Veteran politician Denis Coderre launched his long-anticipated bid for the mayoralty of Montreal Thursday by promising to restore Montrealers' battered trust in their city, saying he would cap political donations and appoint an independent inspector-general to probe corruption.
In an interview after his official campaign launch, Mr. Coderre tried to dispel doubts about his credentials as a reformer. He cast himself as a political outsider despite his 16 years as a federal MP, capable of leading Montreal out of the morass of a corruption scandal.
"I'm an outsider. I was not involved in provincial or municipal politics," he said. "But Montrealers know me. Because of that, I think that I'm the man of the situation. And my first priority is to bring back confidence in city hall and the city itself."
Mr. Coderre, the first high-profile candidate to enter the November election race, ended a barely concealed campaign to run for Montreal's top job with a news conference in front of City Hall, the grandiose building that has come to symbolize sleaze as much as political power. But the long-time Liberal, who has carefully used social media to hone his message, met with some unscripted, on-the-ground turbulence.
His announcement was disrupted by booing and jeering social-housing protesters, two of whom appeared in masks and were later arrested. Another, elderly demonstrator was knocked to the ground during a scuffle and taken to hospital.
Mr. Coderre was mostly unfazed by the protesters during his speech and appealed to them for respect, prompting some to say the heckling helped the populist politician appear leader-like. At one point Mr. Coderre stood his ground on the controversial issue of protesting with masks, saying "those who demonstrate wearing masks … do not represent Montrealers."
In the interview, Mr. Coderre said he understood voters' anger at disclosures before the Charbonneau commission into corruption, which has brought to light a broad system of collusion that inflated the cost of city contracts and involved corrupt bureaucrats, construction companies, the Mafia and middlemen feeding donations to political parties.
"If you find out that you're overpaying by 30 per cent on all the jobs and you have organized crime all over the place, there is a problem," he said.
"My reaction is that it's something that happened in the past," he said. "We have to look ahead and put up structures to make sure it doesn't happen again."
He said he would create an independent inspector-general at city hall that he qualified as a "police of contracts," with the power of investigation. He would cap political donations at $100 and review policies requiring contracts to go to the lowest bidder.
In a break with Montreal's tradition of municipal parties, he said his new Team Denis Coderre will not be permanent and councillors who join will not have to toe a party line. He said Montreal is an administration, not a parliament, and the party system was largely to blame for the corrupt practices that are now under investigation.
Polls place Mr. Coderre with a comfortable lead heading into the race against his two declared opponents, city opposition leaders Louise Harel and Richard Bergeron. However, a large percentage of voters remain undecided, and other contenders could enter the race.
Ms. Harel, leader of the Vision Montréal party, criticized Mr. Coderre for standing on the sidelines for more than a year while Montreal suffered through crisis after crisis, tweeting about the Montreal Canadiens but remaining mute about the city. "Finally," she said after Mr. Coderre's announcement, "we're getting a reality check."
Mayor Gérald Tremblay resigned in disgrace in November and was succeeded by interim Mayor Michael Applebaum, who says he will not run for mayor in November.
Mr. Coderre's entry into Montreal's election race opens up another, crucial battle at the federal level to fill his seat in the riding of Bourassa. He said he will resign June 2.