So they create parties that — in case you forget who’s running things — include their own names. They handpick candidates who handpick their local riding executives and, if they win the mayoralty, handpick an executive committee whose meetings and agendas are private.

They put themselves in total control and yet — as Tremblay did last week while resigning — deny responsibility for anything going on around them.

* * *

“Call me Denis” — who is leading in recent polls even though he isn’t running —  is waiting to see if an existing party will offer him a throne. Union Montreal is the only party currently without a designated driver, but Coderre knows the brand had been badly bruised by recent allegations.

Union may not be that badly bruised, though, since it came a surprisingly close second in Sunday’s by-election in Rivière-des-Prairies. That’s part of the calculation Coderre has to make in deciding whether to create his own party or to try to slip into the seat of a recently departed Tremblay. And that’s the real reason for his delay.

But whatever Coderre decides, it will be the wrong decision. For Montreal to put an end to the era of corruption, it has to reject the old-style politics that Coderre represents. Although he was only indirectly implicated in the Liberal sponsorship scandal, Coderre is accustomed to travelling in the dimly lit backrooms of  power, even acting as Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s Quebec lieutenant, handing out treats and punishment to keep MPs and hopeful candidates in line.

Don’t expect Coderre to give up, though. He ran unsuccessfully for the Liberals three times before he finally won a seat in 1997, after nine years of trying.  He went on to win re-election five times in the next 11 years, holding ministerial jobs under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin before getting dumped in the 2004 cabinet. He dusted himself off once more and latched onto Ignatieff’s coattails after Martin lost the 2006 election.

Coderre is an ambitious man and an adept backroom politician. Is that really what we need in a time of corruption and crisis? ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear at least once a week in this space. You can follow him on Twitter or find out about his upcoming stand-up performances here.

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