Culture of incumbency a tough stronghold to crack

The View from Bloor West

There must be a municipal election happening soon.

In the past few months, local city councillor Bill Saundercook has, coincidentally, distributed two self-serving newsletters to every household in Ward 13 in advance of the Oct. 25 vote.

These sorts of newsletters, paid for by taxpayers and commonly called “householders,” shamelessly promote the activities of city councillors using big print and lots of photographs. In principle, there’s nothing inherently wrong with householders but it’s the very deliberate timing of them that gets the blood boiling.

Saundercook’s strategy of using householders on the eve of an election to promote his community work is commonplace among councillors seeking re-election. By getting them into your mailbox in advance of a Sept. 1 deadline (after which they’re prohibited under election financing rules), the incumbent enjoys a tactical advantage that his or her opponents simply can’t match.

It’s just another example of how the culture of incumbency works to the advantage of elected representatives like Saundercook who, the longer they’re at city hall, the more it seems they wrap themselves in the cloak of entitlement.

In Saundercook’s case it’s been 22 years — and counting — of elected service, a time split between the old and dysfunctional York council and, more recently, on Toronto council. The phrase “best before date” is meaningless to this category of professional politicians who scarcely remember a working life prior to entering elected public office.

If, as seems likely, he is re-elected over a field of unknowns on Oct. 25, the next four years could, finally, be Saundercook’s last stand. At an election meeting in 2006 he was asked how much longer he saw himself on city council. Eight years, he replied then. By this calculation and for those residents who look forward to the end of Saundercook’s reign over this part of west Toronto, there is indeed light at the end of the long, dark tunnel.

Being the survivalist he is, the wily veteran is leaving nothing to chance this time ’round. Unlike the past couple of elections when his campaign headquarters was located somewhere behind Joe’s Barber Shop on Jane Street, this time Saundercook has actually leased himself a prominent campaign office on pricey Bloor Street West where fair market rent is certain to take a big chunk out of his election budget which, for all candidates, is about $30,000 in Ward 13.

How does he do it? How does Saundercook manage to hang on, election after election (with the notable exception of losing to David Miller in 2000)?

There are many theories, but the one with the strongest legs is that Saundercook, over his time on Toronto council, has almost never needed to take a forceful position on any issue.

How so? Because in Ward 13 there haven’t been any outstanding issues over the past decade and longer that have successfully engaged all the good folks of Bloor West Village, Swansea, the Junction, Baby Point, Old Mill and the assorted other small neighbourhoods that together make up the ward.

The result is that Saundercook seldom finds himself forced to take a position on an issue in which he must defend his actions with either reason or passion or both, before a jury of voters from all corners of the ward.

In short, Bill Saundercook wins by default. He plays the mushy middle of Ward 13 politics like a maestro conductor performing a Tchaikovsky dirge.

Sooner or later most of the audience nods off and no one’s left the wiser.

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By: Greg Hamara
Posted: Nov 2 2010 11:44 am
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto