Adieu Jim Watson, hello . . . Bob Chiarelli?

Ottawa will be saying adieu to Mayor Jim Watson this fall; that much is now a certainty.

Watson, the popular mayor at election time in runs previous, has been more polarizing in his last term. He leaves behind the legacy of Ottawa’s longest-serving mayor. He has been at times both progressive and conservative.

Watson has never been the right-wing firebrand that Rob Ford was to Toronto nor the left-winged progressive that Ford’s predecessor David Miller was, nor a populist like Naheed Nenshi was in Calgary. That populist-progressive dichotomy will not appear in Ottawa as it has in other large cities across the country because Ottawa is a government town and seems a little more immune to populism.

However, the city is still dealing with some interesting choices. A Diane Deans-Catherine McKenney runoff would essentially be the municipal version of Liberal vs. NDP that Ottawa Centre sees every federal election. What throws a monkey in that conventionalism is the return of Bob Chiarelli to the municipal arena.

Chiarelli has already hit the ground running on campaigning, appearing on the Rob Snow Show on City News on the morning of December 13th. Claiming that rising debt in the city, the LRT, and a divided council are primary issues, he invokes that having already served as mayor of the city, and a long-time MPP in the previous Liberal government, extends his credibility and electability.

Strangely, one of the main issues for the long-time politician is the “Lansdowne debacle.” Chiarelli states that “The project that has been put in place has not been successful, there’s a very strong consensus on that.” If that’s the case, it’s not abundantly clear to the patrons of Lansdowne. Yes, there are contract and public transit issues but trying to get into a blockbuster movie, a football game, or a restaurant can be difficult because of how popular it is. 

To Jim Watson’s claim and credit, Lansdowne looks like a success story, not a failure, and certainly not an election issue. 

Chiarelli, as a candidate for mayor, screams like déjavu. Not every person is Hazel McCallion, the now Centurian mayor of Mississauga from 1978 until 2014, who retired at 93 while still immensely popular. Bob Chiarelli will be 81 when the vote is cast. He stated to CFRA’s Rob Snow that “Millenials and Gen Zs wanted to see new ideas”, that much is true.

While Chiarelli was popular when elected in 2003 with 56.6 per cent of the vote, he received only 15.56 per cent in 2006, finishing in third place to Larry O'Brien.

After serving in the Liberal McGuinty and Wynne governments for eight years as the MPP for Ottawa West Nepean (ironically picking up Watson’s old job), he and the rest of the Ontario Liberal party were voted out because they were not offering new options. They continuously drove up the provincial debt and leapfrogged from scandal to scandal.

Chiarelli has been in public office for so long that it is hard to wonder what he can offer that will be transformative to Ottawa.

His presence will certainly make the city election closer and the debates weightier, but after 12 consecutive years of Jim Watson, does Bob Chiarelli offer Ottawa a palpable change to the body politic, a breath of fresh air in an increasingly old city government? 

If he were to win, Chiarelli will not be the worst mayor the city has had, he may even be good, but unless he has something new to offer, he won’t provide the shake-up needed to loosen the gridlock that was the 2018-2022 council.

Who will take up the mantle of new ideas remains to be seen.

Photo: Bob Chiarelli, via Facebook