How Ottawa’s mayor keeps under-promising and over-delivering

By Steve Paikin - Published on November 27, 2018
Jim Watson
After two terms as an MPP, Watson returned to municipal politics, becoming mayor of Ottawa for a second time in 2010. (Steve Paikin)

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Imagine being in politics for almost a quarter-century and never losing.

Jim Watson doesn't have to imagine it — he’s done it. He won his first two races for Ottawa city council, in the early 1990s. Then he won the mayoralty, in 1997. He resigned from the position in 2000 but made his political comeback three years later, becoming the Liberal MPP for Ottawa West–Nepean and a cabinet minister in Dalton McGuinty’s government.

After two terms at Queen’s Park, Watson returned to municipal politics, winning the mayor’s chain of office again in 2010, this time in a newly amalgamated city of Ottawa. He won a third term in 2014 and a fourth last month, capturing more than 71 per cent of the vote in the October 22 election.

In an age when the shelf life of politicians seems to be shorter and shorter, Watson just keeps winning — and he’s managed to retain his popularity in the process.

“What I’ve tried to do over the years is under-promise and over-deliver — and far too many of my colleagues do the opposite,” he tells me in an interview at Lansdowne Park ahead of the Ottawa Redblacks’ game two Sundays ago. “I keep my platform on my desk, and I check off what I’ve promised and what I’ve delivered. I’m not necessarily the flashiest or most effervescent personality. I’m a fan of Bill Davis. Bland works.”

Coincidentally enough, Watson shares a birthday with the former Ontario premier, whose approach to politics he would adopt. After the separatist Parti Québécois won the 1976 Quebec election, his family moved from suburban Montreal to York Region, north of Toronto. As a 16-year-old student at Thornlea Secondary School, he wrote to Premier Davis in hopes of booking him for an interview on a TV show that Watson hosted at the time. To Watson’s surprise, the premier green-lit the request — and it seems as if Davis’s “bland works” philosophy rubbed off.

It’s been eight years since Watson made the transition from Queen’s Park cabinet minister back to municipal politician — so I ask him for his read on the six former MPPs from the recent Liberal government who went into local politics last month.

“I think they will never want to go back to provincial politics,” Watson says. “I found my heart is in the municipal sector.  Things get done here a lot quicker. It’s a more pragmatic level of government. We tend to talk too much provincially and federally and not get as much accomplished.”

Watson’s advice for those ex-MPPs is to make sure they “over-communicate” with council colleagues and members of the public. He notes that, since becoming mayor, he’s made a point of chatting with councillors and keeping lines of communication open — and tells me he aims to spend half of his time at city hall and the other half in the community.

“If you spend too much time at city hall, in the trappings of a nice office and people running around calling you ‘Your Worship,’ you can get out of touch pretty quickly,” he says.

Watson points out that he was invited to more than 5,000 events last year and managed to attend 2,100 of them. Do the math: this guy is showing up to six events per day — every day. The demands of charities, community groups, and churches are considerable, and as the mayor of Canada’s capital, Watson is also constantly welcoming dignitaries from other countries to the city.

“I try to stay in touch by dropping in to things I’m not invited to,” he adds. “People say you’re very bizarre going to bazaars.  But you go. You buy some stuff. I enjoy that interaction.”

As a former Liberal cabinet minister, Watson finds himself opposed to many of the policies that Doug Ford’s new Progressive Conservative government has been advancing. But he says he’s on good terms with the two Ottawa-area cabinet ministers, Lisa MacLeod and Merrilee Fullerton, and consistently makes the case to them that Ontario shouldn’t try to balance its books by downloading expensive responsibilities onto municipalities. Watson was the cabinet minister who actually signed a 10-year agreement with municipalities to upload costs to the province that the previous PC government had downloaded onto them. That agreement has now ended, and Watson is concerned that the current PC government will try to download services again.

“Ottawa went through tough times when Mike Harris downloaded the reconstruction and ongoing maintenance costs related to Highway 17 on us,” he says. “It cost us millions of dollars. I’m a big believer in the Holiday Inn expression of no surprises.”

The project that could be Watson’s crowning achievement in municipal politics — a $2.1 billion light-rail line — is several months behind schedule, in part because of a sinkhole that devastated downtown Ottawa two years ago. But his brand of co-operative politics will be on display at the opening ceremonies, expected to take place next March: he’ll invite all former mayors who had anything to do with the LRT to attend.

“This wasn’t just my project,” he explains. “And we’ve got funding in place to go farther east, west, and south.”

On the day Watson and I met for our interview, the mayor had already attended a Black evangelical prayer service. Then there was a Latino business festival. Later, he’d watch his Redblacks dismantle the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at TD Place. He followed that up with a visit to the Santa Claus parade in Barrhaven. It’s not surprising that he closes our conversation by saying, “I’m having a ball.”

It shows. And it looks as if the people of Ottawa are content to keep Jim Watson right where he is for a long time to come.

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