10 min

Our man at city hall

We'll need to lobby Alex Munter even if he wins

Credit: (Shawn Scallen)

His campaign team has told Alex Munter to take the Thanksgiving weekend off. It hasn’t quite come to pass, but he shows up for a 1pm interview at Curries restaurant, around the corner from his Centretown condominium, sporting a one-day beard stubble and dressed casually.

It’s a refreshing change, no doubt, from the too-big suit Munter has been wearing on the campaign trail, along with a haircut he probably wouldn’t consider wearing to singles night at a gay bar. The suit and haircut are clearly aimed at making him look a decade older than his 38 years. Perhaps it work for some people, but for gay men who’ve seen him wear his robins-egg blue terrycloth shirt, they seem to suggest he’s trying too hard.

Even the day’s growth of beard comes across as a reminder that despite his youthful appearance, Munter is no longer the nice teen next door who started Kanata’s community newspaper on the family’s kitchen table. Nor is he the 23-year old rookie councillor for his hometown.

Munter pulls out a tape recorder of his own and sets it on the table. “My campaign team insists I record every interview,” he says. He recently gave an interview to a daily columnist who got a lot of it wrong in print. As a journalism graduate himself, and an Ottawa Citizen writer until he declared his run for mayor (and a former Capital Xtra columnist), the irony is clear. On the whole, Munter has been blessed with positive coverage; for example, Citizen columnist Randall Denley, normally an acerbic commentator on matters at city hall, almost drools as he compares Munter to longtime mayor Bob Chiarelli.

After more than a decade on regional and then amalgamated council, Munter took time out at the last civic election in 2003. He turned his attention to co-chairing Canadians for Equal Marriage (CEM), an Egale Canada spin-off group fighting for national legislation legalizing equal same-sex marriage. And he taught municipal politics at Ottawa University and put himself into overdrive on the party and fundraiser circuit.

The media has suggested that Munter had some sort of a deal with Chiarelli that had the current mayor retiring before this election and endorsing Munter’s run at replacing him. Munter denies there was a deal.

“No. I certainly expected, and a lot of his supporters expected, that he would not run again. He himself has said the reason he’s running again is to finish off the LRT and build a drug treatment centre or something.” The implication, left hanging, is that Chiarelli long since passed his best-before date.

One thing’s for certain: the strong rapport that Munter and Chiarelli shared before the campaign — strong enough that the mayor attended house parties at Munter’s place — is history. The campaign has become nasty.

Chiarelli is calling Munter an opportunist. And he coined the phrase “Munter Madness” to describe the wish list of spending projects that the councillor for Kanata would raise at budget time. Chiarelli’s also noting at public gatherings that he’s raised a family, thereby obliquely drawing attention to Munter’s sexual orientation while denying any homophobic intent.

Munter is calling Chiarelli a liar for insisting that the contract for construction of a light rail system requires that work begin by early autumn.

And rightwing candidate Larry O’Brien, who has enjoyed a spurt of popularity in recent weeks, is pompously suggesting that neither Munter nor Chiarelli knows anything about running organizations.

In one public exchange, O’Brien went so far as to condescend to Munter, suggesting he’s too young and inexperienced in the ways of the real world to run Ottawa. Munter doesn’t understand business, O’Brien charged. That’s a nasty thing to say about someone who started his own successful newspaper at age 14.

And around and around it goes. Lots of heat, but not much light being shed. Of course, change doesn’t happen without a clash; without some intensity, the inertia of the present just keeps things rolling along as they are. And it’s paying off: the most recent poll of citizens most likely to vote puts Munter in first place with 41 percent, followed by O’Brien at 33 percent and Chiarelli following at 26 percent.

“It’s not about [Chiarelli], and it’s not about me,” Munter says, choosing his words more diplomatically. “It’s about what we aspire to for our city. I’ve watched for the last three years and our city government is stuck. I just can’t imagine what another four years of this would be like.

“When I left city hall at the end of 2003, there were a whole range of issues, a whole bunch of priorities, that were about to happen. What I’ve discovered in the course of this campaign, is a whole bunch of those are still about to happen. It’s almost as if our city government has been frozen in time for three years. Three years is bad enough; seven years is untenable.” [Editor’s note: with this year’s election, council terms increase from the previous three years to a new four years.]

No doubt some people, used to Munter’s perennially sunny personality and goody two-shoes demeanor, are puzzled by the emergence of this edgier version. Just when did Ottawa’s favourite political show poodle turn into a bulldog?

When he decided he wanted to win, not just run.

And which Alex is the real Alex?

