Former Liberal MP Mike Savage front-runner in race

HALIFAX – As of Saturday, the largest city in Atlantic Canada will have a new mayor.

And if the polls are right, former Liberal MP Mike Savage — son of former Nova Scotia premier John Savage — will soon be wearing the chain of office for the Halifax Regional Municipality.

Despite his well-known political lineage, the candidate’s entrance into the election race eight months ago was far from a foregone conclusion.

Savage, the MP for Dartmouth-Cole Harbour for seven years until his defeat in the May 2011 election, admits he had not given a thought to becoming mayor until friends and colleagues started an informal recruitment campaign.

Still, the decision to run did not come easily, he says.

“It took a lot of people talking to me and sharing ideas about what kind of qualities I might have,” he says, adding that former federal NDP Leader Alexa McDonough was among those who made a persuasive case.

“It wasn’t something that I jumped at. It’s something that I came at slowly because it wasn’t something I’d considered before.”

However, Savage is no reluctant candidate.

He has municipal politics in his veins. His father, best known for his ill-fated bid to stamp out political patronage in Nova Scotia, was also mayor of Dartmouth in the late 1980s, years before it was amalgamated with neighbouring Halifax.

“He has enormous name recognition,” says Jack Novack, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax who is an expert on local government. “When people go into the booth or vote electronically, that name is going to stand out right away.”

This helps explain why Savage’s popularity was on the rise even before the incumbent mayor, Peter Kelly, announced he was dropping out of the race amid allegations he mishandled his role as executor of a friend’s will.

The bombshell announcement was easily the defining moment of the campaign, coming only two weeks after Savage entered the race to lead the sprawling municipality of 370,000.

“As soon as Peter Kelly decided not to run, then it became about the future and not the past,” said Novack, adding that Savage adopted a classic front-runner strategy, leading a careful, glitch-free campaign.

Novack says Savage has been too careful, failing to inspire voters with a clear vision for the region’s future.

But the professor levelled the same criticism at Savage’s five, lesser-known rivals: entrepreneur Fred Connors, software developer Aaron Eisses, comedian Steve Mackie, retired police officer Tom Martin and dietary aide Robert McCormack.

Part of the problem, Novack says, is that Kelly’s sudden departure from the race left an issue vacuum that was never filled.

“People kind of skirted around the issues,” he says. “I haven’t really seen someone come out and describe a future state that embodies a vision and passion of what we’re going to be … what we’re going to look like.”

Amalgamation, urban sprawl, tax reform, public transit, economic development and government secrecy were all discussed at length during a dozen mayoral debates.

But it’s telling that the only real excitement has been generated by Tuxedo Stan, a pudgy black-and-white cat whose owners have mounted a campaign to raise awareness about stray cats in the port city.

Tuxedo Stan has been endorsed by talk show hosts Anderson Cooper and Ellen DeGeneres. The feline’s Facebook page has 9,000 likes, Savage’s has 347.

One candidate for council recently tweeted: “I’m just glad I’m not running against Tuxedo Stan. He is everywhere these days.”

During his three terms in Ottawa, Savage made a name for himself as a hard-working MP who spent three years working with the human resources committee to draft a plan to fight poverty. The federal government effectively ignored the report.

Savage, a soft-spoken man not given to bombast or flights of rhetoric, said the government’s move last year was an “abdication of responsibility.”

With the sting of that rejection still fresh, Savage says one of his top priorities if elected is creating an anti-poverty strategy for Halifax.

He also says he wants to create a more open and transparent government by shedding the previous council’s penchant for in-camera meetings and secret deals that violated the city’s charter.

As well, the former businessman — he once worked for Nova Scotia Power Inc. and was a vice-president at an executive search firm and a marketing company — says he would focus on economic development, a task made easier by Ottawa’s decision to award a $25-billion shipbuilding contract to the Halifax Shipyard.

More importantly, Savage says a “dysfunctional” council would be transformed into a collegial one.

Savage says that unlike the crusading style of his father, he is “more able to broker solutions, to find compromise with people.”

“Maybe (I’m) a little bit less in a hurry in some ways. But I’m still able to move the ball on things to find ways to get stuff done.”

As the municipal campaign winds down, Savage says the race has been a “serious grind.”

Unlike federal campaigns, which typically last six weeks or less, most of the municipal candidates have been knocking on doors for months.

“This has been a long, sustained conversation with the community about what matters to them,” says Savage. “It’s been quite different.”

Savage, 52, says his bid has also received support from across the political spectrum, marking another contrast with federal politics. Among his backers are Halifax NDP MP Megan Leslie, former provincial Tory cabinet minister Tim Olive and Elizabeth May, leader of the Green party.