How to respond when municipal council wannabes come knocking

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They come knocking on your door every election season — well, at least the most serious and ambitious of them try.

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They all wrap promises, wonderful and/or sensible ideas on how best to spend (or save) your tax dollars. And they all want the same thing – your vote.

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They are the political hopefuls, incumbents or wannabes, and they want to run the City of Windsor, a company with annual operating and capital expenditures of over $1 billion.

If turnout in the October 24 local election is a repeat of 2018, almost two in three eligible voters in Windsor will not even bother to cast a ballot.

What experiences do you bring with you?

That’s surprising considering the multimillion-dollar decisions made by the city’s mayor and councilors affect almost every aspect of citizens’ lives, including policing and security. water, sewage and electricity; economic development; Plan and build; roads and infrastructure; public transport; garbage and recycling; Fire, EMS and Emergency Response; parks and recreation; Arts and Culture.

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Do you prefer improved services or do you abide by taxes? Do you want streets that get you where you want to go faster, or streets shared with bikes and pedestrians and lined with boulevard cafes?

Municipal campaign signs will be displayed in Walkerville on Tuesday, September 13, 2022.
Municipal campaign signs will be displayed in Walkerville on Tuesday, September 13, 2022. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

The decisions voters make at the ballot box determine where and how local taxpayers’ money is spent and what issues become political priorities.

A veteran of local politics and running successful campaigns said it’s important to knock on doors to meet as many voters face-to-face as possible, but there are thousands of apartments in every community, making it difficult for a smart candidate to can pause and chat for a long time.

“There’s about 7,000 homes per community, so from a campaign manager’s perspective, you don’t spend more than a minute or two at each door — you’re basically giving your elevator pitch,” said the former campaign manager, who asked to remain anonymous.

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But how do you make the most of these briefest encounters to gauge whether that political hopeful at the door is worthy of your trust and vote?

“There are questions I ask,” said Lydia Miljan, a professor of political science at the University of Windsor. “If you’re a new candidate, I want to know, ‘Do you have any experience? What topic is really close to your heart?’”

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Miljan isn’t impressed by “meaningless” replies like promising to give 100 percent or promising to bring common sense to discussions at the council table. She asks basic questions like whether or not the candidate understands the role of local government. Health care and education, for example, are major concerns for many, but these are political issues that are largely dealt with by the two higher levels of government.

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“It’s not like I’m grading them, but I’m figuring them out. They might have all these great ideas, but if they don’t know how the town hall works, they’ll just be weirdoes,” Miljan said.

If someone claims to be fiscally conservative, does that mean they don’t have new play equipment in the neighborhood park? If someone is interested in a great budget or civic investment initiative, what might they be willing to cut elsewhere to keep the books balanced? Do they advocate raising taxes in order to be able to afford more or better municipal services?

Capping taxes may be good, but what if it means cutting services?

“How can you offer me the services I want without hollowing myself out?” asks Miljan, a keen observer of local politics.

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Experience counts, they and others say, and that includes previous involvement in the community, including involvement in non-governmental organizations and/or participation in the many community advisory boards and committees that hunger for volunteer members.

“Past practice is an indicator of future performance. What experience do you bring to the table?” said Sheila Wisdom, who served as city councilor from 1989-1998. “What do you see as the biggest issues for my community and for the city, and how will you address them?”

Wisdom, executive director of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra and a former small business owner, said social media didn’t exist when she was a politician. Knocking on the door was “absolutely necessary” back then, but she doesn’t know how big it is today.

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Even when there’s no knock on the door, Miljan said voters can use a candidate’s email address or social media to reach out to a candidate with their questions. If there is no answer, they and others say, it could be a good indication of how they will react in the future if elected.

Miljan said she will “troll on social media” to learn more about a candidate. Another way to get more information is to ask a friend or neighbor with a lawn sign why they support this candidate.

If it’s an incumbent seeking re-election, “I ask, ‘What’s your record? what have you achieved Give me specific examples,'” said Emmanuelle Richez, another University of Windsor political scientist. And any examples given, she added, should be the achievements of individuals, not of the council as a whole.

Wisdom said that a candidate able to list endorsements from “people of stature in the community” carries a lot of weight for her.

Just 35 per cent of Windsor’s 151,000 eligible voters cast their ballot in 2018, making every actual vote count more. A district candidate won his Windsor City Council seat by less than a thousand votes.

“Local government is one of the most accessible forms of government, and we have opportunities to take advantage of it,” Wisdom said.

One of them is to simply cast a vote on October 24th.

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