Party politics at Hamilton City Hall

They don’t exist at present, but they could be on their way.

In a departure from practice, Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina is using his office to support his provincial political party this election.

From a Liberal party media event in front of the Hall to announcing a Liberal campaign promise at City Council, to openly disparaging the other two big parties, to claiming the NDP hasn’t committed to LRT (they have), to criticising Ward 9 Councillor Brad Clark (a former Harris government cabinet minister) for alleged partisan manoeuvring, Mayor Bratina is wasting little time in staking out his partisan credentials.

With Bratina openly calling Clark a partisan and accusing him of being motivated by those partisan goals, party politics is making an unusual appearance at City Council. Partisan party politics is mostly absent from Council and never openly displayed. There is no NDP, Liberal, or Conservative caucuses at 71 Main West. Unlikely Toronto City Council, we do not have fissures between members of parties.

The extent of his actions are unprecedented in the past 30 years of Hamilton mayoral politics. The Mayor’s office is traditionally kept out of party-line politics and focuses upon advocacy for widely agreed-upon civic priorities.

Will partisan divides now appear and what effect could they have?

It is unlikely they will appear at the current Council table. There are few hardline party activists on the current Council and there are only a handful of politicians at City Hall nursing ambitions of moving to Toronto or Ottawa. With fixed elections, none of them can act on ambitions until 2014 anyway.

The 2014 municipal election will be the first held without the risk of an unexpected provincial or federal election requiring party resources. This means that parties can turn their attentions to fielding their loyalists in municipal races and assisting them before the dropping of the Federal writ in the fall.

We’ve already seen unofficial party slates locally with the NDP organising and fielding candidates for the public school board. The HWDSB is now controlled by NDPers, many of whom dream of holding full-time political office.

With Hamilton City Hall used against the NDP by Bratina this provincial election, the NDP will have further motivation to take control of the Hall in a clearly partisan fight in 2014.

The entry of official party politics into municipal elections may not be a bad thing – it will create clear choices for voters in municipal races. However, Councillors could spend more time on political manoeuvring and campaigning than providing the good policy oversight this city needs to prosper.

There’s also the risk that we’ll lose any reasonable possibility of independent candidates winning office. Not that we’ve witnessed many independent candidates toppling incumbents since amalgamation. The last “sweep” of City Hall occurred in 1997 when people elected two Aldermen per ward.

The last Hamilton Mayor to openly engaged in partisan politics saw it backfire in the long run. In 2003, Mayor Larry Di Ianni jumped into the Sheila Copps vs. Tony Valeri battle by endorsing Valeri. Valeri won the nomination battle. Di Ianni did not use his office resources in this battle and, as an internal battle of the Liberal party, few eyebrows were raised.

In the end, Di Ianni’s decision to get involved in his party’s politics backfired.

When Di Ianni ran for the Liberals in 2008 after Valeri’s electoral defeat to the NDP, the supporters of Sheila Copps were invigorated to stay with the NDP.

Had Di Ianni not been seen as a Valeri-proxy, it is possible Copps’ supporters would’ve left the NDP thereby depriving the Hamilton East Stoney Creek NDP of strong campaigners in a tight race.

Will Bratina’s open partisanship as Mayor backfire on him? Not personally, but on his party it might. The NDP now has an interest in controlling the Mayoral chain in 2015.

The Liberals are already trying to distance themselves from Mayor Bratina as voters head to the polls on Thursday.

This poster by Graham Crawford visualizes his feelings about the recent decisions by Bratina and the Liberals:

[![]( "Unilateral_Liberal_Logo")]( by Graham Crawford
Will sentiments like this drive swings voters to the NDP? We’ll find out on Thursday.