MONTREAL – He greets perfect strangers as “brother,” is a prolific back-slapper, and he never lets a cabbie drive by without offering an enthusiastic wave.
Some people recoil at being labelled a career politician.
Not Denis Coderre.
The Montreal mayoral candidate revels in it with unapologetic joy. The former federal cabinet minister, who served 16 years in the city as a Liberal MP, has brought his populist style to local politics.
A household name in Quebec and the perceived frontrunner in next week’s municipal vote, Coderre says he never bothered putting up campaign posters because he’s so well-known.
“Signs don’t vote,” the ex-immigration minister recently told residents of a seniors’ home after he was asked why, unlike his rivals, he didn’t have posters up.
“You know me. Why do I need signs?”
The Canadian Press followed Coderre last week to observe a day in the life of a longtime federal politician hoping to ride his high profile into the local mayor’s chair.
He might not have experience in municipal politics but, as he campaigned in a half-dozen boroughs, he repeatedly pointed out that he’s done this before.
The day began with a radio interview and a meeting with business leaders. It ended nearly 15 hours later, just after he shook several hundred hands in a 90-minute span where he systematically worked every table in a banquet hall at an oyster party.
Coderre’s biggest challenge in this campaign, perhaps, is convincing scandal-weary locals that his lengthy political experience goes beyond back-slapping bonhomie and makes him qualified to clean up a city mired in muck.
Two mayors have resigned in scandal since last year. The most recent one, Michael Applebaum, faces criminal charges, including fraud, conspiracy and breach of trust.
Coderre’s first campaign stop came at dawn — a 7 a.m. interview at the CJAD radio station. The interviewer asked him about the top concerns of voters. He listed integrity and corruption.
Then he fielded a caller’s question: How would Coderre convince voters he’s not just the same as all the rest?
In response, Coderre cast himself as an outsider. He is a longtime politician, yes, but one from another level of government. He touted his experience running departments in Ottawa, such as immigration and sports.
During the conversation, he tried appealing to both the office workers and the lunch-bucket crowd. For example, he answered a question about his favourite place to eat by naming a few local restaurants, before adding: “But there’s nothing like a good hot dog at 11 o’clock at night after a game.”
Coderre also balanced humility with confidence when asked about being the presumed frontrunner. He repeated throughout the day that he wasn’t taking anything for granted — but when the interviewer wished him luck, the candidate was already joking about the post-election reality: “You’re stuck with me.”
Coderre made that crack several times during the day. He also promoted his platform, which includes pledges to add more reserved bus lanes across the city and to revitalize the Old Port shoreline to improve waterfront access for the public.
His itinerary took him to three seniors’ homes, where Coderre swooped through each building, making jokes and discussing residents’ concerns about the state of the city.
The former Chretien cabinet minister was warmly received. An employee holding a duster at one stop approached Coderre to tell him he was one of his favourite politicians.
“Good luck,” said another man, clutching the handles of a walker as Coderre walked by. “We’ll say a little prayer for you.”
But even though polls have suggested Coderre has a comfortable lead over other top candidates — like the upstart Melanie Joly, longtime city-hall opposition figure Richard Bergeron and economist Marcel Cote — he has faced plenty of criticism.
A persistent theme of critics is that he hasn’t shown much knowledge of local issues.
He scored 58 per cent on a La Presse newspaper quiz about Montreal, with questions about things like the cost of a bus pass and the city snow-clearing budget. His opponents hardly did any better, with scores also ranging from 58 to 66 per cent.
Last week, one detractor writing in La Presse said there are two types of politicians: Some have ideas first, and enter politics to advance them. Others enter politics first, then scrounge around for ideas only to “stay in the game,” he said.
He said that if Montrealers want someone who seems nice and shakes hands and smiles for photos, what they’re looking for is a “mascot.” Coderre’s photo was splashed above the piece.
Rivals have also attacked him since a study of political donation records by The Canadian Press found that more than $46,000 over two decades went to the Liberals in his federal riding from people and companies targeted by Quebec’s corruption investigations.
