Vol. 20 No. 16 • April 17 - 23, 2014 In Our 17th Year Serving Greater Hamilton
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The Chances For Change

by Don McLean
January 2 - 8, 2014
Removing incumbents from city council is notoriously difficult, but this year’s civic elections could result in substantial change. One councillor has already declared he’s not running, at least one or two are headed for the mayor’s race, and three others could be defeated in their ward races. Population growth and the turnout on election day could also play important roles.

    At least one ward seat is open with Russ Powers bowing out in Dundas – a promise he made after the last election. Brian McHattie’s vow to go after the mayor’s job also opens up ward one, and if Lloyd Ferguson jumps into that race as well, the Ancaster seat becomes available to a new face.

    And with Fred Eisenberger vowing to trying again, and no retirement plans evident yet from Mayor Bratina, other sitting councillors could see an opportunity to come out on top of a multi–candidate race. With three strong candidates in 2010, the prize was taken with just over a third of the votes cast.

    Five councillors have held their seats for more than a decade and unseating incumbents is notoriously difficult, but voting trends over the last three elections suggest that even here, some change is possible. Two are gaining strength, but the popularity of the other three is slipping.

    Tom Jackson is the longest–sitting councillor with 25 years under his belt. He pulled in three–quarters of the votes in his ward six constituency in both the 2003 and 2006 elections, but slipped to 55 percent in 2010. Perhaps more significantly the actual number of people voting for Jackson has gone from 9000 in 2003 to 6560 in the most recent election, with nearly 5400 voters selecting one of his opponents.

    On the other hand, none of those alternative candidates was able to collect even 15 percent of the vote, leaving Jackson a very comfortable margin of victory. Change in ward six will require further erosion in his support, plus consolidation of opposition votes behind a strong alternative, and likely some improvement in voter turnout.

Just 40.5 per centof the voting list cast ballots in the last election. That was up marginally from 37 and 38 percent in the two previous contests. The participation rate was as low as 31 percent in ward three, but failed to exceed 46 percent in any ward right across the city, so a candidate who figures out how to change this pattern could significantly improve his or her chances.

    A second long–serving councillor showing sharply declining support is Bernie Morelli, the 23–year occupant of the ward three seat. The number of voters selecting him fell from 4800 in 2003 to under 3200 in 2010, with more than 55 percent of voters choosing one of his opponents. But again, the strongest of those was only able to garner 24 percent against Morelli’s 45 percent, so he would have to face some combination of the same changes that might unseat Jackson, along with a widespread conclusion that they are both past their due date.

    The numbers also suggest that at least one other incumbent is vulnerable. Brad Clark won a two–person race for the ward nine seat seven years ago by less than 100 votes. In 2010 his total climbed by 60 votes but he took only 45 percent of a growing populace – and one that is continuing to expand rapidly. His strongest opponent in the last election got 31 percent.

    The number of votes cast for Chad Collins (first elected in 1995) have also declined in the last three elections – from 8077 to 6876, but he still took two–thirds of ballots cast in ward five so a great deal of change will have to take place among his voters to force a change.

    A fourth councillor who’s been an incumbent for more than three elections is Sam Merulla, and his support has been climbing – from just over 5000 in 2003 to nearly 6800 in the last election. And in case one reads too much into changes over time, support for Russ Powers – the fifth long–sitting councillor – went from 5184 to 2667 but then climbed back up to 4884.

    Scott Duvall, Terry Whitehead and Maria Pearson – as well as Brian McHattie and Lloyd Ferguson – got on council in 2003 or 2006 and all seem to be increasing or at least holding their votes. In the last contest, Duvall scored lowest among them attracting a little less than 58 percent of ward seven voters.

    Three others joined council for the first time in 2010 – Judi Partridge, Brenda Johnson and Jason Farr – all with less than 10 percent more votes than their leading opponent, but the considerable advantages of incumbency usually ensures at least one more victory. The wild card for all three is rapid change in their ward populations, especially for Johnson in Binbrook.

    The last few elections suggest incumbency for Hamilton mayors may be a liability – with a change in every election since amalgamation. General discontent and anger with city council seems to fall primarily on the head of the mayor, perhaps because the specific roles of individual councillors gain less voter attention except as the politician who responded helpfully to a strictly personal or local matter.

    The final councillor, Robert Pasuta, was acclaimed in 2010, which suggests there’s little likelihood of a change in ward fourteen. Acclamations are rare. The last one was in 2003 when no one opposed Dave Mitchell. He was subsequently the only incumbent defeated in 2010. V
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