Is it the young man eager to make a difference in the world? Is it the experienced city councillor using his position to advance a more inclusive, progressive city with improved social services in an era of stable budgets? Or the reformer denouncing the cuts of the Mike Harris government? Perhaps it is the darling candidate of Ottawa Citizen columnists? Is it the candidate who, in the early weeks of the race, neglected to mention his sexuality and his gay supporters and queer community awards on his campaign bulletins and website? Could it possibly be the candidate who has attracted well known Progressive Conservatives (no, not Reform Conservatives) and Liberals to his side? Is it the mayoral candidate calling his chief opponent a liar?

It’s probably all of the above. And we’ll see other sides emerge in the future if Munter wins the race. Because the mayor’s office requires flexibility of its occupant if she or he wishes to succeed.

Still, there is a line connecting the dots of Munter’s various public personas if you look closely. Let’s time travel.

It’s January 1994 and Alex is a front-page columnist for Capital Xtra, which is just five months old. It’s his first or second column. Munter’s topic: the lesbian and gay community needs to reclaim the word ‘family’ to describe our relationships rather than abandon it to our enemies. The piece is accessible, well written and full of examples from Munter’s circle of friends. It’s also a little punchy for one brief moment.

“It’s a great opportunity to challenge the very roots of homophobia — and remind homo-haters that we’re here, we’re queer and we’re family,” he encourages readers, noting that the United Nations has declared 1994 the International Year of the Family.

In the same issue, in a piece headlined, “Diary of a queer politician,” Munter writes of his November visit to Chicago for the Ninth International Conference of Lesbian and Gay Elected and Appointed Officials. In noting what most impressed him about the conference, Munter quotes a San Francisco delegate.

“To make change, we need a piece of the power, she said. Those in elected office should stop feeling guilty about not being ‘pure’ enough activists. At the same time, the lesbian and gay activists pushing the elected officials shouldn’t relent in their efforts.

“When activists noisily and unapologetically demand justice, it helps those of us lucky enough to sit on the decision-making bodies advance the same arguments. Gay politicians can make a stronger case on the inside when there is help on the outside.”

Munter goes on to also quote a former US queer activist. “He said we have to be clear about what the lesbian and gay ‘agenda’ is all about — fairness and respect.

“‘The one thing we don’t talk about is love,'” wrote Munter, quoting the activist. “‘The core of all this is love,’ he said. ‘We have to start talking about how it feels to hide our love.'”

Observant readers will notice the complete absence of any references to gay and lesbian sex in Munter’s writings and musings.

A decade after his stint at Capital Xtra, he’s the co-chair of Canadians for Equal Marriage (CEM), an Egale Canada spin-off and the leading organization campaigning for equal marriage rights. It’s Munter’s first foray into national politics and he’s front and centre night after night on television sets across Canada winning over skeptical rural and suburban voters to the cause.

He speaks, of course, of the inevitability of this right eventually being recognized, and insists that there is nothing in it to fear. But most importantly, Munter scores with audiences for two reasons. First, he’s calm and rational and looks like the nice young man next door — on some programs he’s contrasted with spitting homophobes who predict everything short of the Second Coming of Christ if gay marriage arrives. And second, Munter appeals to his audience’s sense of their own decency and fairness, their belief in a fairer Canada, their commitment to the Charter of Rights And Freedoms. He leaves television viewers and radio listeners feeling good about themselves and their country.

He did the same thing in his acceptance speech last October when he won the Capital Xtra Political Activist of the Year Award. Munter spoke of the emerging Ottawa: bilingual, multicultural, queer-friendly, and increasingly sophisticated.

“We’re in transition from a big small town, to a small big town,” he said. He challenged each of us to make sure Ottawa emerges as a model capital city for the world, replete with a culture of equality and human rights, flourishing arts and festivals, and taking care of its less fortunate.

He owned that audience.

Not long afterwards, columnist Randall Denley gushed over Munter’s ability to imagine and then excite people to his vision of Ottawa. It’s a sharp contrast to Bob Chiarelli’s plodding managerial style, wrote Denley.

An asterisk is necessary at this point, I think, to understand Munter. When he finally went national with an issue, it was one that many mainstream Canadians could easily buy into. He campaigned for same-sex marriage. He didn’t campaign to end Canada Customs harassment of gay bookstores. He didn’t work to end the bawdyhouse laws that are used to criminalize gays in raids against bathhouses (not to mention prostitutes). He didn’t go national to fight for the age of participating in anal sex to be reduced to the age for oral and vaginal sex. Why equal marriage?

