Let's continue to find reasons to build solidarity with one another and to stay informed.
By Cameron Kroetsch
Published November 22, 2018
This final article is directed just as much toward potential future candidates as it is to everyone else in this city, and in our government, who cares about meaningful change.
It wasn't a mistake that these articles ended up in Raise the Hammer. I asked Ryan McGreal, its editor, if he would publish them not only because of the longer format but because I think that independent media in Hamilton are important. They need to have a bigger role to play in disseminating information to Hamiltonians and helping us all to stay connected to what's happening in our city.
We simply can't continue to rely solely on Hamilton's established mainstream media if we want a different and better Hamilton. I think it's important to say this out loud and it is important for us to acknowledge it.
When it came to the 2018 municipal election, Hamilton's established media were primarily interested in hearing from Hamilton's established people and were very focused on a single, divisive wedge issue (light rail transit) and on the mayoral race. Across the city, there were many other more important local issues that deserved to be covered in depth and many candidates that could have been interviewed.
Though it's been the case in the past, neither The Hamilton Spectator, nor CHCH, nor CHML provided a forum or debate for councillor candidates.
I want to reflect on what I think we must do moving forward. Before I get into my prognostications though, a few thoughts on the context for what I've written in this series, if you'll indulge me.
When I wrote this, I was mostly writing about what happened in Ward 2. Ward 2 is one of 15 wards in this City. If you can extrapolate from the data I've provided, anecdotal and otherwise, about the experiences that must have occurred throughout the City, you should be gravely worried about the state of our democracy (as I am). While I agree that Ward 2 can be seen as unique in some ways, I really don't think the election experience was wildly different elsewhere.
For me, this has always been about the structural and systemic things that undermine our democracy and the role that they play in our elections. More simply put, this isn't personal.
That being said, there's a personal element to all of this that I haven't addressed and have left for this point in the series. It focuses on what I think most people would describe as "identity politics".
I identify as queer, and I've been pretty clear about that. In fact, leading up to the campaign, most of the media exposure about me came from interviews I did on Cable 14 and CHML about the protests leading up to this past June's Pride celebrations. So, it's out there and I think that it did play a role in the election.
To be clearer, there was always a tension between the incumbent "voice of the Ticats" and me as "that nerdy gay guy from Corktown". While I didn't experience many incidents of overt and intentional homophobia, it did happen, and I know it was on some people's minds. It's not my intention to unpack that too much here or to go on a long educational diatribe about what that signifies, so you'll have to take my word for it.
To perhaps make my point a little clearer, in the last two elections, the only folks from underrepresented groups who made it onto City Council came from challenges where there was not an incumbent, namely: Matthew Green, Aidan Johnson, Nrinder Nann, Esther Pauls, and Maureen Wilson.
I say all of this, though, with a great amount of personal privilege and I don't want to erase that or come across as someone who thinks they live a precarious life. I don't. I'm an able, cisgender, white man who owns property. I have a network of lovely friends, a huge family, a supportive partner, and a flexible work schedule. I'm not worried about being able to pay my bills and that is a huge advantage that I had over many people running this time around.
So yes, it's true: I'm queer, but that doesn't even begin to erode the rest of the privilege I have. I'm able to do a lot of what I do because of what I have and because of how much support I have around me. I say that for the candidates who I know and met who don't have that privilege and for whom some of what I've written will sound long and whiny (fair enough).
I also wanted to bring up identity politics and privilege because I'm just really tired of hearing about all the "hard work" everyone is doing.
From my perspective, talking about hard work is just a means of shaming people who don't have the time, energy, access, or means to actually do this so-called "hard work". If the people without power got to define hard work it would sound a lot different. They're already working hard, every day of the year, no election required. Those of us who do this "hard work" can only do so because we have the privilege to perform it, period.
