I’m still in a bit of shock.
On August 14, 2021 I started a category in my note taking app called “mayor run” where I tracked ideas and thoughts about possibly running for mayor of Sarnia, Ontario. I had been sitting on Sarnia City Council now for three years and I had gotten immersed into an entire world that would reshape the way I understood Sarnia, politics and myself. After almost a year of mulling this over and talking with hundreds of people about it, I finally decided that I should take the leap and run. When I registered as a candidate I believed I had a 30% chance of winning, but that was good enough odds to give it a go especially because the other folks that I thought would have better chances were not willing to risk losing their seat on council. Long story short, the incumbant of 34 years in office and I went head to head in a 2 month long campaign and he won the election with 12,561 votes to my 8,608 votes.
I think it was my slogan that when I would say it to people, it would connect at a deep level with where people were at, that finally gave me the final push to decide to run. My slogan was “Building a city your grandkids won’t want to leave.” This connected on a number of levels because the story of ‘nothing to do in Sarnia’ and the amount of folks that cannot get established and pursue their dreams here is staggering. This would connect with the people that were thinking of leaving but also connect with the pain of losing so many people to larger cities. I had hoped that it would connect to my platform of all the things that I have spent the last four years getting established like an indoor rec center project, developing the waterfront and thoughtful maneuvers to create more walkable neighbourhoods.
I started a group chat with some of my close friends that live in Vancouver, Costa Rica, Saskatoon, Port Lambton and Sarnia called “campaign staff.” This is where I tossed out what I was thinking and had great pushback from friends that know me on a deep level. A lot of the pushback at the beginning was challenging me because they didn’t believe that I actually wanted to do this. It was suggested that I couldn’t admit that I really wanted to be the mayor so that I would protect myself from the pain of losing. It was suggested that a lot of the public wouldn’t take me seriosuly (especially after wearing a fedora and tank top to a meeting in which I ended up in national headlines as a jokster). It was suggested that maybe I didn’t really want that to be my life at all. All of this helped shape my approach and face into the reality that was in front of me. All of this lead me to my best guess of 30% chance of winning. I have some incredible people in my life that gave me honest feedback every step of the way and I could not have done this without them.
After submiting my papers to run for the position, my entire mindset started to change almost overnight. Like wait a second, I’m actually running for the mayor of an entire city and I’m running against someone who has been doing it almost as long as I was born. Mike Bradley has been the mayor for 34 years, and when he wins, he usually wins big. If I’m going to even stand a chance of winning – I need to put my dedication, resources and focus into this campaign. So I started moving and putting all the pieces together. I committed to putting in a lot of my own money for whatever I didn’t raise, appealing to my friends in the marketing world for some help and putting together a plan for exactly how I thought I could pull this off.
I’m still trying to process what happened to me over the last two months, but what I do know is that I slowly gained more and more confidence and hope of my success, and by the time election night came along, I had ramped up guess up to 50% chance of winning, and if I was really honest, I thought I was going to win.
There was so many factors that lead me to exist in this echo chamber and it all caused me to naively believe that what I was representing was what the city wanted as a whole. I spoke to hundreds and hundreds of people – and 95% of them were all repeating the same things about what they wanted for Sarnia and what they wanted in a mayor.
It all got to my head. The more signs that would go up around town, the more people would re-enforce my belief that Sarnia wanted something different and that I represented what they wanted. At one point a few days before the election I said “I just don’t know anyone, anywhere that is really exicted about Bradley winning again. So either the city doesn’t want him to win again, or I don’t know this city nearly as much as I think I do.” So the night of the loss, I was humbled to see that I truly don’t know Sarnia as much as I thought. This was the biggest shock. Here is a city that I have moved many folks and families to, that I’ve loved and lived in for my entire life, and I was wrong about what they wanted. There are more people in this city that wanted to keep the status quo and the narrative that Bradley has been casting for the last 34 years than there is for what I was representing. How can that not be humbling? It will go down as most of the most exhilerating experiences of my life. Sitting in Maud’s with all my friends and being faced with the reality that there wasn’t enough of the city that believed in what I was selling. I can’t even really begin to describe the range of emotions that I went through that evening. I’m still unpacking them all.
