Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ Ken Seiling is in Trouble

Ken Seiling is in Trouble

I hinted at this during my last entry about the two visions of Waterloo Region, but I want to say it explicitly: Ken Seiling is in trouble, and it will be a disaster if he loses the position of Regional Chair in this election.

There are other politicians I like more than Ken Seiling overall. I like Jane Mitchell for Waterloo regional council, and she is in trouble too. But it will not be a disaster if she loses her seat. Many of the contenders for Mitchell's seat (although probably not all) are reasonable candidates. It would probably not even be a disaster if an anti-LRT candidate like Andrew Telegdi or Ed Korschewitz was to win her seat, because even though the usurper would oppose the Portland vision for the region they would work constructively on other issues. I have no such hopes for the Regional Chair position.

Every election, there are one or two candidates who run against Seiling for Regional Chair, but none of them are serious candidates for the job. They still get a good fraction of the vote: in 2010 Robert Milligan won 28.65% of the vote, and in 2006 Ken Seiling's opponents Robert Ross and Bob Verdun combined to take 29.63% of the vote. Ken Seiling did not have to run a serious election campaign against his opponents, and his opponents did not try to run a serious election campaigns against him.

That calculus has changed in 2014. I would argue that Ken Seiling remains the only serious candidate for the job of Regional Chair. But this time he has an opponent who is running a serious election campaign against him: Jay Aissa, owner of Jay's Fencing in Waterloo and strident opponent of the LRT. Aissa has three things going for him: money, attention, and a large electorate concerned about the LRT (and maybe concerned about the Portland vision in general).

First, let's talk money. Aissa has lots of it, and he is spending it. Election signs are going up all over town. Aissa has John Mykytyshyn on his campaign team, who helped both Kim Campbell and Mike Harris to campaign wins. He is conducting a robocall campaign asking Waterloo Region whether 29 years of Regional Chair stability is too long. I have no idea where Aissa is getting all of this money -- the after-election audit should reveal some details -- but so far he has thrown around a lot more money than Seiling, and it may well pay off.

Secondly, Jay Aissa is a high-profile candidate. He gets lots of media attention. He is a successful businessman, is a colourful character, and has a history of staging high-profile attacks on the LRT. He is the founder (and only declared member) of a mysterious outfit called "Coalition Stop Waterloo LRT" which took the Region to court over the issue. He gets way more press coverage than Ken Seiling does. No doubt there are some people in the media who actively hope he does get elected, because he might provide the media with a goldmine of interesting and controversial stories for the next few years.

Thirdly, there are a lot of people who are upset about LRT. They don't want their property taxes to go up. They doubt that the LRT is necessary or useful. My default assumption is that every single voter in all of Cambridge hates LRT. That is an incorrect characterization, but it is probably not that far from the truth. If Aissa can capitalize on this anger then he stands a good chance of winning the seat.

In my opinion, this would be a disaster. Certainly, Aissa is a successful businessman. That does not imply he is ready to take on the role of regional chair in municipal politics. I am not the kind of person who thinks that every political candidate has to climb a ladder from school trustee to city councillor to regional councillor to regional chair in order to be successful. But being the lead administrator for the Region of Waterloo is an important job, and it is not an easy one. Having some experience (or some qualifications) in a related field would be valuable, and as far as I can tell Aissa does not have such qualifications. In fact, he has anti-qualifications: his experiences with municipal government consists of attacking the very people who will be working with him as regional chair.

A regional chair is not a dictator. He or she has to work with staff and council members to work through issues, draft legislation, manage the regional finances, and maintain a big-picture view of what is going on. A regional chair has to be able to cooperate with others and to delegate responsibility appropriately. Maybe Aissa has some of these skills, and very possibly he doesn't. To his credit, he has a campaign team that is doing a good job. To his detriment, I imagine that he is not popular with other regional councillors or with staff, and I can just imagine the gridlock that will take place when he butts heads with those who do not support his vision for the Region. The fact that the "Coalition Stop Waterloo LRT" had no declared members other than Aissa is a bad sign. This alone is reason enough to worry about his election. If he gets a majority of Regional Council elected who shares his views then things might go okay, but even then I predict trouble. Andrew Telegdi is not known for quietly deferring to authority, for example, and he does not suffer fools gladly either.

The issues that Regional Council have to deal with are complex and varied -- it goes well beyond the LRT and countryside line issues. Jay Aissa had better be familiar with these issues, or he had better be willing to become familiar with them quickly. Otherwise he will be in way over his head, in a potentially hostile environment.

Having said that, Jay Aissa is not a boogeyman. He is a human being. If he is elected I am sure he will attempt to do a good job, leading Regional Council according to his values. But that does not mean he will actually be effective in the role.

Let's finish off by talking about the LRT yet again. I am not sure that Aissa is actually promising much on the LRT issue. I do think that he is well-known for campaigning against it in the past, and that will be one of the reasons people will vote for him. But if he is elected, he cannot actually participate in Regional Council discussion about the LRT, because he has to declare a conflict of interest -- he owns property that is being appropriated for the train, which is exactly why he got involved with Regional Council in the first place! Voting for Jay Aissa as a single-issue candidate (at least when it comes to this issue) is insane.

