Is Westmount ready for Beryl Wajsman as mayor?

Wajsman, 62, editor of The Suburban, is hard at work to ensure the answer will be Yes on November 5 when voters in the city of 21,000 go to the polls to choose between him and interim mayor Christina M. Smith.

And the key to that result, Wajsman believes, is contained in the smartphone he never lets out of his sight. He’s not just waiting for it to ring – it did several times when we had a late breakfast at Nick’s on Greene – it has the data, he says, of 2,000 committed voters.

“I live with this list,” he enthused.

The key on voting day will be turnout, usually low in previous elections, and he says he has a team ready to drive identified supporters to the voting stations.

“Politics 101,” he said, with a smile. “I’ve got everything ready. I’ve got the minibuses.”

Though he’s concerned that all get enumerated, it is the same challenge for both candidates.

A win would mean a shakeup for the cozy way that politics has traditionally been conducted in the City, home to some of the wealthiest and most powerful on the island.

If his candidacy catches fire, it could resemble the vote in 1987 when children’s book publisher and bookseller May Cutler defeated incumbent Brian Gallery. It was the highest turnout in recent memory: Cutler 2,712, Gallery 1,925.

The fast-talking, self-styled advocacy journalist was born in Kharkov, then part of the Soviet Union. His parents were from what was then eastern Poland, and his late father, Misha, who had moved to France, became a lieutenant in a Red Army transport corps when he was caught on a visit there by the eruption of World War II. His late mother, Dora Alperin, survived in Tashkent.

Wajsman came here as a child and recalls having a tough time: he had lived as a youngster in Paris and remembers that French Canadian neighbours didn’t like his accent and anglophones at Bancroft School didn’t like the fact he was francophone. After Northmount High, he went straight from CEGEP into McGill Law school, where he earned two degrees.

It was not just high marks, but his community participation, in the Young Liberals and anti-poverty groups in Côte des Neiges, that got him into Law without an undergraduate degree.

“I was involved in everything and I have been kicking ass all my life. It’s an angry gene. I wish I didn’t have it.”

For three years, he had a radio show on the Corus network called The Last Angry Man.

He worked as Irwin Cotler’s first executive assistant when he was first elected as an MP in 1999, and a year and a half later went to work for the Liberal Party to build support among ethnic communities here.

When the Sponsorship Scandal erupted, he volunteered to testify at the Gomery Commission in 2006 to denounce what he calls “the worst destruction of due process ever.” Wajsman was not blamed in connection with any impropriety or crime.He said he decided to seek the Westmount mayor’s job following Westmount’s refusal this year to join the coalition he co-chaired to challenge in court the decision by the Direction générale des élections du Québec (DGEQ) to eliminate Mount Royal riding, part of its rejigging of the 125 provincial seats to
account for changing demographics.

Wajsman believes its next target is Westmount–Saint-Louis, and it adds up to a continuing threat to the integrity of ridings with substantial numbers of Anglophones.

“(Former mayor) Peter Trent doesn’t feel that a municipality should be involved in anything beyond its municipality. I think he’s dead wrong,” Wajsman said. Trent has endorsed Smith.

Real estate developer Jonathan Wener has endorsed Wajsman, saying: “We could not have a better advocate nor better planner… in a sustainable, growing, and prosperous city for all.”

In a summary of his priorities, he said he is “pro-growth. We need to develop the south side and south of Ste. Catherine in order to lower taxes, we need to fix roads as much as fixing sidewalks, we have enough greenspace and greenhouses, we have to worry that the planning and advisory
committee is making people’s lives miserable.”

In his editorials and commentary, Wajsman often denounces “nanny-state” actions by governments, such as the provincial law that bans smoking on café terraces.

He denounces as “silly” enforcement of a Westmount bylaw banning the feeding of squirrels. Citing a report by Rick Leckner, he denounced the failure to synchronize traffic lights on Sherbrooke, which he says discourage through traffic. “You can’t be an obstacle to traffic because you don’t want cars going through Westmount,” Wajsman said.

Councillor Cynthia Lulham, in reply in the Westmount Independent to Leckner’s claim, said that new controllers are being installed on Ste. Catherine St. between Landsdowne and Clark that will be synchronized for traffic at 40 kilometers an hour, and the Société du Transport de Montréal is doing the same on Sherbrooke, and should be completed by year’s end.

This will not be the first time Wajsman has mused publicly about running for public office, or
entered a political race.

The first time was in 2009, the consequence of an April Fool’s spoof in The Suburban, when articles made it look like he was running for mayor of Montreal. “It started out as an April Fool’s prank, but only half so. The reaction was so incredible. There was so much frustration with Tremblay,” Wajsman recalled.

He noted that the Wajsman pour maire iPetition has attracted 18,126 signatures up to now, and although publisher Michael Sochaczevski was not happy with the prank – he denied in print that he had given Wajsman “carte blanche” – Wajsman said that at the time he was ready to see how far he could go with a prospective candidacy.

“I had serious supporters, and serious candidates who wanted to run, and then Louise Harel announced her candidacy,” he recalled.

Though he did not think he would win, he worried that he might attract enough votes away from Tremblay to enable Harel, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister, to win. He did not want to be known as “the guy who put a separatist in city hall” and after pressure from supporters who were equally concerned, dropped the idea.

The second time he toyed with a political campaign began in 2014 when Wajsman reached out for support to be the Conservative nominee in the 2015 federal election in Mount Royal, and recalled having “700 members signed up.”

Then in January, 2015, TV journalist Pascale Déry announced her candidacy, with the support of the party establishment, including Denis Lebel, the political minister for Quebec, who Wajsman said told him, “you’re too left wing on social issues.”

Wajsman said he responded: “I may be conservative on foreign affairs and economic policy, but I’m damn left on social policy and social justice.”

“I grew up in Côte des Neiges … I’m not going to betray the people I grew up with for a seat. You want a suit, go get a suit.”

So because the party was interfering in the race and his “credibility” was at stake, he pulled out.

Since he plans to continue as editor, Jeremy Oldland, a Grosvenor resident, wrote in the Westmount Independent last month that he worried about “potential conflict-of-interest in occupying political and editorial roles simultaneously.”

Wajsman’s reply: “We never editorialize about Westmount, and if I’m elected I will have nothing to do with the development of Westmount articles, period.”

He said he did not use the newspaper to develop his campaign, and campaign coverage in the weekly will be limited to candidates’ profiles and their programs.

Besides, he said, exposure and activity on social media “probably” is more important in developing a successful campaign than exposure in print media. As for Westmount placing advertising in the weekly, Wajsman said, “I can’t do anything nor will I do anything that will be perceived even to be beneficial to The Suburban.” Wajsman is separated and has no children.

Please tap here to read Peter Trent’s response to Wajsman.

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