Working hard, in this context, means being able, in so many ways, to do all the things you need to do and still find the space to do more. And hard work is measured out in sweat equity, most of the time, and in a praxis of fear coming from those who didn't do that work and can't imagine doing it. They stand in awe of something you've accomplished, label it as "hard work" and back away slowly.
Hard work alone will never win you an election. You also need money, volunteers, name recognition, and support from influencers. You can get those things, but you're not going to get them from trying hard.
This notion of hard work intersects many parts of campaigning. Candidates are routinely praised for missing meals or sleep. Candidates are expected to appear at every event and meeting and to have the time, somehow, to knock on every door personally. All of this at the expense of their mental and physical health, time with the people they love, and their careers. Yes, many candidates work full or part time jobs, on contracts, or are otherwise self employed, underemployed, or precariously employed.
The insidious measuring of worth by amount of productivity is done in a way that surpasses the already crushing expectations of our daily waking neoliberal nightmare.
What do we get in exchange for this? Social capital. The trouble is that when you belong to a marginalized community, your social network largely consists of other people who also belong to that community and to other marginalized communities.
It means something different to ask the people in those communities to give up something to help you. They, too, have less time, energy, and money to give to the social network. And that hard work, all of it, recruiting volunteers or soliciting donations, doesn't yield the same result.
So, enough about hard work, please.
The next term of Council needs to invest significant resources in lobbying the provincial government to make major changes to the Municipal Elections Act. The most immediate changes that I think should be implemented, in 2019 if possible, are to:
hold the next election in 2020 or 2021, rather than 2022, to throw it out of sync with the Provincial cycle;
impose term limits (if the MEA is not the place, then the City should create a bylaw); and
verify that candidates are residents in the ward they want to represent.
The first point in the list is one of the most significant and probably the only one that needs further explanation. The fallout from the Provincial election had a devastating effect on the municipal election. People in Hamilton were emotionally exhausted. Though we managed to continue to elect NDP candidates here, we did so in a sea of PC majority.
The divisive campaigning and rhetoric of the Provincial election hadn't even been over for 30 days when I began knocking on doors in early July. And, even better, the first day to register for the municipal election was May 1, less than a week before campaigning for the provincial election started.
As you may or may not know, 2018 was different than both 2014 and 2010 in this respect. In the two previous elections, candidate registration for the municipal election was in early January. These changes meant that, this time around, the media really wasn't there covering things from the beginning.
In fact, I remember overhearing the conversations of many who were surprised that so few showed up at City Hall on May 1 to chat with newly registered candidates. I was there just after 9:00 AM and the only person I saw doing interviews was Joey Coleman.
This final list of advice to candidates is meant to hopefully leave you with some pithy things to remember. Refer to it later if it's useful, but soak it in. I'm not saying that I'm right about all of this, but these are some things that I'll be thinking about if I ever run again.
More often than not, voters need to be convinced you could be the councillor before they'll vote for you to be the councillor; you have to earn your place in your community so find a way to do that publicly, before you run.
People don't answer their doors and people don't answer their phones: it's going to continue to be that way. Go back and try again. But after you've tried again: give up and find another way to reach those voters.
Fear of the incumbent is real. Many voters, especially those involved in the community, don't want to anger the incumbent and some want the "all clear" to feel like they can vote for a competitor. For some, the fact that you would even run against an incumbent councillor is seen as "rude" or "disrespectful". Simply put: some people need the incumbent to step down, retire, or even die before they'll think it's right for anyone to try to come in and "take someone else's job".
It's ok to drop out if, at any point, even up to the last minute, you realize that you can't win. Yes, it's better to do this before the nomination deadline so that your name comes off the ballot, but that doesn't mean you should feel compelled to "see this through to the end". The only thing you should be seeing through to the end is helping to bring change to your ward. If that means that the best way you can do that is by dropping out and supporting someone else, don't feel ashamed of that.
Running as a candidate in an election will take a toll on every single relationship you have. Most of the damage is repairable, after the fact, but please don't underestimate this. Along the way, try to build in things to balance the damaging impacts.
