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Former Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau once said of the rivalry between Canada's two largest cities, back when they actually competed for supremacy: "Let Toronto become Milan; Montreal will always remain Rome."

Toronto went on to surpass Milan – minus la bella figura, of course. Rich but rather grey, the Ontario capital is North America's second-biggest international financial centre. It's seventh-biggest in the world, ahead of Paris and Zurich. Today, Toronto competes with New York, not Montreal.

More than 50 years after Mr. Drapeau uttered his challenge, however, Quebec's metropolis is looking less like Rome and more like Palermo. It's a charming but rickety regional outpost with a serious image problem owing to corruption at city hall.

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That should make the Nov. 3 election to choose Montreal's next mayor – the two most recent ones resigned in disgrace – a must-seize opportunity to wipe the slate clean and choose the kind of leader the city needs to get on with building what should be a fabulous future.

The next Montreal mayor should jump on the pending Canada-Europe free-trade deal to make the city the first choice for Old World enterprises and executives seeking a North American base. (The mere threat of having to drink Ontario wine won't be enough to beat out Toronto.)

Montreal needs an ambassador who knows not only how the global economy works; he or she needs to be able to snuff out cronyism at City Hall and take on the unions to address a looming pension crisis that has seen retiree payouts increasingly crowd out city services. The next mayor also needs to be a deep thinker who knows that what makes a city great is a Jane Jacobs-esque mix of social capital, vibrant but safe streets, scaled infrastructure and cultural febrility.

No one fits this description better than Marcel Côté. An economist and management consultant whose advice has been sought out by policy-makers in Canada and beyond for decades, Mr. Côté probably knows more about public administration than Montreal's 65 councillors and borough mayors combined. A freakishly fit 71, he has more energy, experience and curiosity, too. A downtown condo dweller long before that was hip, he gets around mostly by BIXI and Métro.

Culturally and technologically attuned, he has devoted time and money to the organizations and charities that make Montreal tick. He sits on the boards of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Friends of the Mountain and the modern dance troop, Compagnie Marie-Chouinard.

Mr. Côté clearly loves his city and wants to fix it. But he's no politician. He's a first-time candidate and it shows. A bad campaign has left him mired in fourth place in the polls.

Those polls suggest that the next mayor will be Denis Coderre, an anti-Côté who represents continuity rather than a clean break from old-style politics. The former Liberal MP campaigns likes it's 1953. He slaps backs and cracks jokes, with hardly a word of substance in between.

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At 50, Mr. Coderre is running in his 10th election. His base is in Montreal's north end, where strip malls and bingo halls still rule and where politics is still thought of as an exchange of favours. His mentors were Jean Chrétien and sponsorship guru Alfonso Gagliano. Paul Martin dropped him from cabinet and Justin Trudeau had no place for him on his yuppied-up Liberal team.

So, the mayoralty beckoned. In a city where most anglophones and allophones would still vote for a hydro pole as long as it's a federalist, Mr. Coderre started out with a big advantage. (Mr. Côté is an ardent federalist, too, but his electoral alliance with former Parti Québécois cabinet minister and ex-mayoralty candidate Louise Harel has hurt him among non-francophones.)

Mr. Coderre's main rival now is Mélanie Joly, a 34-year-old lawyer who has surged from nowhere to second place in the polls. She appears to be a political agnostic and consummate networker, having worked on Mr. Trudeau's leadership campaign and sought mentoring by former PQ premier Lucien Bouchard. If she doesn't score an upset over Mr. Coderre, whom she appears to detest, she promises to make a tough opposition leader.

Richard Bergeron, a 58-year-old urban planner, eco-warrior and city councillor, has seen his support plateau in the low 20s. His extreme hostility toward cars, commerce and the very suburbs with which Montreal's mayor needs to co-ordinate regional policy should be enough disqualify him as a credible candidate.

Mr. Côté has credibility to burn. But Montrealers don't seem to want the mayor they deserve.

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