MONTREAL – A number of Quebec politicians have lately been forced to deflect allegations of corruption. Now a Montreal mayoral candidate is deflecting allegations that he’s too English for the job.
Michael Applebaum told reporters Wednesday that he intends to run for interim mayor and promises that, if he wins, he won’t be a candidate in the 2013 election.
There have been suggestions in local media, quoting anonymous members of his longtime party, that Applebaum wasn’t an ideal mayoral candidate because of his imperfect French and heavy accent.
While Montreal has a large English-speaking population, it has been precisely one century since the city last had an anglophone mayor.
Applebaum was the city’s former No. 2 politician behind the recently departed Gerald Tremblay and remains mayor of Montreal’s largest borough. But he was passed over by his party as it searched for a temporary replacement for Tremblay and he quit the party, citing policy differences.
He announced his intention Wednesday to run as an independent candidate. At that news conference, he was asked about his perceived linguistic handicap. The question was: What would Applebaum say to people who don’t want an anglophone mayor?
“Yes, I’m an anglophone,” he replied, speaking in French.
“Yes, I make mistakes from time to time. Yes, I have an accent that some people might even find charming.
“I was born here. I am a Quebecer. I’m proud of being able to work in French. Now I think we should focus on other things.”
If Anglophones have traditionally held considerable power in Quebec’s business community, the political and demographic clout has belonged to the French.
Some pillars of Quebec governance, such as the Caisse de depot pension fund, were even built around the idea of using the state to address that imbalance in the boardrooms.
Anglos did hold several cabinet positions in the recent Charest government including justice, immigration, environment and aboriginal affairs.
But one political commentator suggested Wednesday that there’s a limit to what English-speaking Quebecers can aspire to in politics.
Longtime Montreal Gazette political columnist Don Macpherson weighed in on the issue in a blog post. He called Applebaum’s French acceptable and questioned whether his perceived handicap is his accent or if it his English name and that French isn’t his mother tongue.
He noted that 40 per cent of Montrealers are non-francophones but that the city had not had a non-francophone mayor since 1912. He pointed out that Anglos tend not to have senior cabinet positions at the provincial level, either.
“There’s a linguistic glass ceiling in politics in Montreal, as there is in Quebec as a whole,” Macpherson wrote.
“Applebaum’s election as mayor … wouldn’t shatter the glass ceiling. But symbolically, at least, it might put a crack in it.”
The interim mayor will be elected at a council meeting Friday.
A key dynamic in that vote is whether the city’s governing party, Applebaum’s old party, can maintain some unity in the fallout from a corruption scandal.
The embattled party — named Union Montreal — has begun to splinter.
Applebaum, who resigned as chairman of the city’s executive committee last week, said that five other people had joined him in bolting from the caucus of Union Montreal.
The party has been in turmoil since Tremblay’s resignation last week.
The attempt to pick a new mayor created a rift, as Applebaum was passed over in favour of another candidate. He cast his departure as a matter of principle, accusing his former allies of preparing unreasonable tax increases and of suppressing embarrassing documents.
Now he’s poised to challenge them.
When city council picks an interim mayor on Friday, Applebaum appears set to seek support from both the governing party and opposition ones.
His chief rival, Richard Deschamps, held his own news conference Wednesday surrounded by a number of caucus members to demonstrate that he still has strong support.
“Our caucus is more united that ever,” he said.
He appears to have budged on the tax issue, and agrees with Applebaum that a property-tax increase be limited to no more than 2.2 per cent.
The administration has also released a series of embarrassing reports, after being publicly pressured to do so by Applebaum, that suggest the city knew years ago that Montrealers were getting gouged by a closed construction market.
Applebaum now says that what the city needs is an interim mayor who doesn’t fall under any political banner. Several people who quit the ruling party said they’ll support Applebaum’s candidacy.
“I’ve seen his work ethic, I’ve seen his politics, I’ve seen his love for Montreal,” said Alain Tasse, a municipal councillor from Verdun who quit Union Montreal.
Tasse said he has no problem with Deschamps and wants to continue to work with him. But given the current climate, having an independent mayor and a coalition executive committee is the way to go, he said.
Opposition leader Louise Harel said she would hold a caucus meeting of her fellow Vision Montreal members on Thursday to discuss whom to support.
Harel said she met with both Applebaum and Deschamps on Wednesday. Harel said her party hasn’t ruled out putting forward a candidate from its own ranks.
City councillors are expected to vote by secret ballot on Friday morning.
As it stands, Union Montreal holds 29 of the 64 seats on council.
Tasse said the winds of change are blowing quickly in Montreal municipal politics. He wouldn’t venture a guess as to who would emerge victorious Friday.
“Every 20 minutes in the last few days, things change,” Tasse said, “so I don’t know.”