Olson lawn signs stretch for as far as the eye can see down Balfour Street, in Fenwick. VOICE

Elections—especially local elections— are the closest equivalent to catnip for journalists. They have definite beginnings, middles, and ends. They are long enough to see interesting personalities develop among the candidates, but short enough to hold the public’s attention until election day. There are clear winners and losers, and a fair amount of genuine emotion along the way.

For the Ward 1 by-election that concluded on Tuesday September 15, the Voice was able to offer the candidates in the race an unprecedented amount of free space to convey their messages in their own words—2000 of them each, about equivalent to a full page. This was 12,000 words in total among the six contenders.

From left, Wally Braun, Maria Brigantino, James Federico, Colleen Kenyon, Wayne Olson, Steven Soos. DON RICKERS

We also conducted in-depth interviews, by the far the most detailed that ran in any publication. And we offered a range of advertising options in print and online at greatly reduced rates in an effort to ensure that each candidate could afford the space.

On the trail, candidates and their campaigns make impressions on reporters covering them. What follows is a wrap-up of the impressions made on me. I asked our freelancer Don Rickers, who interviewed each of the candidates, for his take as well. Note that this is being written over the weekend, before the final tallies are known, so knock-wood that there’s nothing below that’s too embarrassingly out of line with the actual results.

Longevity

If there were an award for most races run, Wally Braun would be right in there. The perennial candidate has some interesting ideas about architecture and the importance of erecting structures that are genuinely pleasing to the eye—none of this post-modern, 50-shades-of-gray nonsense for him, and that’s terrific. In fact, I’m hoping he’ll contribute a column on local architecture to the paper. Unfortunately, a man without a cellphone, or home internet service, or a car, has an even greater voter communications mountain to scale than the average candidate, which may partly account for his lack of success thus far in municipal politics. There’s a lot to like about a 19th century sensibility, minus the whale oil and leeches, but adopt at least late 20th century tools to make it happen. A couple of residents also mentioned to me Braun’s tendency to keep hammering away at a point, at extended length, even in the face of obvious disagreement. Irritating voters does not often turn them from an undecided to a yes.

First time doesn’t need to be the last

Maria Brigantino never really got off the starting blocks, and didn’t actually seem to campaign. She provided only one weekly campaign photo to the paper, an offer we made to all candidates. It’s possible that the quickly emerging forest of Olson lawn signs left her disinclined to mount a real effort. Don Rickers was impressed with her energy, though, and she does have prior municipal experience working on the staff side. There’s always 2022 and the potential to run in her own ward.

Steven Soos, at 26, already a veteran candidate for a variety of offices, will likely win something somewhere. However, enthusiasm and good intentions alone won’t put him over the top. Especially in Ward 1, Soos’ lack of ties to the community was a clear liability, though his vocal support of Mayor Marvin Junkin went down well.

Federico flame-out

With all the free space on offer in the Voice, you would think that candidates whose platforms and messages ended up not appealing to voters couldn’t blame the messenger for their coming up short. Enter James Federico, the sorest loser I’ve ever not met.

Federico had a meltdown on social media last week after seeing that the Voice did not endorse him, but rather Wayne Olson as the best candidate in the race.

If you didn’t catch the endorsement, here’s a key paragraph:

Both are highly qualified for the job. Both have lived in Fenwick for some time and know the ward and its people well. Both are volunteers committed to the community. And both have pertinent professional chops: Olson is an accountant with extensive business and government experience, and Federico is a professional engineer running his own firm. We have no reason to imagine that either man sees council as merely the entry point for a career in politics—voters have learned an expensive, “legacy” lesson on that score.

Apparently being called “highly qualified for the job” and “committed to the community” wasn’t good enough for Federico, who called our endorsement of Olson “deceitful” and “dishonest,” and no, I am not making this up.

Then three peevish “reader” comments defending Federico were posted to our website—all appearing to originate from his own IP address but not all using his identity. One of the email addresses was entirely made up, and another actually belonged to a 51-year-old man in Port Richey, Florida. Goodness, but this sounds like what, how to phrase it. Deceitful and dishonest?

In a series of increasingly petulant posts on Twitter and Facebook, Federico searched in vain for a rationale to explain our terrible choice. He finally settled on the amazing theory that when “controversy” reigns then somehow the newspaper makes more money. The mild-mannered, 70-something, retired Chartered Accountant Wayne Olson was apparently the personification of chaos in this scenario. I know. Another head-scratcher.

