• By: OLM Staff

Citizen Cain: Claudette Cain on the campaign trail

By Kate Heartfield

Claudette Cain has been scrutinized by the media, the public and her peers for 20 years. Yet after all this time in politics, she is not an easy woman to pigeonhole. Her office at Gloucester City Hall is trimmed with flowered window treatments and a crocheted doily, but when she sits her diminutive frame on one side of the big glass table and fixes you with her eagle eyes, you know she means business.

Cain, the 51-year-old mayor and chief magistrate of Gloucester, has her own way of dealing with people. For some, it's a reason to admire this dynamo, who is running against Regional Chair Bob Chiarelli for the top job in the new amalgamated City of Ottawa, with the showdown approaching in November's municipal elections. For others, it's intimidating, maybe even slightly off-putting. Pundits always describe her as 'feisty, which doesn't bother Cain at all.

"Some say I shoot from the hip, and that you can always tell where I stand on an issue. Actually, I take that as a compliment," she says.

She's a determined listener, chin perched firmly in hand, laughing boisterously at times. Her focus throughout the campaign has been on small, grassroots town hall meetings. She says that being a woman has not made her career more difficult, even though she had an 11-month old baby when first elected to public office. "If I do my job well, people will show me respect. End of story."

Before becoming 'Her Worship' in 1991, Cain — an Algonquin College graduate — held senior administrative positions with insurance companies and with Canada Post. She runs a small gift-basket business, which she calls her "stress-reliever," and once owned a ladies' clothing store. Her parents were restaurateurs, and she says her private-sector background has given her a respect for the value of a buck that has served her well in her political career.

The pressures of being a mother and politician were underscored earlier this year when Ottawa councillor Wendy Byrne quit politics to raise her family. Cain says she never felt the need to make a choice. "I learned to spin a lot of plates at the same time and set priorities, so I was able to do both," Cain says.

Cain is a high-profile politician going on 20 years, but her family comes first — husband Bruce and teenaged daughter Krysta take a back seat to no one. "For my daughter, it was always just like mom was a doctor or a nurse or a teacher. Being mayor was just a job. Bruce is very supportive. I couldn't do this without them. They're an extension of myself."

Whatever spare time Cain has is spent cooking or with her family. She loves to sing — country or rock 'n roll standards — but laughs when Krysta tells her she's a better mayor than a singer.

Cain's first campaign was in 1982, when she ran for a regional council seat, losing by only one vote per poll. She was eventually elected in 1985, serving six years.

Since Cain is now running on a low-tax, fiscal reform platform, some have pointed out that she voted for tax increases several times while on regional council.

"I did my homework. I voted on each program, and I stand by those votes. How I voted 10 years ago on particular issues — well, what is more relevant today is how I've led the third-largest municipality in Ottawa-Carleton."

But Cain's record as mayor is not without fiscal controversy. Known for her strong campaign against then-mayor Harry Allen and his high taxes, Cain reduced Gloucester's taxes by almost a third and led her municipality to development and entrepreneurship awards. But she had to reduce contributions to the municipal reserves to do so.

"Tax decreases don't just happen," Cain explains. "You have to plan ahead and look at your core values and what it is you want to do. Gloucester went through a period of tremendous instability and very high taxes. We'd had an unprecedented tax increase, and when I became mayor, we were deep into a recession here. People were losing their jobs, and you didn't see any cranes or store openings like you did in the mid-eighties. So we had to address these issues and set some targets."

Tax reduction is still a subject of pride for Cain, now that she looks forward to an election fight that will focus on fiscal reform. Yet there is much to look back on with pride, she says. Cain is Gloucester's last mayor as the city celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Her term is thus historic, and she says her crowning achievement is "having changed the philosophy of why we're here in local government. It's now a taxpayer-focused philosophy — a customer-first concept that does not come from the top down but from the bottom up."

Examples of Cain's feistiness are easy to find, as she, Chiarelli and at least three other candidates fight for mayor of the new Ottawa supercity. Cain criticized Chiarelli's condemnation of police raids in gambling joints in Ottawa's Little Italy, saying Chiarelli should not have sympathized openly with cafe owners who were accused of operating gaming houses in the colourful neighbourhood's social clubs. She has also criticized Chiarelli for banning truck traffic on the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge in an effort to force Quebec municipalities to accept a new east-end bridge from Masson to Cumberland. (Gatineau mayor Robert Labine favours a crossing through built-up Manor Park further west.)

