Taming the urban guerrillas: Jean, Jack and John triumph
Michael Posner,Graham Fraser,Thomas HopkinsNovember271978
Taming the urban guerrillas: Jean, Jack and John triumph
The year’s most fashionable political phrase is “shift to the right.” Its manifestations are everywhere—in polls, in newspaper columns, in election results—forming a critical sub-text (if not the text itself) to every recent analysis of political trend. The exact degree of movement is debatable; the incline itself is not.
And certainly not after last week’s municipal elections, when voters in Canada’s three largest cities—Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, 475,775 voters in all—returned mayors who comfortably wear the cloth of the new conservatism. Jean Drapeau in Montreal, back for his seventh term, is an elder statesmen of the right. Vancouver’s Jack Volrich, although re-elected on an independent ticket, has endorsed an impressive number of right-wing causes. Even Toronto’s John Sewell, once considered a particularly noisome mutation of the radical left, is (and always was) more a child of radical populism.
Canada may still be an archipelago of distinct and separate entities, but the size of the pluralities awarded to Jean, Jack and John suggests that, at least on the larger issues, the major cities are drifting in the same direction.
Drapeau’s victory was particularly awesome. Despite fierce opposition from the press, sniping from the Parti Québécois and a series of embarrassing revelations about His Honor’s handling of the Olympic Games, Drapeau won 61 per cent of the vote. Attached to his flamboyant coattails were members of his own Civic Party, which won 52 of a possible 54 seats. Only engineer Michael Fainstat, the most respected councillor of the left-wing Montreal Citizens Movement (MCM) and broadcaster Nick Auf der Maur, of the middle-of-theroad Municipal Action Group (MAG), survived Drapeau’s tidal wave. “We were beaten by a wind of conservatism that blew across Montreal,” admitted Liberal MP Serge Joyal, the MAG mayoralty candidate who won only 25 per cent of the vote.
The landslide constituted a remarkably calm electoral response to skyrocketing property taxes and the daily evi-
zdence of the Malouf Inquiry, damning Drapeau alone as responsible for the financial recklessness of the Olympic Games. That the mayor’s closest adviser, Gerard Niding, was forced to resign at the start of the campaign amid charges of conflict of interest made no dent on the public consciousness. All sins acknowledged, Drapeau is still the man who brought Montreal the Expos, the Metro, the Olympics and the Grand Prix.
Vancouver’s Volrich, winning just less than 50 per cent of the popular vote, made no such promises. He didn’t have to. His major opponent, May Brown, started late in the campaign and never mounted an effective challenge. As in Montreal, however, Volrich’s victory represented a clear mandate for conservative government—fiscal restraint, pro-development and against pornography. The conservative Non-Partisan Association (NPA) won six of 11 city council seats and seven of nine schoolboard positions, delivering a sharp rebuff to TEAM (The Electors Action Movement), which has controlled Vancouver politics since 1972. Only one TEAM alderman was elected.
Last week, stoically watching NPA blue spread across the city’s electoral map as the polls reported, TEAM supporters expressed fears about Volrich’s “imperial” style of leadership and his frankly sympathetic approach to unrestrained development. In turn, argue Volrich votaries, Vancouver has been stagnant too long. In the end, the new polarized re-ordering of council may be productive. Says veteran left-of-centre alderman Mike Harcourt, his eyes bright with nostalgia: “Now we can get back to fighting in the streets.”
That same image was invoked more than once during the Toronto campaign, where John Sewell’s record—nine controversial years as the most argumentative alderman on council—became a central issue. Could a man who wore blue j eans and leather j ackets, who once played chess during a council meeting and who frequently engaged in pointless shouting matches with opponents, be trusted to administer Toronto’s $196million annual operating budget?
In significant numbers, Toronto voters thought he could. Although painted left-wing red, Sewell, 37—a lawyer who seldom practises—has never been a member of the New Democratic Party; indeed he shuns ideology as too restrictive. Intense, inflexible and often selfrighteous, Sewell cleverly softened his image for the campaign. He wore threepiece suits instead of his habitual turtleneck-and-jean ensemble—a costume change that won almost as much attention as the issues. He avoided direct attacks on his opponents—two-time loser Tony O’Donohue and senior alderman David Smith. Se-
well’s series of Sunday campaign walks through historic sections of the city attracted wide audiences, humanized his austere image and, perhaps most important, captured headlines in the daily press.
Sewell also stuck steadfastly to the issues as he saw them: reducing transit fares (Toronto’s seven fares for $3 is among the highest on the continent) to lure back commuters; low-cost housing; property-tax reform; and an open planning process. Privately, however, Sewell knew that winning would ultimately depend on transforming the public’s perception of himself. One day, mulling over a good one-line response to David Smith, Sewell offered: “That sounds like the old John Sewell—only the old John Sewell said it better.” Few politicians of any stripe are quite so blunt about their image, or quite as adept at holding it at arm’s length—like Hamlet with Yorick’s skull: “Alas! poor Sewell. I knew him ...”
Just how much the voters accepted that transformation was reflected in Toronto’s affluent north end, where
Sewell won almost as many polls as native-son Smith. In the end, Sewell claimed just under 40 per cent of the total vote; O’Donohue took second (33.4 per cent) and Smith—despite a $100,000 campaign—a distant third (24.1 per cent). The two losers effectively split the opposition vote.
The political moderation of John Sewell did not end on election night. Acknowledging that suits are more becoming to mayors than blue jeans, he promised to continue wearing his new threads (although he vowed not to surrender the “no-speed bicycle” he pedals around the city). More to the point, Sewell strategically named some oldguard right wingers to the powerful executive committee. The appointments ensured a Sewell majority on major issues, but went a long way toward appeasing his opponents. It was a gesture of conciliation that spoke eloquently about the new Sewell style. The tactics and the dress have changed, but the essential politics will not.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.