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Montreal's new Mayor: The more things change, the more they stay the same

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Michael Applebaum

Montreal has a new mayor tonight, after a squeaker of a vote by city council which saw Union Montreal's jilted lover, and now 'independent" councillor, Michael Applebaum edge Union candidate Richard Deschamps by a razor thin margin of 31-29, with three spoiled ballots.

Before you pop the champagne however, keep in mind that Applebaum could hardly be less independent of the Union Montreal morass which has dragged our city into the depths of corruption and scandal.

A city councillor since 1994, Applebaum has been borough mayor of Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce since the post was created in 2002, following Union's election. A Tremblay loyalist of the first order, who stood at the former Mayor's side as he announced his resignation, Applebaum has served as chairperson of the city's all powerful Executive Committee, and right hand man to Tremblay, since April of 2011.

He now promises to clean up corruption and open up the secretive Executive Committee, despite having been an outspoken opponent of transparency on that committee until his recent conversion on the road to Damascus.

In fact, if he hadn't been spurned by his old party, he would likely be taking his seat tonight as Mayor wearing the rainbow colours of Union Montreal. He first ran for the Union nomination to replace Tremblay, losing by a vote of 27-22 in favour of Deschamps, with eight votes going to former Plateau borough Mayor Helen Fotopulos.

Following that defeat, he resigned as Chair of the Executive Committee, before leaving Union this week to sit as an independent, along with nine of his colleagues, in a move which inexorably brings to mind images of rats and sinking ships.

Those resignations stripped Union of its majority on city council, and prompted a feverish week of promises and horse-trading, as both Applebaum and Deschamps promised to name opposition councillors to the Executive and lower a proposed tax hike from 3.3% to 2.2%, demands Projet and Vision had made as preconditions for their support.

Several reports emerged of both candidates promising support for pet projects of swing councillors as they feverishly worked their colleagues. Demonstrating the level of bitterness within Union in the wake of Applebaum's move, one former colleague told the Montreal Gazette that Appleabaum was a "power-hungry demagogue" who had essentially bribed fellow councillors to secure his election. In the end, Applebaum came out ahead and will now serve out the remaining year of the term Tremblay was elected to in 2009.

If there were any out there hoping for Union to remain a political party and contest the elections next November, those hopes appear to have been dashed with some degree of finality. While Deschamps promised to "try" to work with Applebaum, and committed to serving out his term as city councillor, he was noncommittal about whether he would do so under the colours of Union, and indicated that he and his remaining colleagues would be meeting in the coming days to determine what to do with the party.

Whether it is mercifully put down, or dies a slow death of attrition as more and more councillors bolt in hopes of distancing themselves from this mess, it is clear that for Union Montreal, the end is nigh.

Meanwhile, much was made in the anglophone media of the fact that Applebaum is the first Anglophone Mayor this city has seen in a hundred years. A facetious twitter hashtag created by CJAD radio's Dan Delmar, #AngloJewMayor, drew a great deal of attention on Thursday by poking fun at stereotypes.

Ultimately, however much Applebaum promises to reverse the course he helped to set over the past number of years, and pledges his independence and non-partisanship, little has really changed.

The absurdly secretive Executive Committee appears set to be dragged out of the shadows, and that's a good thing, but it's still the same gang running the city, even if they've reconfigured themselves into some new formations. Token representation on the Executive for Vision and Projet will help with transparency, but they will form a minority on that body, as they do in council.

Real change will come next November, when for the first time in over ten years our city will not be led by Union or Tremblay.

For my money, the race at that time will be between Liberal MP Denis Coderre and Richard Bergeron's Projet Montreal, with Louise Harel's Vision unlikely to have enough appeal in the Western half of the city to take the mayoralty. Vision will bleed to both Coderre and Bergeron, and are themselves tainted by scandal.

Although Coderre is still the MP for the Northern Montreal riding of Bourassa, and intends to remain in that position until at least February, he already has a campaign team assembled and is actively recruiting candidates and laying the groundwork for a run.

However my sources tell me that Coderre's reputation for organizational strength may be overblown.

A source who was working with his team until recently expressed frustration at what they described as disorganization and the glacial pace of organization. According to the source, Coderre and Projet have gone head to head in an attempt to recruit at least one star candidate recently, with Projet winning out largely because the candidate wasn't impressed with Coderre's organization.

Which reveals the largest problem Coderre may have. While parties like Projet and Vision have strong ground organizations, built over years, Coderre obviously does not. Union has the best machine of any municipal party, and are a natural partner for Coderre, but they're so toxic that not only would Coderre not consider running with them, he'll have to be cautious about how many of their key organizers he takes on, lest he be perceived as the new iteration of Union.

Nevertheless, Coderre will likely have the support of the vaunted provincial Liberal machine, which saved former Premier Jean Charest from a catastrophic loss in September, and coupled with a weak federal Liberal machine and some of the remnants of Union he should be able to build a formidable campaign.

But he better get it into gear, because so far he's being outmaneuvered by Projet, and that only figures to get worse now that Raymond Guardia has signed on to direct Projet's campaign.

Guardia (who is, full disclosure, a good friend of mine) was the architect of the Orange Wave, and in fact of every electoral victory the NDP has ever won in Quebec, dating back to Phil Edmundston's by-election victory in 1990. Cast aside by Mulcair's NDP after the leadership race, during which he directed Brian Topp's failed campaign, he was perhaps the top political free agent in the province, and it's quite a coup for Projet to have secured his services.

Whatever happens, there is now more uncertainty about who will form the next municipal government than there has been in a decade, and that's a good thing.

Follow @EthanCoxMTL on twitter for the latest on all things Quebec, and social movement related.

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