I doubt many of the residents of Ward 1 had the privilege of sitting down for half an hour with each of the candidates to pick their brains. In my role as a freelance writer, the Voice entrusted me with this duty. I knew none of the candidates personally prior to our interview, and met with each individually in a public spot. The only person on the ballot I did not interview was Cari Pupo, for reasons already covered in the newspaper.
Here are my impressions.
Let me begin by saying that I found them all to be interesting people who had done their homework. Without exception, they were well-spoken and passionate about the challenge before them. This was not some frivolous or spontaneous dare they undertook, the product of a night of boisterous boozing with patronizing pals who were egging them on. They each felt that they had something to say, that their skill set would add to the political capital of the Town of Pelham. Each had a priority list and a plan for achieving it.
Most had impressive records of public service and volunteer work. But only two — Wayne Olson and James Federico — were residents of Ward 1. To a lot of people living around Fenwick, that clearly made a big difference, as reflected in the overwhelming volume of lawn signage advocating for these two candidates.
Wally Braun presented as an idealist, who envisaged Fonthill as a scaled-down Niagara-on-the-Lake, with Pelham buildings and storefronts displaying the façade of an era of architecture from our colonial roots. He articulately described his position on the key issues of town development and finances, as well as cannabis regulation. Braun had a calm, professorial air about him, and as a self-proclaimed “policy wonk” was clearly focused on research pointing the way forward. Given that this was his fourth run at a Pelham council seat, I couldn’t help but admire his dogged persistence.
Maria Brigantino spoke of “creating healthy lives and strong communities,” with a solid understanding of the legislative framework under which municipalities operate. She was convincing as a strategic thinker and problem solver, and emphasized her background in organizational leadership and team-building. Supporting small businesses during the pandemic was a key talking point for Brigantino, who came across as a very polished and self-assured professional.
I knew in the first ten minutes that James Federico would be a formidable contender. A detail-oriented, self-employed engineer living in Fenwick, he had witnessed firsthand many of the issues plaguing Ward 1, from mundane parking problems to reinvestment in Fenwick infrastructure, and had formulated plans to solve them. He spoke of the plight of aging farmers, of re-energizing the Maple Acre library, and a balanced approach to dealing with the cannabis industry. He viewed building a better Pelham as a lasting legacy for his children. Federico’s service on Pelham committees, and the nuances of getting things done within a bureaucracy, gave him an inside track in my mind.
His recent Facebook posts, however, in which he stated that he was essentially bushwhacked by the Voice are, frankly, disappointing. The newspaper’s endorsement of September 9 backed another candidate, and provided the rationale for doing so. People will draw their own conclusions, as they are wont to do. I’ve been around long enough to know that when you enter the political arena, you’d better grow a thick hide.
Colleen Kenyon was an engaging woman who believed that creative energies could bring communities together, and offered her local, inter-generational theatre projects as proof. A relative newcomer to the area, she felt that her “fresh voice” could provide objectivity and perspective on council. Kenyon believed in environmentalism, buying local, looking after the elderly, and providing affordable housing and transportation. Her focus on inclusiveness prompted comments about Pelham’s perceived lack of cultural and racial diversity, which rankled the sensitivities of a segment of the population. Thereafter, her stock likely sank like the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Don’t let the white hair fool you. Wayne Olson is not a retiree satisfied to fill his golden years rummaging around the house and puttering in the back yard. He is a man of significant experience and wisdom, who has never forgotten his humble roots, and the importance of people pulling together. He is quick to praise, and reluctant to criticize. Olson’s background in accounting, management, and labour relations has trained him to focus on purpose, not personalities. On objectives, not obstinance. His gentle demeanor belies a resolve that, in my eyes at least, put him at the head of the class.
The Young Turk of the group was Steven Soos. Still in his 20s, outspoken, and happily entrenched in the political jungle, Soos was already a veteran of several campaigns under various party banners (one of them being a last-minute run for the mayor’s chair in Welland a few years back, which Frank Campion won in a landslide). Soos was drawn to controversy like a moth to a flame, and advocated relentlessly for the homeless, the addicted, and those with mental health issues. His web-based talk show, True Politics, provided a platform for Soos to interview politicians and policy makers in the news. He held well-argued positions on a host of pertinent local topics, and proclaimed a sound knowledge of the Ontario Municipal Act, which he felt must be embraced like the King James Bible by those holding political office. His zeal as a social warrior may have factored into his untimely heart attack shortly after his declaration as a candidate. Nonetheless, Soos stayed with the race, and fought the good fight.
How would any of these folks gelled with those currently on council? Hard to say, really. They all struck me as civil but confident types who wouldn’t be intimidated into kowtowing to public opinion or strong personalities around the council table or Zoom screen. Certainly Soos would let you know in short order if he was unhappy with the proceedings. But all professed a desire to work harmoniously with others for the betterment of Pelham. Team players all.
I hope that in two years’ time, when we have another municipal election, the unsuccessful candidates will still possess the fervour to run again. I think they each have something distinct to offer.
As my dear departed father oft reminded me, “It would be a very boring world if we were all the same.” ◆