Federico also dramatically opined that the publication you are holding in your hands has a “monopoly” on news in Pelham, which really got our attention. We do? Plus we’re making money hand over fist from chaos? Hey, then why am I driving a 12-year-old car which already had 120,000 kms on it when we bought it. I’m going to have to have a stern talk with the publisher about getting a proper Christmas bonus this year!

Through ignorance or malevolence, Federico turned black into white with Orwellian adroitness (while un-ironically citing Orwell). Yes, there is something like a local news monopoly, all right, but it ain’t the Voice.

Guess what these publications have in common, aside from some talented writers: the St. Catharines Standard, the Welland Tribune, the Niagara Falls Review, the Niagara on the Lake Advance, and Niagara This Week. You got it—they are all run by the same corporation. They are essentially one newspaper—sharing staff, office space, and advertising sales people. Three of these publications have plenty of readers in Pelham, and one of them claims it’s delivered to every household. That’s what capitalism salutes as production efficiency. Go for it.

The Voice remains a wholly independent, community-owned newspaper, one of just three left in Niagara. Sullenly pretending otherwise is, to use insider lingo, nutso.

The (non) effect of social media

I’ve noticed over the last decade or so a definite split among generations when it comes to how they use social media. Those in their 40s, who were among the first generation to grow up in a world where personal computers were ubiquitous, appear to believe that Facebook in particular has an outsize influence on real life. Politicians in this age group behave as if public relations via social media is 90% of what it takes to get elected—that selfies at every possible opportunity, and banal observations about the weather, are sufficient to sell themselves to voters, and then to constituents once in office.

Those in their 20s and 30s tend to use social media ironically, or mostly as entertainment, when they aren’t blasting other players in online first-person-shooter games. They’re more interested in using dating apps than engaging with local pols and their Photoshopped self-promotion.

Folks who are 60-plus are the most likely to recognize Facebook as the giant time suck that it is. They’ll read the news online, order things from Amazon, and that’s about it. Maturity fosters wisdom, etc., including the realization that life is too short to spend any more of it than necessary on social media. (That said, there are some older folks who do seem to live entirely on Facebook, posting conspiracy theories about COVID and sharing debunked claims that immigrants to Canada are living a cushy life on the taxpayer’s dime.)

The point is that virtual reality is not reality. Tapping away on their smartphones, social media users moan about politics and the unfairness of it all and post ironic memes. Real life people get dressed, get out, and go vote.

Real life people get dressed, get out, and go vote.

Wayne Olson didn’t bother creating a Facebook page. If our tracking polls were correct, a large number of older, real-life people came out in Ward 1 to vote for a real-life candidate with almost as many miles on him as my old Ford. They went for flesh-and-blood substance, not empty-calorie social media slickness.

Colleen Kenyon and the Case of the Sour Scrutineer

Political candidates in Ontario are permitted to designate “scrutineers,” campaign helpers whose job it is to watch over the activities taking place at polling stations on election days.

As you can imagine, here in Belarus-Between-the-Lakes, where poll workers are known to climb down rickety ladders from second-story windows stealing ballot boxes to ensure rigged outcomes, the need for constant candidate policing of polling stations is of greatest importance.

Just kidding.

On Thursday, September 3, the first of two advance voting days, the Voice opted to conduct an exit poll, asking voters leaving the polling places whom they had voted for, and noting whether they were male or female and their approximate age.

The pollsters were two 15-year-old girls—one of whom writes for us occasionally, and one of her friends. They were instructed to identify themselves as conducting the poll on behalf of the paper, given a lanyard with a Voice ID, and tally sheets that featured THE VOICE WARD 1 BY-ELECTION EXIT POLL in 30 pt. Futura Bold. There was no mistaking who they represented.

Since we had informed the Town Clerk and head of elections, Nancy Bozzato, ahead of time that we intended to conduct the poll, and since the Clerk had duly informed her lieutenants at each polling station with the same information, we expected smooth sailing. What we got instead was Typhoon Colleen by proxy.

More specifically, we got whacked by candidate Colleen Kenyon’s designated scrutineer, for whom none of the above seemed to matter.