Although Cain and Chiarelli have similar platforms on key issues like bilingualism and reduction, they disagree on everything else. For example, Chiarelli got into trouble for calling Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman a "stuffed pig" earlier this year, whereas Cain sees Lastman as a "very successful mayor" who, like her, sought the mayoralty of a city whose amalgamation he opposed.

Cain says she still believes in the issues she raised while arguing the case for a three-city model: accountability, strong fiscal management and responsiveness. Now that amalgamation is practically a fait accompli, Cain says there is no reason why she shouldn't let the voters decide if she's the best one for the job.

She also has almost nothing but good to say about Claude. Bennett and the transi-tion board he chairs, although she believes the team should have been given more time to work out the details of the switch to an expanded one-city government. She praises the team's "vast expertise in many fields" and says she is "confident that we can come out of this with the best urban model in the province."

Cain and Chiarelli are the top candidates, and the inevitable comparisons have begun to take on new dimensions. For example, Cain is sometimes portrayed as the champion of suburbia, the proud godmother of slot machines at the Rideau-Carleton Raceway and big-box-store booster, while Chiarelli is seen as a more urban candidate. Cain thinks this is ridiculous, since she lived in the Glebe and Little Italy until 1972. "This campaign is about creating a new City of Ottawa and making every corner feel a part of it."

Another "false perception" is that Chiarelli is viewed as a Liberal candidate, while Cain is seen as the darling of the Progressive Conservatives. Cain scoffs at the idea, saying that she has people from all five parties on her campaign team, and that she laughingly told them to "change their hats" and leave their partisanship aside on the first day of her campaign. In fact, she says her distaste for partisan politics is the reason she has only ever been interested in local politics, ever since she first "got the bug" while working in the Gloucester mayor's office in the late 1970's. "People's expectations of their mayor are much different than for any other level of government. Your mayor is there 24 hours a day. I've worked through those differences and I understand them," she says.

Part of the fun for media watchers so far in this campaign has been keeping track of Ottawa celebrities as they sign up to support either candidate. So far, Cain is coming out the winner in this sideline fight, with prominent politicians like Kanata Mayor Merle Nicholds, Nepean Mayor Mary Pitt, Rideau Mayor Glenn Brooks and former Cumberland Mayor Brian Coburn, now MPP for Carleton-Gloucester, all on board the Cain train. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson had been Cain's most high-profile and vocal supporter, serving as co-chair on her campaign team. However, his resignation as Ottawa mayor and federal appoint-ment as president of the Canadian Tourism Commission means he can no longer work on political campaigns. However, Watson's name and reputation are still linked to Cain's, even though he can no longer take an active part in her campaign.

In the early stretch of the campaign, Cain was seen as a close second to Chiarelli. The regional chair accused her of starting her campaign "7 1/2 months early," but both have been chomping at the bit right out of the starting gate. Cain never loses an opportunity to get her two cents in on any issue.

Cain wants to see more money for police and fire services. She is keen to improve ambulance service, reduce municipal taxes, and promote economic development, but "in a fiscally conservative manner.”

"Government doesn't create jobs. We create the quality of life and the environment to attract jobs. We have to let the private sector set the stage for investment, create the wealth and infrastructure that will attract it here."

Cain's priorities are public safety, fiscal management and open government. The shroud of secrecy around the National Capital Commission should be lifted," she says. "As mayor, my relationship with the NCC has been a good one. We came to many productive agreements, but one criticism I have about the NCC is its non-inclusiveness. As a minimum, the mayor of the city needs to be on the NCC's board, and regular board meetings need to be opened to the public."

Making Gloucester's municipal government more accessible, she says, is her proudest achievement in two decades of political life. She'd like to do the same for Ottawa, but even if she can't, she'll look back proudly on her years in public office.

"It's meant a lot to me personally and professionally," she says. "I've evolved as a mayor and as a person.”