Further, there were a lot of lessons I learned about politics over the last few months as well and for what it is worth, this is my take on why I lost.
For starters, 59% of the eligble voters didn’t vote. So that means that the biggest winner in Sarnia municipal politics is apathy. We all knew it wasn’t going to be a big turn out, but it is important for my own mental health to believe that more people don’t care at all than they were against me. So that will help me sleep at night. Lol.
The main reason though, and the biggest shocker for me was this line from a CTV News article.
But southwestern Ontario does not know Mike Bradley for his stance at home. They know him for taking strong positions on issues beyond his city.
“We need to establish that presence that southwestern Ontario matters,” he explained while arguing the GTA, Ottawa and Waterloo Region are better at advocating.
Andrew Sancton, a political science professor at Western University believes Bradley’s broader reach is partly why he remains in office.
“He’s been an effective spokesperson for Sarnia on the border issues and that is where a mayor wants to be, sort of advocating for the whole community.”
Beyond my own personal connections, I’ve never cared to or tried to represent Sarnia to anyone else. I assumed (and maybe wrongly) that municipal government was about the city itself and using the resources to improve living in the city. This dichotomy was the most glaring and apparent characteristic of our debates. I was so hyper-focused on Sarnia, our budget, our governance, our citizens and our way of life where Bradley ignored all that to focus on the border, a hydrogen hub, climate change, provincial and federal ministers, colloborative mayor groups and his historical record of doing this for three decades.
After 4 years of sitting on city council, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at his approach to municipal politics and the ongoing petitioning of federal and provincial issues. It felt like every week we were writing letters to some minister somewhere, some government official somewhere else, asking them to consider making changes to the entire province or country on random issues that would pop up that either an individual councilllor cared about or what the mayor believed the city cared about.
To this day, I’m unsure that a single letter or petition was effective, at least if they were – we were never told they were. Or to use the border as an example – the mayor would weekly be calling on the federal government to get rid of ArriveCan through letters and the media – and then when it inevitably happens, he has already effectively established himself as the reason it’s happening in the media and the public conscious. So when it comes time to vote – the public believes that he had everything to do with it. Why wouldn’t you vote for someone that is championing on our behalf to these other governments?
What no one seems to be talking about is that is literally the job of our MP and MPP. The role of the mayor is to be the head of our council and cast a vision for the city – but we have a mayor who is pretending to be an MP and MPP and the public doesn’t know any better. I’ve been saying for years that Bradley should be in one of those two higher level government roles since that is where he puts all his effort anyway. We need a mayor with a vision for this city – not an advocate stepping on the toes of our other elected officials and keeping his name in the press for issues that he has no influence or vote over.
That may sound like just a bunch of excuses but it became apparent to me once the results came in. We are in a city that in which the city chooses a candidate based on a misunderstanding of what the role is. I just did not see that coming. I actually thought that Bradley was failing badly in his campaign because he wasn’t speaking to people’s hearts and he wasn’t capturing anyone’s imagination. What I failed to see is that Sarnia doesn’t currently see the mayor’s role as one that is supposed to do that, and that’s likely because Bradley has been there so long, and he’s shaped the city’s narrative of what the mayor should be to perfectly fit what he is doing. I was focused on building a city and Bradley is focused on representing our city to someone else, and the city wants the latter.
All that said, I am encouraged that we elected two amazing new candidates, Adam Kilner and Chrissy McRoberts, and we are seeing the political tide shift where this new council is going to be ushering us into some pretty significant upgrades to key parts of the city – primarily an indoor rec center and a waterfront master plan. I feel proud of what I accomplished in the last four years of changing the conversation and putting these major pieces at the forefront of our council’s mind. I was honoured to hear many candidates running for positions this election share my language and vision for what the city needs and where we need to go.
As for me, nothing has really changed. I’ve moved to an incredible apartment downtown Sarnia, I’m doubling down on my efforts to unify the artists, musicians and creatives in Sarnia, I’m starting new conversations with folks about new businesses that the city needs and I now realize that there is still so many people in the city that I have yet to discover and connect with and I cannot wait to do so. Sarnia still has my heart and I’m encouraged about the direction we are heading in and will continue to care about the city the way I always have.