The girls were parked in folding chairs near the exit door of the Fenwick fire hall when out blows the righteous wrath of Kenyon’s scrutineer—arguably already outside her jurisdiction, as outside a polling place is definitely not inside a polling place—to challenge the girls’ right to be there, to harangue them about the poll, and generally make it obvious that freedom of the press was immaterial to her.

To their credit the girls stood their ground. They were in the process of calling me for advice when I coincidentally pulled in to see how things were going. The parents of one of the girls walked over to us after leaving the building, having just voted themselves, when the typhoon returned, her ill-informed blowing this time witnessed by three adults and two teenagers, none of whom, I would wager, could figure out what her problem was, though she was able to repeat “I’m a scrutineer, I’m a scrutineer” a few times. Clerk Nancy Bozzato arrived shortly later, assured Stormy that everything was on the up-and-up, and just like that, thunder receding, the tempest-in-a-crockpot was over.

But this got me thinking. Why would a candidate unlikely to pull even 20 votes, let alone win the election, feel it necessary to keep an eye on the process?

Because the law says I can, was basically Kenyon’s initial answer, when I emailed her to request an apology for her representative’s abrasive treatment of two 15-year-olds. (That apology remains MIA.)

Pressed for specifics, Kenyon replied that a candidate elsewhere in Niagara told her that “it is always a good idea to have scrutineers participate in the process, not out of any distrust of competence of the election personnel, but rather to uphold the process and do my part as a candidate to make sure that it runs smoothly, and fulfills its intended purpose,” which sort of makes sense until you read it again.

As many locals recognized, from the moment the B.C. native announced her platform Kenyon’s candidacy was dead in the water. In a first for a Voice tracking poll, one week she earned 0% support, and over five weeks never made it into the double-digits. Not only did Kenyon not live in the ward, relatively speaking she had barely moved into Pelham. And what’s the first thing a recent transplant should tell her new neighbours? How they could be doing things so much better, of course, and complaining, as a white woman, that her new community is just too darned white. Ward 1 is home to many families who have lived on their land for generations quite contentedly, and they did not react well to the retired schoolteacher’s perceived finger-wagging.

According to Town records, how many other candidates had scrutineers on September 3? None.

How many mayoral candidates in 2018 had scrutineers? None.

How many of the other 29 candidates running in 2018 had scrutineers? Two.

Of these two, which candidate had not just one, but five scrutineers spread out across all three wards? David Augustyn.

Nomination tidbits

Which brings us to the candidates’ nomination papers, technically called their “endorsements of nomination,” i.e., the names and signatures of those 25 residents required to qualify a candidate to run.

When we heard that Mr. Augustyn, the previous mayor and defeated 2018 Regional Council candidate, had been in Town Hall the week of August 3, practically before the ink had dried at the close of the nomination period, asking to inspect the candidates’ endorsements of nomination, we were naturally curious. Why would the former mayor, now out of politics, care who supported whom in Ward 1? So I booked my own appointment to take a look at the papers, which are open to public review.

There was little to see overall, but three candidates did stand out for different reasons.

First, Steven Soos signed as one of his own nominators, the only candidate to do so. Perfectly permissible. Veteran rabble-rouser Curt Harley signed for Soos on June 18. And a handful of Soos signers were disqualified for living in West Lincoln.

Second, nearly two-thirds of Cari Pupo’s endorsers (17 out of 27 signers) were her neighbours on Emmett Street, which runs for a single block in downtown Fonthill—a good 4 km east of the Ward 1 border. Pupo had only one endorsement from a Ward 1 resident. And five weeks after he had endorsed Steven Soos, that veteran rabble-rouser Curt Harley had jumped onto the Pupo bandwagon instead, endorsing her on July 28. (Early Soos and Pupo campaign statements both bore striking similarities to past Harley rhetoric about alleged incompetence in Town Hall.) Two weeks later, Pupo announced she was “canceling” her candidacy, after allegations surfaced about her conduct while Town Treasurer. She remained on the ballot, however, since the deadline to formally withdraw had already passed. My guess is that Pupo could still end up drawing more votes than the lowest vote-getter, which will likely be Kenyon.

Finally, James Federico’s nomination papers.

No Curt Harley support, no plethora of Fonthill residents, no signatures disqualified. Instead, what stood out was a single name: Augustyn. The former mayor, and two family members.