Coderre has repeatedly pointed out over the years that he’s never been accused of doing anything wrong and, ever since the sponsorship scandal, has been the victim of unfair attempts to tie him to other peoples’ misdeeds.
He has also defended his slate of candidates amid accusations that too many are tied to the former ruling party, Union Montreal, which has been disbanded because of the corruption scandals.
“To play guilty by association, I don’t think people buy that,” he said, adding that one of his promises is to create a new inspector-general position to weed out corruption at city hall.
Coderre says his slate comprises 70 per cent political newcomers.
Several of the people he met, however, expressed reluctance to trust any mayoral candidate, including him.
“He seems very nice, but he’s a true politician,” said Nathalie Samson, just after Coderre introduced himself to her and patted her shoulder during the oyster party in Montreal’s upper-class Outremont borough.
“For sure, he’s a man who has lot of social skills and he has an answer for everything, but I’m still skeptical.”
Another attendee described Coderre as a good “facade,” but said he had concerns about his entourage.
“Personally, I don’t like his team because it’s full of people who were in the old administration,” said Guy Germain.
“I would like to have new blood.”
Opposition to Coderre was expressed much more crudely last week, when one of his borough campaign offices was vandalized with its windows smashed.
His campaign launch earlier this year was also marred by protesters trying to shout him down, partly over his former Liberal government’s lack of funding for social housing.
In Ottawa, Coderre developed a reputation as a publicity-hungry scrapper who had his eye on the Liberal leadership.
He came close to running in 2006. As Liberals jockeyed to replace Paul Martin, Coderre said he was seriously considering a run because it was a francophone’s time to lead.
Soon thereafter, upon realizing he couldn’t win, it turned into Michael Ignatieff’s time. Coderre became national campaign co-chairman for the non-francophone, Toronto MP.
Ignatieff has since gone back to teaching. Coderre is still a politician, and more famous than ever.
Over the years, he has built a large online following — and more than 113,000 Twitter followers — with his prolific commentary on any range of issues and his quasi-play-by-play tweeting of Montreal Canadiens hockey games.
He is so well known in Quebec that, in a popular Radio-Canada cartoon show, Coderre is one of the main characters alongside major party leaders, foreign heads of government, and the pope and Queen.
One of Coderre’s closest aides from his years as an MP said he has a knack with people, whether he’s chatting with a taxi driver or a diplomat.
Sylvia Lo Bianco, who’s now running for a council seat under Coderre’s banner, admits he left a perplexing first impression when they initially met, a couple of years before he became an MP.
“He gives me his card and says, ‘I am Denis Coderre, your humble servant,’ and he bows,” she said, recalling the introduction at a Liberal party office.
“And I looked at him and said, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”
But she quickly became a fan of a man she now describes as a mentor. Lo Bianco said she was bowled over by his organizational skills during the 1995 Quebec referendum campaign.
A lifelong political creature, Coderre says he got his first taste of politics at five years old when an exhausted teacher desperately sought a way to rein in her overly energetic student.
“I was truly hyperactive,” Coderre said.
“There was no Ritalin.”
She asked the young Coderre to recite a poem in front of the class but instead, he says, he delivered a speech. His teacher turned it into a weekly routine and he says he earned himself the title of class president.
More than 40 years later, his daily doses of public speaking have made him easily recognizable to Montrealers. A recent poll suggested he is known by 82 per cent of the city’s residents.
But, to hear him tell it, that’s not enough: “I have to work because there’s 18 per cent who don’t know me,” he said with a grin.
He recently put that notoriety to the test as he parked himself at the edge of a busy suburban roundabout during rush hour, enthusiastically waving and giving the thumbs-up to passing motorists.
During the hour-long stunt in a stiff wind, he stood beside a sign that pledged that he would ease traffic congestion, if elected.
Dozens of motorists honked their horns with approval. Some stopped just to snap photos of Coderre.
And at least one man drove around the roundabout a second time to make sure it was really him.
“A sign doesn’t vote,” Coderre said later in the day.
“But I didn’t say we wouldn’t have any visibility.”
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