As the clock ticks down to a pivotal vote for Montreal's next mayor, front-runner Denis Coderre is facing intensifying questions on ethics and integrity, the very issues central to the campaign in this scandal-fatigued city.
Mr. Coderre, who tops the polls heading into Sunday's vote, has been dogged by attacks about candidates on his roster as well as past donations when he was a Liberal MP. On Tuesday, his campaign was shaken when one of his candidates, city councillor Robert Zambito, resigned amid media reports that he was under police investigation for alleged bribes.
Mr. Coderre issued a statement saying he'd show "zero tolerance" when it comes to the misconduct.
The vote for a new mayor and city council is, Montrealers hope, a way to turn the corner after a corrosive period of scandal and corruption. The winner on Sunday will be Montreal's fourth mayor in a year; two mayors resigned in disgrace and a third is acting as caretaker until a new occupant at city hall takes over. Some view the vote as the most important in a generation.
Mr. Coderre has benefited from the visibility boost that comes from a lengthy political career as a six-term federal MP. But he has also been pursued by lingering questions from his past in Liberal politics at the time of the federal sponsorship scandal.
With days to go before the vote, rivals have sharpened their attacks against Mr. Coderre. Mélanie Joly, a 34-year-old lawyer and political neophyte who has catapulted into second place in the polls, released an attack ad Monday casting Mr. Coderre as an old-style politician; the French-language version starts with the sound of a jackhammer – a reminder of Montreal's probe into graft in the construction industry – and concludes that Mr. Coderre "has no credibility to wipe out corruption."
Mr. Coderre has also been on the defensive because his team of candidates includes two dozen former councillors from the tainted Union Montréal of ex-mayor Gérald Tremblay, a party that has been tied to illegal fundraising and a series of police raids. Another mayoralty rival, Richard Bergeron, called the Union Montréal tenure at city hall the "administration of shame."
In a televised debate on Monday night, Mr. Bergeron also grilled Mr. Coderre about more than $46,000 in donations that went to the Liberal Party in his federal riding from donors later targeted by Quebec's anti-corruption investigators.
Mr. Coderre, who has led a tireless campaign of hand-shaking around Montreal, is defending his record as well as the councillors in his ranks. He says more than 60 per cent of his team is made up of newcomers, and he cautioned against tarring former Union Montréal members through "guilt by association." He has also promised to create a position of inspector-general to unearth corruption at city hall.
"I've been in politics for 20 years. All those personal attacks mean that they're panicking," he said Tuesday of his opponents. In addition to Ms. Joly and Mr. Bergeron, he is facing off against business consultant Marcel Côté.
Mr. Coderre's attempt to make a clean break with Montreal's graft-scarred past took a hit when one of those former Union Montréal councillors, Mr. Zambito, submitted his resignation. It came as a Radio-Canada investigative show was probing allegations Mr. Zambito offered two bribes for help in a land deal in his Saint-Léonard district.
Mr. Coderre said all candidates for his party had to fill out an exhaustive questionnaire and speak to lawyers before being accepted. The same went for Mr. Zambito.
"If somebody's been hiding something," Mr. Coderre said, "he will pay for it."