Only one politician showed up when the family and friends of figure skater Joannie Rochette gathered in Berthierville in 2010 to watch her skate in the short program at the Vancouver Olympics.
Denis Coderre was there, joining in the chants of “Go, Go Joannie,” though Berthierville was far from his federal Bourassa riding, and I was the only journalist there.
“I am from Joliette, and I felt I should be here,” he said at the time.
More than a year later, federal Liberals seemed to be in trouble as the Orange Wave was sweeping the province in the federal election, but Coderre was confident.
“You should know I am a very good organizer,” Coderre, who listed his occupation as parliamentarian, said with supreme confidence. He won, but decided after 16 years as a Liberal MP and cabinet minister, including a stint as immigration minister, to switch to municipal politics.
Attending such local events as the gathering in Berthierville, when there is no political capital to be gained, reflects the hands-on touch and people skills that are his trademark. One on one, he looks you in the eye, remembers your name, and makes an impact as a guy you can talk to, who listens, and is close to the grass roots.
Now that he is settled in the mayor’s chair, Coderre has no regrets about leaving the federal scene with its much higher profile and national focus.
“I truly love it. It’s like in the movie City Slickers—where Bill Crystal became a cowboy to find himself—there is one thing in life that is most important, but you have to figure it out.
“I truly believe that this is the place for me. … Clearly Montreal is at a crossroads and maybe—I turned 50 in July—I am as well. This is the level of government closest to citizens, and I am truly enjoying it.”
With Montrealers, especially those on fixed incomes, being crushed by high and increasing property taxes, Coderre has launched a campaign with Quebec City Mayor Régis Lebaume for special status for the cities, including more powers and revenue.
“We are talking about governance, a new fiscal pact. We cannot just depend on 70 per cent of our revenues coming from property taxes.” It’s 32 per cent in Toronto.
That campaign has only begun, and will depend on the willingness of the next provincial government to share its tax bases.
As for property owners, Coderre has pledged to limit hikes to inflation over the next four years, or an anticipated two per cent or less.
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“The money has to be well spent and any additional revenue will be invested in infrastructure and services,” he says. To get the most bang from city bucks, Coderre says he is pushing for the use of benchmarking, or performance measurement and reporting that promote transparency, accountability and efficiency.
“In Toronto they are saving $200 million this year through benchmarking. Imagine how much you can do with that to enhance quality of life in the boroughs? This is the kind of vision I am developing.”
One thing not on his agenda is downsizing city council. With 64 councillors, it is the biggest in North America and has been ridiculed by The Gazette’s Henry Aubin, who calls it absurd. Toronto, with almost a million more residents, has 44 councillors.
No elected chief magistrate will toy with a system that puts him in power. CAQ leader François Legault has proposed that the number of boroughs be cut to 12 from 19, and the total number of elected officials, including borough councilors, be cut to 61 from 103.
“I’m not going to touch the numbers or the territories of the boroughs. We need to learn to live and work together, instead of thinking that this is a Parliament,” Coderre says of the partisan system that is now part of city politics.
“This is an administration, which is why I am looking forward to having even people who are not part of my banner contribute to the metropolis.”
He took the unusual step of naming three political opponents to his executive committee, drafted Coalition Montréal leader Marcel Côté to act as a special adviser on finances, and put Projet Montréal leader Richard Bergeron in charge of covering a section of the Ville Marie Expressway.
Liberal leader Philippe Couillard also pledged that a Liberal government would confer new power on the city to enable it to raise revenues other than through property taxes.
Coderre takes credit for a new, positive climate at city hall following testimony at the Charbonneau Commission of widespread corruption, and criminal charges against former mayor Michael Applebaum and councilor Saulie Zajdel. Their trials are to be held next year.
“In five months, you will notice that smiles are back on the faces of city employees. Montreal pride is back,” Coderre boasts.
He is also firm in opposing the PQ’s proposed Charter of Quebec Values.
“It’s not up to the Quebec government to decide how I should act with my employees, how to select them,” he says, describing the ban on public employees wearing the Muslim headscarf, Sikh turban or Jewish kippa as “institutionalized job discrimination.”
He sees nothing wrong with wearing religious symbols at work.
“If you’re wearing a kippa, it’s part of your identity. You’re not promoting your religion, you’re providing services and you have the right to wear it. I am even ready to go to court, because it won’t pass the test of the constitution. When Madame Marois came here, I made it clear, I don’t want to hear anything about election/referendums and you know my position on the charter.”
Though his opposition to major PQ goals is clear and explicit, he maintains that officially he is neutral. “My flag is Montreal, and my role is to pass on the message that the future of Quebec passes through the future of the metropolis.”
When it comes to big projects, he says he admires late mayor Jean Drapeau for his vision and is limiting his plans at the moment to celebrations in 2017 for the 375th anniversary of the city’s founding.
But he won’t say what he has in mind, other than to “celebrate our diversity so people will be proud again of our city.”