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The Top 100: Jim Watson, the affable mayor

By Charelle Evelyn      

With a seasoned career in politics and a penchant for the people, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson can bend the ear of decision-makers, and isn’t afraid to for the good of his city.

'The current government, provincially and federally, have been a dream to work with,' said Ottawa mayor Jim Watson. 'You can pick up the phone and speak to a minister or the premier.' P&I photograph by Jake Wright

This year, Ottawa is hosting the country’s biggest birthday party to date and leading the charge is city Mayor Jim Watson, who is using every resource in his hefty arsenal to make it a celebration for the history books.

“I thought we should do what we could, which, is in essence, turn Ottawa and the National Capital Region into the de facto go-to holiday destination for Canadians in 2017,” Watson explained to P&I during a sit-down interview in his City Hall office.

As CEO of the nation’s capital, Watson is uniquely positioned to have the ear of the country’s leading decision makers, and with a long political career under his own belt, he knows which ears to bend.

After working as a Parliament Hill staffer in the 1980s, including as director of communications in the House Speaker’s office, Watson was first elected as an Ottawa city councillor in 1991. It took only six years before Watson won his first mayoral race, becoming the youngest person to wear the city of Ottawa chain of office at the age of 36.

Watson left municipal politics in 2000, taking jobs with the Canadian Tourism Commission and United Way, before re-entering public life in 2003 as a Liberal MPP, where he was quickly given several ministerial portfolios before leaving Queen’s Park in 2010 for another mayoral run. His most recent win in October 2014 saw him hold onto the position with more than 76 per cent of the popular vote.

His successful return to municipal politics as mayor of the now-amalgamated City of Ottawa placed him in a position where his overflowing Rolodex often comes in handy, especially now that a Liberal government has reclaimed the Hill.

Watson described the relationship with the previous Conservative government as “challenging,” noting it took him eight months to even secure a meeting with then-Heritage minister Shelly Glover to talk about plans for the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

When that meeting finally happened, Watson said he was told there would be no federal funding forthcoming. In contrast, he said he met with current minister Mélanie Joly within two weeks of her swearing-in to push plans spearheaded by the Ottawa 2017 bureau, headed by Guy Laflamme.

“The current government, provincially and federally, have been a dream to work with,” he said. “You can pick up the phone and speak to a minister or the premier.”

The money hasn’t hurt, either. The federal government has committed $5-million and the provincial government $9-million to the city’s year-long sesquicentennial celebrations.

Watson said the festivities will include the Red Bull Crashed Ice spectacle, the CFL championship Grey Cup game, and the Juno Awards.

But the standard of openness was set even before the October 2015 federal ballots had been cast, with Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau reaching out to Watson during the campaign, before unveiling the party’s infrastructure platform.

“It came out of the blue but I think it signalled the type of co-operative, consultative approach that he wanted to bring to the office,” Watson said. “I’ve been fortunate—a lot of the people that work at [the Prime Minister’s Office] now are from my days at Queen’s Park [including chief of staff Katie Telford and principal secretary Gerald Butts], so it’s a nice connection that I know a lot of people and can pick up the phone and get something clarified pretty quickly.”

Those same ties remain with provincial leaders as well; Watson and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne were elected to Queen’s Park the same year.

That’s not to say Watson expects smooth sailing, “but half the battle is actually having a venue or a forum to be heard and at least if you pitched your case for whether it’s social housing or transit infrastructure or cleaning up the Ottawa River, at least you can feel satisfied that you’ve put your best foot forward.”

The change in government at the federal level means Watson is “somebody you would benefit from having at the table,” said Joe Jordan, a former Liberal MP who is currently a consultant with Ottawa’s Bluesky Strategy Group and a self-proclaimed Watson fan.

“He’s somebody that it would be worth talking to before you could get too far down the policy road, because I don’t think he’s somebody that would simply take advantage of that outreach for his own interest. I think he has that reputation.”

Though part of Watson’s pull is the luck of geography—“Walking by a restaurant in the [Byward] Market this summer I saw the prime minister and his wife,” Watson recounts. “We had a nice chat”—he is also tireless in his pursuit of connections for the good of the city.

Anyone following Watson’s Twitter account can see his daily litany of events, which his staff make him physically sign off on, so he can’t claim he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. This jam-packed schedule features commitments that range from seniors’ birthday parties, to ribbon cuttings at new businesses, to meeting with his municipal counterparts from across the country.

Building personal relationships is key, said Watson, who recently made trips to Toronto for face time with the founders of Roots Canada, securing the apparel giant as the clothing supplier for Canada 150 volunteers, or with the heads of Porter Airlines and CIBC to garner sponsorship deals.

It’s the position, not necessarily the person, that helps to open doors, Watson said. “And if you get a call from the mayor, that tends to get a reply pretty quickly and that helps the city. So if I can help use my office as a bit of a bully pulpit to get things done, then I’ll do it.”

But the person putting in the work also matters.

In addition to having a penchant for remembering people’s names, Jordan said Watson’s strength lies with his ability to bring players to the table.

“He’s very good at mitigating, I think he’s very good at bringing sides together,” Jordan said. “And part of that, I guess, is differentiating between what’s the problem and what are simply symptoms of the problem. He seems to be able to get at the heart of the matter.”

Watson is “incredibly affable,” said veteran Ottawa journalist Susan Sherring, who first covered his introduction to politics in the early 1980s when she was news editor of The Charlatan, Carleton University’s student newspaper, and Watson was the president of the school’s Rideau River Residence Association.

The mayor is a draw in a crowd, Sherring said, and a reliable figure at community events. (For his part, Watson said he takes the jokes that he would “attend the opening of an envelope” as a compliment.)

But equally—if not more important—is Watson’s political personality, Sherring said.

“He knows the art of the deal and he rarely gets caught off guard. He does— and whenever it happens, whenever he appears to be losing, he quickly backtracks, which, as a journalist we don’t necessarily admire—but he doesn’t let himself get stuck in the goo for very long.”

Watson does his homework, Sherring said, and doesn’t walk into a city-council vote without already having a good idea about the outcome.

“He likes keeps a tight rein on things,” she said. This includes changing the city budget process so that the annual financial plan comes from his office instead of staff, leading to unanimously passed budgets nearly every year—a move Watson said he’s most likely to get asked about by colleagues in the 22-member Big City Mayors’ Caucus.

Creating that united front is a key part of successful interactions with other orders of government, Watson said, adding that
it sends a clear signal to the federal and provincial purse-holders that “we’ve got our act together.”

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