Who’s After Hazel McCallion?

In a little over a year, Mississauga natives will have to face a stunning new reality -- a world without Hazel. Oh, there's a good chance Madame Mayor will still be spotted around town, but she won't be mayor any longer.

It'll be a difficult transition.

Hazel McCallion's reign hasn't been problem-free, but it hasn't exactly been wrought with controversy either.

She was first elected mayor in November of 1978 (before some of you fine readers were even born!) and has held onto her suburban throne in every election since. Known for her strong fiscal management (she kept the city debt-free for decades), the iconic mayor is not merely the city's leader -- she's a central part of its identity.

Restaurateurs who have met her have her picture hanging in their restos. Event organizers fall all over themselves trying to get her attend their shindigs. Locals excitedly discuss the times they've come across her at Peter's on Eglinton.

Her longevity has, in a way, given her some immunity from criticism -- and even if it hasn't stopped some city councillors from challenging her or residents from questioning her judgment, it's insulated her from a lot of the wildly partisan vitriol many politicians are subjected to.

An example?

After a bitter and unexpected municipal election defeat in 2010, former city councillor Carolyn Parrish (perhaps best known for her angry anti-Bush tirades in the early 2000s and eventual anti-Liberal Party sentiment later on) told The Star that she lost because Mayor McCallion "got her".

Parrish, always a firecracker (and perhaps still a contender for Hazel's soon-to-be-vacant seat), wasn't afraid to compromise her once-amiable relationship with Sauga's Hurricane Hazel once she won a seat on council. Parrish even helped push for an investigation into the mayor's conflict of interest debacle (which we detailed here: http://www.insauga.com/where-does-hazel-fit-in-with-the-big-city-mayors), but ultimately rallied little public support and, come election time, lost her seat to Hazel-supported rival Ron Starr.

As anyone who's ever watched a political scandal unfold knows, a lot of people love to watch a public figure fall (unless they're a supporter, of course). There's no doubt there were a few people who wanted to see the seemingly untouchable matriarch fall victim to what they might have seen as hubris, but far more people were either unfazed enough to forego voting or happy enough with McCallion's leadership to cast yet another vote for her. A less experienced (or less loved) politician could have easily fallen to Parrish's dogged efforts.

Not Hazel.

In a way, her re-election (and Parrish's defeat) made sense. The scandal wasn't serious enough to shake confidence in Hazel's competence (the development deal didn't go through, and she was ultimately cleared of the conflict of interest charges for good earlier this summer, and it certainly wasn't sexy enough to grab major headlines (there was no crack or gangsters involved).

Also, the accused was Madame Mayor. It would take more than a controversial land deal to unseat someone who has, agree with her or not, more than earned her constituent's loyalty.

But the truth is that all is not rosy in Sauga. During Hazel's impressive tenure, she's let urban sprawl, infrastructure and transportation get away from her. She presided over the impressive growth of a bedroom community, but failed to plan for the city's rapid urbanization and population growth. Now, with condos popping up like weeds and traffic getting worse, the new mayor will inevitably (fair or not) take the blame for climbing taxes. He or she won't be insulated from harsh criticism because he or she won't be as legendary as his or her predecessor.

In an interesting analysis published in the National Post last year, political insiders and Sauga experts say any potential candidates -- councillors Ron Starr and Bonnie Crombie, former councillor Parrish and former provincial Liberal leadership candidate Charles Sousa are identified as possible contenders -- will have to keep a lid on their ambitions so as not appear disrespectful of the elderly mayor's legacy. The article also says that, with McCallion being unstoppably popular, challenging the mayor's policies could also mean challenging the public's affections. Loyal voters wouldn't forget a seemingly contrarian or hostile challenger who, in their minds, caused trouble during their beloved mayor's final term.

Ultimately, it'll be a tough transition for the city's future mayor. The new leader will have to, rightly or wrongly, come to bear the blame for some of Hazel's short sightedness regarding infrastructure. He or she will also have to win over a city that so loves its geriatric mayor that it has voted to keep her in power for over 30 years. People rarely ever embrace change, especially when it's a change that's been thrust upon them (as Hazel's retirement will be, despite the fact that it's more than expected).

The city that has made bobbleheads of its mayor will have to endure something it hasn't had to pay attention to in over three decades -- municipal campaigning. Now, Sauga residents will have to pick a candidate and witness the mud slinging and sloganeering that has long eluded their city. Another perk of Hazel's legendary status? She rarely had to campaign.

Some would say that was a perk for residents as well.

The new mayor will also have to move the city forward in terms of infrastructure and transportation development. It might be tempting to stick to Hazel's agenda so as to avoid scaring voters, but the city needs a non-risk averse leader who can push through painful but necessary tax hikes and tackle potentially costly development projects. As well there might be increased borrowing to possibly offset such hikes, which might also bother people.

In order to make it through inevitable voter shock, he or she will have to be a great campaigner and strong advocate for his or her policies. He or she might also have to contend with a less cooperative council, as councillors won't have to worry about offending the public by offending the mayor.

It'll be hard to be the new kid. It'll be hard for the old kids to learn to play nicely with a fresh new face.

It'll be interesting to see what happens.

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