In one way or another, Matt Jelly has been involved in Hamilton civic politics for the last dozen years whether as a blogger of local politics, co–hosting a twice–weekly morning show or standing for municipal office. And while he says he wonders how successful he’s been, he’s View’s Reader’s Choice for Best Activist.
Jelly says he’s been paying attention to city hall politics since he was 18 but “got more engaged” when he ran for mayor when he was 21. “That was kind of an initiation for me,” he says in an interview. And while he came in last in that 2003 municipal race, “it was a good experience for me.”
If he has one regret about that race and some of the ones that have followed since, including the last two years ago, it’s that it centred on one issue to the exclusion of many others. In the case of 2003, it was Red Hill Creek. “I would have preferred to discuss more issues, but in Hamilton we seem to get focused on just one issue.” And while he’s also aware Hamilton is not alone amongst other municipalities for falling into the one–issue campaign trap, he doesn’t think its helping increase voter turnout.
As a resident in a downtown area that has low voter turnout, he admits he’s thought about the issue a lot. Average voters, he says, don’t see “people like themselves represented in politics.” We need people to run for office who aren’t necessarily lawyers, as well as other groups often over–represented in political life, he adds. While he admits, “it’s harder to win if you’re not well–funded,” it’s a good experience and it allows the voter a more interesting race to follow and more ideas to choose from.
It’s one of the reasons he ran in the heavily contested Ward 2 race in 2010. In a field of just over 20 candidates, he managed to place second. Again, it was another learning experience. More importantly, he says, the large number of candidates allowed “for a lot of interesting ideas to come out.”
Without political engagement and turnout, he says, we’re allowing ourselves to be governed by people who may not see the issues of concern to us as being relevant to them. Worse still, he says, there are some politicians who take advantage of that low turnout. “The reason our system gets broken down is because people are turning away,” he says. “We need to stop treating political engagement or civic interest as a weird thing.”
Jelly credits his high school politics teacher back in Grade 11 or 12 with sparking his own interest in civic affairs. That class was arranged in a “parliamentary fashion” and the teacher encouraged all students to debate the issues. This teacher encouraged him to start paying attention to what was happening in his city, he says. Another factor was a personal trait of “always questioning authority.”
Because of his second–place finish last time, it’s not a surprise people are asking whether he’ll run again in 2014. “It’s hard to say whether I’ll run again…But I’m pretty sure I won’t be running in the next election,” he says. Much of it comes down to timing. Right now, he says he wants to focus more on his full–time career as a graphic designer. That doesn’t mean he’s given up on political aspirations; it just means he likely won’t be a candidate in the next municipal race.
It also doesn’t mean he’s not going to be involved in civic engagement or political activism, depending upon how you define his contribution. He’ll still be doing his twice–weekly morning show on CHMU, which he’s been doing since January. Although he’s been involved in community radio in one way or another since his teens, “this is the most fulfilling experience I’ve had with it.” Co–hosting this show allows him to debate the issues with local politicians and civic leaders while still allowing for a show that engages listeners.
He’ll also continue to blog, although the format may change. There are plans, he says, to combine a blog with the radio show. Because of his focus on that show, he says, he hasn’t posted a lot on his http://mattjelly.wordpress.com/ blog in the last six months. (But that blog still stands as a primer of the many issues he’s devoted his energy to over the years.)
“Everyday I’m thinking about politics in one way or another. It’s hard not to be,” he says. “At times it feels like a full time job in itself.” One way he’s still involved in real–time engagement is by serving as president of the Central Neighbourhood Association, which serves the western end of downtown Hamilton. It’s a diverse neighbourhood, he says, both in terms of the issues and the residents.
One of those issues is building a new stadium for a football team. Jelly has been outspoken “from the start” on a new stadium. He says he can see better ways to spend $150 million such as cleaning up Randall Reef in the Hamilton harbour, an issue that’s been ignored by successive governments for nearly two decades. “Our political leaders seem to lose focus of the real issues,” he says. “They’re willing to spend $150 million on a stadium for football, but we’re not looking at cleaning up the harbour, which would cost about the same.”
City council has said it wants Hamilton to be the best place to live, work and play but until we get serious about quality of life and deal with outstanding environmental problems, he says, “it’s just a joke.”
Related is how we feel about Hamilton. Often times, he says, we look at it in terms of how those outside the city feel about Hamilton, “when what we should look at is how we feel about ourselves.” Despite some of the problems he sees, Jelly says he “wouldn’t stay in Hamilton if I didn’t think we were improving.”
He’s just not sure how successful he’s been in raising the issues. “I’m not sure I’ve been horribly successful in my activism,” he says. “Part of it is the way I’ve communicated and part of it is the intractable nature of local politics in Hamilton.” But judging by the fact he won in the fill in category for Best Activist, he may be selling his contribution short.
With his interest in Hamilton’s civic life, you can be sure he’ll still be a thorn in the side of some political leaders for many years to come. “I want to be an advocate for issues that don’t get enough play. That’s the stuff that makes me happy,” he says.V