Staples: Diotte a forceful critic, but can he lead?
He has not shown an ability to build consensus
EDMONTON - Coun. Kerry Diotte did us all a favour by announcing he’ll run for mayor. Not only is Diotte a real contender for the job, he also instantly spiced up the campaign.
Diotte, 57, a former Edmonton Sun columnist turned one-term city councillor, is a polarizing figure, a right winger on a council of centrists and progressives, a fierce opponent of spending on everything from Winston Churchill Square to the downtown arena deal.
But in an interview – my first in a series of interviews with prominent candidates for mayor – Diotte insists he’s more than just a budget watchdog.
“I think sometimes I’m misunderstood,” he says. “It’s that, ‘Oh well, he’s just a one trick pony. He cares about potholes and he cares about saving a buck or pinching pennies.’ I think if people really get to know me, I have appeal on other issues, like I really truly believe in helping people who need a leg up.”
An early controversy around Diotte’s campaign is his lack of a platform of major initiatives.
“I know people have been asking this, ‘What’s your platform? What’s your vision?’ In the grand scheme of things, I really want people to be involved in civic politics. I really think they’ve been turned off by traditional politicians where they don’t feel heard, and that’s why we only get 35 per cent voter turnout for a typical election. And I think that is scandalous.”
In other words, Diotte’s platform is public consultation.
I suggest to Diotte that when you engage people on major issues, such as the downtown arena, what you find is they often disagree, sometimes violently.
“I think you’ve got to sift through that,” he replies. “Sometimes, I have to agree to disagree with people, there’s no question. All of us in our lives have to do that. But showing you’re willing to listen is half the battle.”
On some issues, such as investing in infrastructure like roads, there’s little disagreement, Diotte adds, with 80 to 90 per cent wanting to make such investments. “On the big issues, I think people do agree.”
One issue of widespread agreement has been expanding our LRT, including putting $1.8 billion into the Mill Woods line. Diotte will continue to push for LRT expansion, he says.
“Absolutely. People want it ... Let ’er rip.”
However, he will also push to get Edmonton’s inner ring road system completed, possibly along 75th Street. We can’t accept gridlock on our roads, he says, adding: “75th Street is a joke. It’s a parking lot. It’s still part of the transportation master plan that that is part of the inner ring road.”
Diotte is far from TV camera shy and was by far the most forceful opponent of the arena deal. But he isn’t the type to go door-to-door to persuade his colleagues to give him support, even for his budget-cutting ideas. He has paid the price for this failing, not getting support for his own spending initiatives, such as a $200,000 grant to Northlands to change the K-Days parade to a Parade of Festivals, one celebrating all of Edmonton’s summer festivals.
Diotte insists with a new council and a new dynamic, he can lead, as he’s neither stubborn nor dismissive, but is respectful and approachable.
After he was first elected in 2010, he says some council colleagues were wary of him, a highly critical newspaper pundit, coming into their “hallowed halls.”
“I think there was a bit of mistrust or a bit of hesitation. But I do have different opinions than the majority on a lot of things because I think I fight for the Edmontonian’s overall opinion. I hear it all the time: ‘Let’s be careful about too high tax hikes.’ ’’
Of course, Edmontonians are concerned about tax hikes. Our new mayor, whoever it is, must be an expert on building this city on the cheap. And on council, Diotte certainly gave voice to all those for whom spending is the paramount concern. But his record is iffy when it comes to pushing through initiatives, major or minor.
As mayor, as the city’s leader, you can’t win a fierce, divisive budget debate by simply posing as knowing what most people on Twitter and Facebook supposedly think.
You have to consult widely, research thoroughly, argue your points, build a consensus and get results, be it on battling for LRT funding, or fighting with billionaire Daryl Katz on an arena deal, or spearheading a major austerity program. Diotte’s resume is short on examples of success on this kind of leadership.
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