Municipal Election 2018

Running in Hamilton: About Our Campaign in Ward 2

I want to see thoughtful, progressive, qualified candidates, especially those from communities who don't see themselves represented today, to use this as a blueprint to start making big plans.

By Cameron Kroetsch
Published November 14, 2018

This article is Part 1 in a series of reflections on Cameron Kroetsch's Ward 2 election campaign. You can also read Part 2 and Part 3.

If you're thinking about running in the next municipal election in Hamilton, please read this. It's part of a series of articles about my campaign and about the recent municipal election that will be coming out over the next little bit through Raise the Hammer.

Cameron Kroetsch campaign photo
Cameron Kroetsch campaign photo

The first article, which is mostly a summary of and reflection on the campaign we ran in Ward 2, will be followed by articles on how money, City Hall, and the media figured into this election, with a final piece on how I think we can and must move forward.

I'm writing this primarily for people who are considering running in the next municipal election and those who are doing postmortem analyses of their own campaigns, but also to push us all to be more engaged when this happens all over again. What I've written needs to be shared and, in my opinion, taken seriously by everyone who values our democracy.

I'm also writing this to shine a light on something that's usually only talked about in back rooms and with great deals of conjecture. These are, for many, stripes earned, secrets to trade, and power to wield. I'm not interested in any of those things. Rather, I think we need to stop hiding and whispering and start talking about this openly.

Some of it this will sound boastful, some self-deprecating, but I've done my best to balance that with honesty. I hope that every candidate who ran in this municipal election will consider sharing their experiences. This city needs every one of us.

And before you shout, "But Cameron, keep all this strategic information to yourself!" - I understand what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. It doesn't mean I'm not going to run again. It means that I was serious when I said I care about transparency and accountability. This is no exception.

Providing Some Context

First, so you understand where this is all coming from, I kept good records, have reliable data and won't say anything I can't back up - either from a first-hand account or through information that our campaign tracked.

I was the fourth person, city-wide, to register on May 1, 2018 and this campaign got going right out of the gate. We didn't waste any time. We began working on our website, photos, and videos as soon as I was legally registered and we spent the provincial election period fine-tuning our basic platform and planning our early campaign schedule.

For most of this campaign, I was supported by a handful of very dedicated volunteers who were each able to put between five and 40 hours a week into this campaign. That was how we did most of what we did.

I was given advice and help from many current and former candidates (at all levels of politics), members of political parties (every major and minor one), politicos, strategists, campaign managers, friends, family, and community organizers. Everyone was generous with their time and I wouldn't have been able to do any of this without their encouragement and honesty.

I ran knowing that I had a full-time job and that it would interfere with this election, which is why I registered on day one, hoping to mitigate that impact.

I knew that it would be almost impossible to keep a work-life-campaign balance, and I was right, and it didn't really work. I was often mentally and/or physically exhausted or preoccupied with things happening at work.

I managed to eat and I made sure to sleep, but only because so many people reminded me to do it or shared harrowing tales of how campaigns had a profoundly negative effect on their physical or mental health.

The Incumbency Advantage

As everyone has been keen to remind me, and which I take no offense at hearing, I was "nobody" before I ran and had a very limited profile in Hamilton. I was new, inexperienced, and going up against an entrenched two-term incumbent. I'm not the first to do this and I won't be the last. I came into this with my eyes wide open.

Simply put: incumbency is real and there's always been a hometown advantage. In an age when political debates impact voting less and technology has replaced so many other ways of direct communication, I'd say this advantage is stronger than ever.

This is especially true if we acknowledge that the "top of the ticket" mayoral race gets most of the attention, leaving races for City Councillor a potentially confusing afterthought in a multi-candidate race, like the one we saw in Ward 2 with eight names on the ballot.

Incumbency comes with huge name recognition and a lot of power. The number of completed projects, road improvements, stop sign and stop light installations, and other infrastructure upgrades that happened during this election year were staggering.

Crews of city workers were shuffled around to accommodate politically-important projects in time for the election (or at least to get them started in time) like the John Street North bike lane, Beasley Park upgrades, and the years-overdue crossing at Main Street East and Ferguson Avenue South.

The incumbent also had the advantage of taking credit for every positive thing that happened during their time in office: housing market upswings, projects completed and championed by community members, and even work done by their political rivals.

And if recent examples aren't convincing enough, we don't have to look too far back to find evidence to underscore the power of incumbency in Hamilton politics.

A good example is the municipal race in Ward 11 in 2010 between Brenda Johnson and David Mitchell, the last time someone beat an entrenched incumbent. Johnson, who is still that ward's councillor, had a strong chance coming into that election, in part because of the widespread controversy surrounding the incumbent.

She won with 42 percent of the vote to Mitchell's 38 percent - a narrow margin of only 245 votes.

Before that, it was the campaign that Brian McHattie ran against Marvin Caplan in 2003 where he won with 58 percent of the vote to Caplan's 31 percent, also aided by a number of rumours that were swirling around about Caplan.

The most important thing for those paying attention to take away from those races, however, is not just that an incumbent was unseated but exactly how it happened (the same way in both cases).

In both races there was a narrow field of only three candidates for voters to choose from and both incumbent councillors were facing scandals of one kind or another, some quite public and acrimonious.

Perhaps more important, were the elections that happened just before the incumbents were unseated. In 2006 and 2000 respectively, other candidates had challenged these same incumbents, Mitchell and Caplan, and had seriously eroded their vote majority. Johnson and McHattie were both successful because the incumbents had been "softened up", so to speak.

My point: beating out an entrenched incumbent is likely a two-term job and probably not possible unless the incumbent is unpopular and you're an established name in the community.

The Big Wins

Incumbency aside, I see this campaign as a success. Not only do I want to share this success with you, but I want to share with you why I think it matters and also why, if you're going to run next time, you should keep some of this in mind.

The Hard Truths

We lost. While there was a clear message sent to the incumbent, who didn't get the majority of votes, we still didn't come as close as I would have liked (I would have liked to have won, in case that wasn't clear). So, despite the big wins, there were some outcomes that weren't great and we made some mistakes.

No Guarantees

Even if I had done everything right, I still may not have beaten the incumbent. The most important takeaways I have from this election, specifically about campaign finances, the media, and the City of Hamilton's official role in the election, will be detailed in the rest of this series and will highlight what I think are the most important but least talked about parts of running a municipal campaign.

We can build each other up as we continue to challenge incumbency in this changing city. And, yes, I do have an agenda: I desperately want to see new faces and hear new voices at City Hall. The job of City Councillor should not be a career: two or three terms is enough. Do your part, help to lift up your neighbours, serve your city, then move on, please.

I hope that the long, possibly too long, lists above gave you a sense of what we did, what we felt good about, and where we could have gone with this campaign. Whether I choose to run in the next election or not, I want every amazing candidate who wants to run, all across the city, to start from where I ended.

I want to see thoughtful, progressive, qualified candidates, especially those from communities who don't see themselves represented today, to use this as a blueprint to start making big plans. And I'm going to keep on insisting that, together, we really can have a better Hamilton.

Cameron Kroetsch moved to Hamilton in 2014. He's a labour relations professional, sometimes writer, and a passionate non-profit sector volunteer who cares about democracy in government and community advocacy. He lives in Corktown (Ward 2) with his partner Derek.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted November 14, 2018 at 16:49:46

Thank you for running and all of your hard work. You make our ward and city better, Cameron.

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By AP (registered) | Posted November 15, 2018 at 08:51:55

Grateful for your campaign and looking forward to the next installments in this series, Cameron. Thank you for sharing!

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