If you are a relative newcomer to town, you may be asking, “Augu-who, now?”

Suffice it to say that the name of our immediately previous mayor, who captained the H.M.S. Pelham straight onto the rocky shores of Meridian Community Centre debt, is the last name that a large percentage of Ward 1 residents in particular want to hear, and if they do hear it, their blood pressure medication better be close at hand. It is a name that will likely be political kryptonite in Pelham for years to come.

That’s the main reason that a rumour floating around soon after the election was announced—that Augustyn was considering running for the seat—was so absurd. Someone was trying to stir the pot. To provoke what exactly, aside from eye-rolls, wasn’t clear.

That said, people instinctively love to see a second act, the fallen redeemed. In ten or 15 years as memories fade, we could see a 60-year-old Augustyn back in the picture as a comeback-kid. So unless he moves off to the prairies or Down East, it’s unwise to count our ex-mayor and unrepentant raider of reserve funds (it was all entirely legal!) completely out of the Pelham political picture.

Doing it right

Retired accountant Wayne Olson started strong and never let up. He had the qualifications, and he clearly had a solid support team, including “Mayor of Fenwick” Gary Chambers. In the war of lawn signs he was by far the victor, and that’s often a pretty good indicator of who’s likely to win. Olson took advantage of everything the Voice had to offer the candidates, including ordering extra copies of the edition in which his op-ed appeared, to distribute door-to-door over the last few days of the race. One messaging downside were the videos on his website, recorded in ShakyCam®—authentic, but boy, tough to watch for more than a minute or two.

Olson kept his campaign platform realistic and limited to what council actually had authority over. Crucially, he also tailored his message to Ward 1 voters—those who were actually doing the voting—rather than doing what most of the other candidates did, which was appear to be campaigning to a town-wide audience. (“Sanctuary city,” anyone?) Olson also had the early backing of well-respected agricultural figures, an obvious plus in an overwhelmingly rural ward. Again, assuming the opinion and exit polls were correct, the only unknown is the margin of his victory.

In the end, effective campaigns matter most

In all seriousness, there is one clearly useful reason for a candidate to employ a scrutineer, but it isn’t to keep a beady eye on the Clerk’s staff. As election day progresses, scrutineers are allowed to view the list of those who have already voted as it is updated. This can tell a candidate whether residents who have said they will vote for him or her have likely done so—how the voters have voted isn’t shown on the list, only whether they’ve shown up. This can remind the candidate that Mr. and Mrs. X need a ride to the polling station, and so on.

This would be the cherry on the top of a perfectly run campaign—and by the end of the first advance poll in Pelham, the fact is that the winning candidate is historically already determined. How so? Let’s look at Ward 1 over the years.

In every election dating back to 2011, whichever candidate came first in early voting ended up winning the election.

In 2011, it was Richard Rybiak, ahead at 49% in a five-way race in the advance poll, winning by 54% in the end, with 805 voters in total coming out.

In 2014, Junkin and Rybiak both led in the first advance poll. In total advance votes, Junkin was at 30% and Rybiak at 41%. They won by 34% and 38% respectively at the end, with 2988 voters in total coming out.

In 2018, the correlation was spookily exact, with Mike Ciolfi earning 28% and Marianne Stewart earning 26% in total advance polling, earning these same numbers, when rounded to the nearest whole, in the final tally, with a whopping 3600 total voters turning out.

Another point: In every case above, the first advance polling day had already occurred before the last issue of the Voice was published before the election. What does this mean?

It means that the issue of the newspaper that came out just before election day itself had no effect on the outcome.

Who the paper did or did not endorse, or what commentary did or didn’t run, had zero influence on who won or lost.

The die was already cast. The candidate who was going to win had already won in the advance poll, and those who were destined to lose had already lost.

It’s ultimately the candidate’s campaign—including the news coverage and advertising along the way, of course— that matters most. Whether this has once again proven true in this most unusual of unusual years will be fascinating to see.

Politics is not a field for the thin-skinned. It takes guts to put yourself forward for office. I thank all of the candidates for their participation in the race and for their cooperation with the paper—even cranky-pants James Federico and the unapologetic Colleen Kenyon. A tip of the hat as well to our Don Rickers for his yeoman’s work covering the campaigns. Time to prepare for the 2022 municipal election—it’s just 25 months away!

 

 

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