Dozens of new mayors have former provincial or federal political experience
Poke your head into any city hall across the country, and there’s a chance you’ll find a former MP or member of the provincial legislature sitting in the mayor’s chair.
Recent municipal elections in B.C., Ontario and Manitoba saw scores of seasoned politicians making the jump — or the return — to the local level.
Andrea Horwath is among them. The former Ontario NDP leader is the newly elected mayor of Hamilton, Ont.
”Certainly I had accomplishments that really did affect all of Ontario, as an opposition leader,” she told CBC Radio’s The House. ”But the municipal order of government really is the closest to the people.”
Horwath is one of at least a dozen politicians in Ontario alone who previously held provincial or federal seats and last week won their race to become mayor.
But why are so many political veterans taking their talents to the local level?
“I understand that folks may have some cynicism,” Horwath said.
“It’s not that you’re in it for any kind of personal aggrandizement or personal agenda. You’re in it to serve your community.”
‘People have a real stake in you:’ former Calgary mayor
According to one of Canada’s best-known former mayors, there’s simply no better gig around.
“It is the only political job in Canada — the only executive level political job in Canada — where you are actually elected by everyone you serve,” said Naheed Nenshi, who served as mayor of Calgary for just over a decade.
“The prime minister is not directly elected, premiers are not directly elected, but the mayor is,” he explained. “Because of that, people have a real stake in you.”
Even if voters recognize that stake, some might expect mayors to become MPs — and not the other way around.
“I think we’re actually very wrong to see politics as this kind of progression, of city council being the minor leagues and then provincial and federal politics somehow being the major leagues,” said Shannon Sampert, a political analyst and columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Sampert — who just helped guide new Winnipeg mayor Scott Gillingham’s campaign to victory — is also quick to push back on the idea that politicians hopping from campaign to campaign could be looked down upon.
“I think that we need to think that being a career politician isn’t necessarily bad,” she said. “I think you have a best-before date … constituents will let you know when they’re sick of you as well.”
MPs can face long periods away from home, election uncertainty
Former Conservative MP Alex Nuttall, just elected mayor of Barrie, Ont., is one of several federal representatives who chose to leave Ottawa and switch to municipal politics. Previously a Barrie city councillor, he was first elected MP in 2015 but declined to run again in 2019, opting to spend more time with his family.
“When I made that decision, it was one that I didn’t take lightly,” he told The House.
Nuttall’s father recently dug up an old hockey card from when the mayor-elect was 13 years old.
“And on the back of my hockey card, my future ambitions were to become a member of Parliament.”
Nuttall admits that dream job came with plenty of challenges.
“When you’re elected as a member of Parliament, and really any position — it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle, right? It’s most severe on the federal level,” Nuttall explained.
“I was lucky. I was only a five-hour trip to Ottawa from Barrie. But there were lots of folks who, it’s 12 hours for them to get from their home to Parliament Hill. And you know, that has a humongous effect on family life.”
Ken Boshcoff remembers those personal impacts well. The newly elected mayor of Thunder Bay, Ont., held the job before, back in the 1990s, before becoming a Liberal MP under the minority governments of Paul Martin and Stephen Harper.
“Every day was the possibility of an election,” Boshcoff told The House.
“You know exactly, right now, when the next municipal elections are — in four years. So it truly makes a difference in terms of stability, and your ability to plan and even act as a human. Whereas in federal Parliament, you certainly wouldn’t be buying a car or a house if you were with the government at that time. It was just not doable.”
Taking the parties out of politics
While remaining an MP comes with obstacles, leaving Parliament Hill can also be difficult for some.
“In our research, we found challenges with transitioning to a non-political career,” said Sabreena Delhon of the Samara Centre for Democracy.
The non-partisan group has spent years holding exit interviews with MPs to get a sense of why many choose to move on from federal politics.
“Once you have been a politician, it’s quite difficult for your community to see you as anything else,” Delhon explained.”So a cynical view might be that there’s this insatiable appetite, a narcissism related to being elected. But it might also be that political life has closed other professional doors for you.”
Nuttall, the mayor of Barrie, said he left a successful business career to return to municipal politics.
“I’ve been very blessed in my private sector career,” he said. “And I’m going back to public service, taking a pay cut, and wanting to contribute.”
The former Conservative MP said it can be easier to make that contribution without the partisanship Parliament often brings.
“You take the political parties out of it, and the reality is that there’s a lot more opportunity for consistency, for continuity on the items that are being worked on.”
“I have to admit that when I left municipal politics to become an MPP, one of the things I missed the most was that idea that we’re all in it together and we’re all working from the same space, or the same imperative,” she said.
Whether they make the jump for personal reasons or political reasons, former Calgary mayor Nenshi will tell any veteran-politician-turned-mayor that they made the right choice.
“I always joke — and I’ve been doing it for years — that if the federal government disappeared while we were talking, it would be a week or two before anyone noticed … but if your municipal government were to disappear, you’d have no roads, no parks, no transit, no emergency response,” he said.
“The issues that we are working on at the municipal level are the cool ones, the interesting ones. And I think more and more politicians are figuring out — that’s really where it’s at.”