Remembering Montreal mayoral candidate Marcel Côté

A man the city still needed died too soon, writes Martin Patriquin

Economist and businessman Marcel Côté announces he is running for mayor of Montreal during a news conference Wednesday, July 3, 2013 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Marcel Côté announces he is running for mayor of Montreal during a news conference on July 3, 2013 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

I first met Marcel Côté, perhaps the oddest mainstream candidate to run for mayor in Montreal’s grand history of odd mayors, at McClean’s Pub on Peel, at the exact moment when I and a friend were talking about how his campaign was doomed. It was Oct. 23, 10 days before Coalition Montréal Marcel Côté would go down in flames. Côté, we commiserated, had sadly proven how sound bites and polish are crucial to any sizable election campaign. To his great credit but to the detriment of his would-be political career, Côté was magnificently terrible with both.

At one point I saw a flash of grey hair dash up the stairs to McClean’s overflow room, followed by a woman who was at least 30 years younger and twice as slow, juggling files, a cellphone and a large purse as she attempted to follow.

“That was Marcel Côté,” I said to my friend.

Côté came down the stairs about two minutes later. We invited him to sit down, and for the next two hours we talked over many pints about Montreal. He told one anecdote about the left-lane closure of eastbound Boulevard René-Lévesque—one of the city’s busiest arteries had been closed and left barren for several months, for no visibly identifiable reason—to illustrate the often-screwball nature of road repairs in his beloved city. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he told me, looking less angry than bewildered that anything could possibly be operated so inefficiently.

He wasn’t bitching, mind you: he used it as an example of how things must change—and would change in 10 days, because he was going to win the election. “Mélanie Joly”—one of his opponents, along with Denis Coderre—“has no ground game,” he said. His party had the vote harvesting machinery of Vision Montréal, the municipal party that Côté had coaxed into his coalition. He had sovereignist luminary Louise Harel in the east and Marvin Rotrand, that federalist mensch from Snowdon, in the west. He’d united the un-unitable, and in 10 days he was going to perform another seemingly impossible feat. A near dead-ringer for Johnny Carson, Côté gave me a Johnny-like smile, as though he didn’t entirely believe his own delusion.

Marcel Côté died suddenly and tragically this weekend, “a young man of 71 years of age,” as Harel put it pitch perfectly in La Presse this week. He deserved another two decades, at least, if only because Montreal still needed him so.

I don’t know if Côté should have been mayor, or if his restlessness would have been too constrained by the realities of that office. Montreal is an unruly beast on a good day, separated into highly decentralized 19 boroughs, four levels of government (borough councillor, borough mayor, municipal councillor, municipal mayor) and 105 elected representatives, more than Toronto and the five boroughs of New York combined. The perpetual lane blockage on René-Lévesque would be visited upon him tenfold, every single day. Denis Coderre has already proven it: governing present-day Montreal takes an outsized personality and a monstrous political appetite. Côté had neither.

What he had was an engaged brain that flung out ideas at an exhausting pace. In 1975, he founded management consulting firm SECOR, which was the incarnation of his devotion to efficiency. At the same time, this supposedly business-first economist was a member of several architecture and heritage groups, who often decry big business’s influence on Montreal’s landscape. In 2012, he railed against the spectre of luxury condos competing with the decidedly modest heights of Mont Royal. “What do we want as a symbol of our city, office towers or our Montréal?” he asked in the newspaper 24h. “The rich all pay for a view of the mountain, but block it for everyone else.”

His ability to engage in this kind of contradiction would seem to have made him the perfect candidate to bridge the barely concealed federalist-sovereignist divide within Montreal politics. In theory, anyway, cities should be largely oblivious to the politics of the state in which they reside, if only because garbage collection, snow removal and swimming pool management are all-consuming (if mundane) tasks. But Quebec politics have long permeated this island. The forced mergers of 2000, foisted on Montreal by a PQ government, and the ensuing partial demergers foolishly allowed by the subsequent Liberal government, are but one unfortunate by-product of this.

Former PQ cabinet minister Louise Harel was all too aware of this, and as leader of Vision Montréal she sagely realized that she didn’t have a hope in Hades of getting anglophone Montreal support. People like Marvin Rotrand, meanwhile, realized anglo types wouldn’t stand a chance outside the sometimes cloistered English boroughs in the western part of the city. Côté, a federalist himself, seemed the perfect fit. He became the preferred candidate of Montreal’s business community even before he declared his candidacy.

Harel can barely speak English. Rotrand’s French, while grammatically correct, is almost comically accented by his Snowdonese English. Both found a home in Coalition Montréal. The idea was to, if not forget about Quebec often-blinkered politics, at least put them aside for the sake of Montreal’s roughly two million residents. He wrote his platform with future Péquiste candidate Veronique Fournier. He appeared with Harel and Rotrand at campaign stops, never acknowledging the resolutely weird quality of this relationship.

He lost, badly. The Coalition started off as the natural second choice to the Coderre juggernaut, and ended in third place behind the party formed by fellow political neophyte Mélanie Joly. Only six Coalition candidates won—three federalists, three sovereignists. Côté didn’t win his own seat. I asked 34-year-old Coalition candidate Kristi de Bonville why the party didn’t fare well. She says Côté was never able to recover from a robocall scandal in the early days of the campaign, in which the Coalition made automated calls to voters without identifying the party. Though fewer than 1,000 calls were made, his opposition pounced.

A politician, she says, would probably have been able to navigate out of the crisis, but not Côté. “He said it was his mistake, that he should’ve listened to the calls first,” she says. “After that, we’d do door-to-door and people wouldn’t have anything good to say about him. We’d come back to campaign headquarters, defeated, and Marcel would get up and make us believe in him all over again.” Coderre recognized Côté’s abilities as a thinker. To the mayor’s great credit, he made Côté an adviser to the city’s president of the executive committee.

Côté’s last piece of writing was published the day after he died, in La Presse. In it, he aimed his pen at the proposed light-rail project between Montreal and its suburbs on the south shore. He argued an LRT train would be a licence for off-island urban sprawl, if only because it would make getting to and from the city too convenient. Suburbanites, he implied, can’t be too confortable. Better to spend the money on something worthwhile—like the Metro.

A true Montrealer, even in death. Rest well, Marcel.