There's no such thing as being apolitical and everyone, even City staff, has the right to help candidates in an election during their private time; that there's a culture against this is ridiculous but it's real and you'll have to tiptoe around it.
It's worth your time, if you have it, to try to get your supporters out to the advance polls. It frees them up for election day so that they can help you, but also helps you by having fewer people to get out to vote on election day as well. The more that vote in advance the fewer you have to find on election day.
Material help can come outside of donations. Get your supporters to organize various kinds of endorsements. I had video endorsements, lots of people signing my nomination forms, and even a letter that we circulated around one of the neighbourhoods. Do this work early and often.
You might not be able inspire a whole ward to "get out and vote" but you can try and you should try. Higher voter turnout is usually better for challengers than incumbents.
Make sure your campaign sounds like you. Insist on being part of the final copy editing, early drafting, and other writing work. The minute your voice becomes disconnected from the campaign you run the risk of sounding disingenuous and cookie-cutter. People will support you, not your campaign.
Prepare your grains of salt! You will be given a lot of advice. Some of it will be based on completely outdated notions of how people live in cities. Try to recognize when someone is steering you in this direction.
Be generous: don't make volunteers feel guilty if they can't give as much time as you need or as they originally thought they could. It doesn't need to be one or the other. Everyone has different capacities and abilities to anticipate hiccups in their own lives. They want to help, and they will, if you give them both the space to step back and a variety of tasks so they don't feel stuck in one role.
Meet with other potential candidates before the election. Talk to people and see if you can find common goals and get them to work with you rather than against you. It won't always work but it is definitely worth your time. And if you find yourself in an election with many other candidates, reach out and talk to them.
Yes, it's going to be awkward, but we all need to get over it already. We have to be able to try to work together, set our egos and our territorialism aside, and see the bigger picture. It's not about us, it's about our communities. When our community is asking for change, it's our responsibility to put aside our personal motivations and do what we can to make that change happen.
So, what does this election mean for Hamilton going forward? It means we have to get organized for the next municipal election now. We still don't have a majority on Council who value change and who understand that a career as a municipal Councillor is a recipe for civic disaster. As long as career councillors continue to remain interested in holding on to their spots, we're doomed. Just as our City changes, so should its leadership.
When I say "get organized" I don't mean waking up after the Provincial election, after your summer holidays, and after you or your kids get back to school.
Start thinking about ways you can support progressive municipal candidates in your ward and what changes you want to see while it's fresh in your mind. Earmark some time in your volunteering future to be there for one of them, from the start, and reach out to candidates you want to learn more about.
For a candidate, a lot of this is about support, encouragement, and feeling that they're representing a community, not just themselves. Or, at least, that's my way of thinking about it. It's not a one-person show and that's never how I treated it. I did this because I heard from my community and because I kept hearing from them throughout the campaign.
So, where do I go from here and what am I going to do next?
I'm going to spend my time doing exactly what I've been spending my time doing: building up my community by challenging the status quo and then following up that challenge by making space for something better.
In my opinion, this is not the time for second guessing or waiting for the right opportunity. We can't afford to wait any longer for a signal to rally around or for our leaders to change their ways. We have to insist, rather impolitely at times, that politics is about making those in power uncomfortable.
And, yes, I mean that. The people making the decisions on our behalf need to be faced with discomfort and difficult choices, just like the uncomfortable choices faced by the most precarious in our communities. This means that more of us have to show up at City Hall and speak directly to our leaders about the impact their decisions have on us.
That being said, we can't be everywhere and we can't be everything. We must all do what we can, understand each other's limitations, and try to be generous. It's not a contest of who can show up the most or who can yell the loudest.
Let's continue to find reasons to build solidarity with one another and to stay informed. Find an issue you care about, a group you think is already doing good work, or a cause to rally around. And if none of that works, start your own thing.
I can't wait to see you out there #HamOnt.
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