I have spent a lot of electrons writing about Jay Aissa, and not many writing about Ken Seiling. So let's talk about Ken Seiling. For one thing, he is not much of a politician. He speaks quickly; he gets into technical detail about issues rather than repeating soundbytes; he is not that charismatic; from what I can tell he does not hog the limelight or make himself the centre of attention. Honestly, when I think of words to describe him the one that comes most prominently to my mind is "nerd". He is a nerdy, highly competent technocrat.

Furthermore, he is a treasure for the Region. There are no doubt other people who could do a good job being Regional Chair, but in my opinion we have been fortunate to have him in the job. He has helped manage the region in a relatively low-key way. Many people do not even recognise his name! Other than LRT, Regional Council rarely makes the news, because it has quietly hummed along, doing its job.

I am not claiming that everything that has come out of Regional Council has been golden, or that I agree with every position Ken Seiling espouses. (Oddly, he and I have swapped positions on GO Transit: in 2006 he was against it because he feared turning Waterloo Region into a bedroom community while I was strongly in favour of GO, and now I am the one who is irritated with GO and worried about student commuters while he strongly supports it as a success.) But the work Regional Council has done towards establishing the Regional Official Plan, the Regional Transportation Master Plan, and other visionary policies has been laudable. It was not a given that Waterloo Region would become prosperous just because we have the University of Waterloo in the area; Regional Council quietly worked away building the kind of region that encouraged some of that prosperity to stay here rather than going to Silicon Valley or the Greater Toronto Area. I do not think that Ken Seiling deserves all the credit for every good thing that has happened within the Region of Waterloo, and I do not think he deserves all the credit for every good thing Regional Council has accomplished. But I do think that it takes good, solid leadership from somebody who knows how to cooperate with fellow councillors and region bureaucrats to get stuff done.

Ken Seiling knows his stuff, and it shows. Watch the Regional Chair all-candidates meeting put on by the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber of Commerce and tell me otherwise. It should come as no surprise that incumbent candidates know more about their jobs than other contenders, because they have actually been doing the jobs. I give a lot of leeway for challengers to grow into their jobs once they are elected, and I believe that sometimes incumbents deserve to lose their jobs. But watch that debate and tell me whether any of the other Regional Chair candidates come within an order of magnitude of knowledge that Ken Seiling does. Some of them might make okay regional councillors; I do not feel any of them can deal with the regional chair role.

Unfortunately, that is part of the problem. Most people who conduct an honest assessment of Ken Seiling vs his competition know that this election race should be no contest, and so treat the race cavalierly, as much of a shoo-in as other Regional Chair races have been. Maybe that is why there is so little attention paid to this race, even though Regional Chair is one of the most important elected positions we can choose. This means that there are not many all-candidates debates, and voters have few chances to actually see Ken Seiling in action. Instead they get a Jay Aissa robocall or look at a Jay Aissa sign and vote for Aissa without actually comparing the candidates.

That would be the real tragedy: that the electorate of Waterloo Region votes Ken Seiling out of office (and presumably votes Jay Aissa in) without knowing anything about the two candidates and how they compare to each other. If the electorate actually paid attention to this race, compared and contrasted the candidates against each other, saw each of them in action, and then voted in Jay Aissa -- well, I still suspect it would be a disaster, but it would at least be a fair disaster, one in which we knew the risks going in. What we are facing could be a disaster of ignorance, in which nobody wins -- not even Jay Aissa, if he should win the position and then get in over his head.

So Ken Seiling is in trouble. I go around town and see signs for ward councillors and mayors. I see a few signs for Regional Council members. I even see signs for school board trustees. I see almost none for regional chair -- some signs for Jay Aissa and a couple of poorly-designed Ken Seiling signs in public places. I have seen no Regional Chair signs on anybody's lawn. At this rate, Jay Aissa will win the name recognition race based on his media profile, and given the degree to which municipal politics is won on name recognition, that is not good at all.

I do not know whether Ken Seiling has ever had to run a serious election campaign in his political career. He certainly has not had to run one for the last decade. I do not think he is prepared to fight this election campaign, especially if it turns ugly. I do not think he has much of a campaign team. I do not think he has raised much money. I do not even think he has many lawn signs! And most importantly, he does not have our attention. We are all caught up in our little races and we are totally missing the big picture.

I doubt I have convinced anybody with this anxious rant, but if I have, and you share some of my concerns with the regional chair race, here are some ways that we can help out:

Of course, I am being semi-hypocritical about this advice. I don't think I have permission to put up a lawn sign (a disadvantage to renting a room in someone's house), and I know I don't have the stomach to join a campaign team. But I have donated some money to Seiling's campaign, and if this blog post counts as publicity then I have done that too. So that's what? 1.25 out of 4?

You all know that I freak out over every single election, and that I am almost always wrong in my election predictions. I guess this just happens to be the race that provokes my anxiety the most during this election. Maybe I will be wrong about this race too. I am certainly not looking forward to the morning of October 28th.