Full disclosure: In 2003 I ran for Hamilton City Council in Ward 3. I worked hard, but in the end the voters did not share my enthusiasm for my campaign. But I did learn a lot so here are some suggestions for anybody thinking of running.

THE POWER OF INCUMBENCY In each the last three municipal elections only one sitting Hamilton councillor went down to defeat. In those three elections combined, 124 people ran against sitting councillors, meaning the chances of a challenger defeating a sitting councillor statistically is about two and a half percent. This is a distortion, of course, because a challenger who is well-known in the community has a better chance of winning. Brian McHattie, Branda Johnson and Brad Clark are three examples of candidates who had a background of community activism and who were able to unseat incumbents. But there is no question name recognition is a major factor in elections where typically less than 40 per cent of the population bothers to vote. Incumbents have other advantages as well. Their office budgets allow them to send out newsletters periodically to their constituents. As well there is the personal touch that comes with councillors attending neighbourhood meetings and solving problems for individual constituents. Finally as a member of council, incumbents enjoy regular media coverage which reinforces their status as local celebrities of a sort.

MONEY Social media notwithstanding, you need money to run a successful campaign. In the last municipal election the successful candidates averaged just over $19,000 in campaign spending. The lowest spender was McHattie at $7347, the highest was Tom Jackson who raised a whopping $53,836. The campaign spending limit for his ward was $29,000, enabling Jackson to throw an $18,000 thank you party for supporters, since such events are not subject to campaign spending limits. Speaking of money, don’t listen to people who assure candidates they won’t have to reach into their own pockets to finance their campaigns. A few incumbents are able to attract sufficient donations to cover costs; but in the 2010 election 7 of the winners substantially contributed to their own campaigns— averaging about $6,600 per campaign. Councillor Judi Partridge bankrolled the entire cost of her $7400 campaign, Brenda Johnson contributed almost half of the $19,000 she spent in defeating Dave Mitchell; and Councillors Powers, Collins, Merulla and Morelli dug deep, averaging almost $7,000 each. It’s much more costly to run a mayoralty campaign. In 2010 the three leading candidates for mayor spent a combined $425, 000 ranging from $224,000 for Larry DiIanni to $93,000 for Fred Eisenberger. The winner, Bob Bratina spent $103,000. Despite the disparity in spending, all three mayoralty candidates shared one thing in common— they all ran deficits . The Bratina campaign finished $41,000 short and Di Ianni’s defecit was $53,000. Fred Eisenberger personally contributed $40,000 to his campaign which otherwise would have been $45,000 in the hole. And try raising money to bail out a failed campaign.

TACTICS Unless you are a star candidate, you will not succeed positioning yourself as simply an attractive alternative to the incumbent. You are in effect asking the voters to fire somebody they had previously supported—you have to give them a reason. That means being critical of your opponent’s record and engaging in vigorous debate in all-candidate meetings. You have to close the deal with the voting public. Like it or not you have to get the elbows up a bit, and that means, for polite Canadians, getting out of your comfort zone. And, by the way, if you are having trouble coming up with reasons why the incumbent should go, maybe they shouldn’t.

THE PAY The last return on councillor remuneration shows them getting just under $70,000 per year. Because they get 1/3 tax free, it works out to the same take home as somebody earning $86,000 per year. The Mayor gets $118,000 which applying the same tax formula is equivalent to a salary of $157,000. Councillors contribute to the OMERS pension fund which is a defined benefit plan paying 2 percent per year for a councillor’s best five years. So a 25 year councillor like Tom Jackson could collect a pension equal to 50 percent or more of his last five years’ salary. However the amount of salary that is pensionable is discounted to compensate for the tax free portion making the pension calculation at current levels at $46,000 per year. Under provincial law council must vote at the beginning of each term whether to continue with the one-third tax-free option.

John Best has had a lengthy media management career, in television and radio and now print. As Vice President, News at CHCH in Hamilton, John oversaw a significant expansion of the news operation. He founded Independent Satellite News, Canada’s only television news service providing national content to Canadian independent TV stations. John is a frequent political commentator on radio and television, a documentary producer and author of a book and numerous articles on historical and political subjects. John is a past recipient of the New York Festival’s award for writing in the International TV category.

One Comment to: Thinking of running for office? Here are some tips.

  1. Paul

    February 10th, 2014

    Yeah, it’s not great money considering that council members are working practically all the time. That said, John, you might have separated the “wheat from the chaff” in terms of candidates running. Half to three quarters of them are frivolous candidacies, i.e., they decide to run a couple of days before nominations close because they read a newspaper article about it, or their wives or husbands told them they’d be good at it “and we could use the extra money,” or something along that line. Still, it’s heartening to know that the system successfully weeds out the dilettantes. Public service at any level is not something to be taken lightly.


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