Thousands of Edmontonians filled the Shaw Conference Centre during lunch today for the Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the City event. Featuring Mayor Mandel, the event was an opportunity for our city’s business, community, and government leaders to reflect on the past year and to talk about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Or at least, that’s what we were supposed to be talking about. Instead, the only thing on the minds of those in attendance was Mandel’s decision – would he be running again in October or not?
Many members of Mandel’s family joined him at the head table, including his adorable grandson, and that only fueled speculation that he would be announcing his retirement. As Mandel took the stage, he received a thunderous standing ovation. It was the kind of standing-O that said, “thanks for nine great years.” But it turned out to be premature.
“I know that there is expectation in this moment – one that I set myself – that I would answer a key question today about whether I would seek re-election this fall.
And as much as I pride myself on giving clear answers – I do not have an answer today.”
There was an audible gasp as he spoke the words. Most people were expecting a yes or no – the possibility of a maybe hadn’t even registered! I’ll admit that I was fairly certain he was going to announce that the current term would be his last, but it seems Mandel had more difficulty making a decision than anticipated. “Key issues affecting the state of our City are genuinely unsettled in my mind,” he said.
While Mandel touched on Make Something Edmonton and some of our city’s successes in his slightly-longer-than-normal speech, most of his comments were directed at the Province. And they weren’t positive. Specifically, Mandel focused on spending cuts to the post-secondary sector, and the imbalance of regional costs and funding.
First, he addressed the post-secondary sector and it’s very large impact on Edmonton, both to our economy now and to our future competitiveness.
“We should expect nothing less than passionate, relentless defense of this sector from our provincial representatives who should know better than to just stand by. We should expect that our Minister would actually engage this sector and challenge them to find solutions.”
Mandel stated that our post-secondary institutions have the potential to be “amongst the best in the world.” He went on to discuss his concerns with short-term thinking, and called for real leadership. “It means setting a course that people can believe in, and being clear about long-term intent.”
Next, Mandel addressed regional issues. While the Capital Region Board has at least started to address the issue of collaboration and planning together, the imbalance in provincial grant allocations “has not been touched,” he told us.
“The taxpayers of a city of 850,000 cannot continue to pay an unfair share of the costs of urban services for a region of 1.2 million. Making all municipalities responsible on both sides of the ledger is the only way to make growth fair – it is also the only way Edmonton can sustain itself.”
Here again, Mandel questioned decisions made by the provincial government in its most recent budget.
“If you really want to make a difference, not just for Edmonton – but for Alberta’s bottom line – this is a great opportunity for change. Because it will cost billions less to pay for a single coordinated regional plan – than for the wish lists of 25 municipalities.”
Mandel clearly had the element of surprise on his side today, and that helped to make the speech even more impactful. Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk reacted strongly to Mandel’s criticisms. “I don’t know who pissed into his corn flakes, and you can quote me on that,” he told the Journal.
Mandel very much positioned himself as the defender of Edmonton today, and his call-to-action was to speak up for the city. “You know, Edmonton is a funny city,” he said. “We are so fiercely proud of what we have, but too often scared to tell others that we have it.”
Though he acknowledged that his eventual decision about whether or not to run again will impact this year’s election, Mandel urged candidates who may want to run to make their intentions known on their own schedules, not his. That’s easier said than done, of course. No one on City Council seems willing to run against Mandel. If he were to run for an unprecedented fourth term, it’s widely expected that he would win.
Mandel’s non-announcement today has the speculation engines revving. Is there funding news about the downtown arena forthcoming? Is he considering a jump into provincial politics? Who knows, maybe he simply hasn’t made up his mind yet. My own sense is that Mandel must feel as though he can resolve a couple of those “key unsettled issues” over the next few months, otherwise, why not just announce that he’s running again?
Edmonton is a better place because Mandel has been our mayor for the last nine years. He’s given so much to this city and it must be taking a toll, but clearly Mandel feels he has more to give. “My focus remains on the job at hand, on what I owe to Edmonton, and what Edmonton needs.”
Thanks to the Chamber of Commerce for inviting me today. You can read my recap of previous State of the City events here: 2011, 2012. You can read the full transcript of Mayor Mandel’s speech here (PDF), and the rest of his speeches here.