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Jim Watson topples Larry O'Brien in Ottawa mayoral race

Mayor-elect Jim Watson celebrates victory on Oct. 25, 2010.

dave chan The Globe and Mail

Jim Watson has been elected mayor of Ottawa for a second time following a campaign that was mostly a referendum on the failures of the man he replaces.

With most of the polls reporting, Mr. Watson had twice as many votes as Larry O'Brien, a conservative businessman who came to power four years ago as a political neophyte promising tax freezes and a fresh approach to municipal politics.

Mr. Watson, a former Ontario provincial cabinet minister, and Mr. O'Brien are both fiscal right-wingers. They both support a light-rail transit plan that would see a tunnel carved deep under Ottawa's downtown core - a major issue on the municipal agenda.

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But, while Mr. Watson had to worry about being saddled with some of woes of the Dalton McGuinty government in which he played a key role, Mr. O'Brien had his own record to explain to voters. And even Mr. O'Brien had to admit it was abysmal. As he told the local newspaper, his first two years in office were "self-diagnosed as a complete disaster."

That freed Mr. Watson, who served as mayor of Ottawa from 1997 to 2000 before jumping to provincial politics, to campaign around the message that the leadership at city hall had lost its way.

"It appears clear that the public have voted for change, and they have voted for change in a very big way," he said Monday after the results were known.

For his part, Mr. O'Brien was gracious in his defeat.

"We have heard many times during the campaign that Jim said he wanted to leave the campsite in a better position - cleaner, better - than it was before," he told his supporters. "And quite frankly I believe Jim Watson will do that. I believe he will be a great mayor."

Most incumbent councillors retained their seats but at least four were defeated, including Alex Cullen, who originally joined the mayor's race but dropped out in late August.

Although Mr. O'Brien insisted late last week that he was not giving up, he is scheduled to depart Thursday on a Caribbean vacation that has been booked for some time. Even the Conservative-leaning Ottawa Sun newspaper could not endorse him and said the last thing the city needed was four more years of Larry O'Brien.

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The Ottawa mayoral campaign was not a two-man race. There were 20 names on the ballot, most of them minor players in the fight for the city's top job.

Clive Doucet, a four-term city councillor who has been a left-leaning voice in municipal affairs, surged in the final days of the race but was still well behind the front-runners. Unlike Mr. Watson and Mr. O'Brien, he does not support the tunnel.

Rounding out the top four candidates was Andy Haydon, the 77-year-old former reeve of Nepean, who joined the race to promote bus transit over light rail. He too was never really in contention.

But it was the battle between Mr. Watson and Mr. O'Brien that captured local headlines. And it seemed to be one-sided from the outset.

When he campaigned in 2006, Mr. O'Brien promised there would be no property tax increases in his first term in office. In fact, they have climbed by 14 per cent in the past four years. And the fees for many recreational services have jumped by 40 per cent.

His term saw a 52-day transit strike in the dead of winter, the longest in the city's history.

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The city lost $100-million on a north-south light rail contract that Mr. O'Brien first voted for and then helped to cancel.

And he spent much of his time as mayor under a cloud of suspicion. He was charged with offering an inducement to another candidate to drop out of the 2006 race and stepped aside from mayoral duties during the nine-week trial that saw him cleared.

Even during this campaign, Mr. O'Brien appeared to make mistakes. He entered the race months after Mr. Watson. He said he would not put up lawn signs, but his signs are all over the city. He proposed a ring-road around Ottawa that was similar to a concept he had voted against at least once while he was mayor.

And he told a reporter that Mr. Watson could not take criticism, saying he whines like a girl and telling him to "suck it up, princess."

The election results suggest Ottawa voters had sucked as much as they could take of Mr. O'Brien. And Mr. Watson put the lock on the seat that his rival has held for the last four years.

The original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version incorrectly stated when Jim Watson was previously mayor of Ottawa. This online version has been corrected.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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