“I took on the pre-eminent equality issue of the moment,” he replies. Fair enough. But he’s been an elected politician starting in 1991; in that time, there have been campaigns against Canada Customs discrimination, raids against bathhouses, people charged under the anal sex laws. Of course, he gets to choose his fights.

We get to notice which fights he chooses.

Which brings us to the present. Munter’s campaign recently announced a crime-fighting program if he becomes mayor, including getting tough on crystal meth. Thing is, there’s no serious crystal meth problem in Ottawa — though everyone’s preparing in case it comes along. So, why the easy get-tough gunslinger stuff? Is he kowtowing to rightwing voters by inventing problems that don’t exist?

No, he says. His crime-fighting program was complex and multi-dimensional.

“That was part of a broader initiative around getting ahead of the problem. I put out a six-point community safety plan that talked about the role of the police, about the role of the community, about violence, about safety audits.”

Okay, then, what about a workable strategy on drugs and prostitution? Vancouver’s last progressive mayor, Larry Campbell, came to power on a wave of public support from people who wanted to try a four-pillar approach on drugs — education, police enforcement, harm reduction (including safe injection sites) and more treatment centres. It’s working better than expected. The same health-based approach can be applied to prostitution.

Munter publicly supports the needle exchange program that has been targeted by social conservatives and that O’Brien would dismantle.

So why didn’t Munter, the first left candidate for mayor in a generation with a serious chance of success, promise a progressive approach at city hall on drugs and prostitution issues?

He consulted widely before developing his safety policy, Munter replies. The four-pillar approach “is not part of my platform. But my platform does include maintenance of the current harm-reduction programs.”

By the way, he has smoked pot “a long time ago.” Did he inhale? “I’m not a smoker, right? So, it was a clumsy and unfortunate experience two or three times. It got up my nose.”

And that’s the nub. He’s a lovely, intelligent, visionary man; the kind of man that my mother probably wishes I’d partner with, the kind of man that a gay man knows he can take home to meet the parents. But, he’s been elected since he was 23, and he’s perhaps not had many of the life experiences of many gay men his age.

How would our community, and our issues, fare under his leadership? How hard will he push for a Rainbow Village downtown? Or for city hall to officially recognize minority communities, including the queer community, in all processes (right now they recognize that there are gay individual voters but not a community). If, unlikely as it sounds, there’s a raid against a gay sex venue, will he go to bat for those of us whose lives are happily more transgressive than his.

“My view on being mayor, is that one of the responsibilities of mayor is to be a mayor of all the people.” His voice rises. “I don’t make judgements about other people’s lives; if they want to make judgements about mine, they can. If people think I’m too squeaky clean, then people can think that; if people think the opposite, they can think that, too. There’s plenty of both groups of folks, frankly,” he says, putting an emphasis on each word.

Munter is progressive. Ed Broadbent likes him. But he’s also endorsed by continentalist buff and former Liberal deputy leader John Manley. And by former Conservative strategist Norm Atkins. Don’t expect the agenda under Munter to reach deeply into progressive solutions like the “four pillars” approach.

So, how, in his words, would Ottawa be different under his leadership?

“I think there would be greater focus on accomplishing goals to move our city forward. I think there would be a greater willingness to listen to and work with communities to solve our problems.” He’ll work to put Ottawa again at the forefront of policy on minority rights, environment, arts and culture.

And Munter thinks he can get the politically polarized members of city council to work together. He’s a uniter.

“It’s important for people to understand the mayor is not a municipal version of a prime minister or premier. There’s no party discipline. There’s no cabinet. There’s no calling elections. There’s no vetoing bills. The mayor is one vote out of, soon, 24. The mayor’s primary job is to externally build a community consensus on an issue and inside city hall work to bring the council and city administration together and focussed in that direction.”

Sounds like a job description for a diplomat, not an agent of serious social change.

As one acquaintance says, Munter could turn out to be Ottawa’s best-ever mayor. But, she adds, not necessarily for the queer community.

Maybe so. But that brings us back to the 1994 Munter persona: junior councillor from Kanata, recently out gay politician, and writer for Capital Xtra.

Back then he told us what we need to know. Like the former US activist told elected politicians in Chicago that year, talk about love. Everyone can relate to people wanting love.

And don’t feel too bad if you’re not activist enough for some folks, said one gay politician who left an impression with young Alex. A politician’s job is to seek power in order to make changes. It’s up to the rest of us to keep our agenda in front of that politician.

“When activists noisily and unapologetically demand justice, it helps those of us lucky enough to sit on the decision-making bodies advance the same arguments,” Munter wrote. “Gay politicians can make a stronger case on the inside when there is help on the outside.”