Mike Savage arrives at Barrington's overstuffed Starbucks with muddy shoes and hems. He's been at a Lake Banook dragon boat race. As we walk to Cabin Coffee on Hollis he says he just judged the cutest costumed kid at the Alzheimer duck derby. He's also hit the Westphal-Cole Harbour Fire Department's 50th anniversary and several Tim Hortons, and after this interview with me he's got Oktoberfest, a certified accountants dinner and a celebrity dance-off.
Experienced on the campaign trail and in office as a Liberal MP for Dartmouth-Cole Harbour from 2004 to 2011, Savage is the clear frontrunner for mayor. He's taking nothing for granted, though, and so built a campaign budget of $200,000 and has garnered endorsements by politicians and businesspeople from all political stripes--- from NDP MP Megan Leslie to former Conservative Party candidate and downtown Dartmouth business leader Tim Olive to Green Party leader Elizabeth May.
"I've done it before but never from Hubbards to Ecum Secum," Savage says of the campaign grind. "We can't get to everything. I don't like to just drop in and leave quickly...it's disrespectful."
He's the son of John Savage, the Dartmouth mayor who went on to become premier of Nova Scotia from 1993 to 1997. His memories of his dad harken back to the '60s, growing up with three brothers and three sisters in a house that "was the centre of activity. You didn't miss church unless there was a bone showing." He's still a churchgoer for whom faith matters a great deal.
When he was a boy, dinner was at 6pm sharp, at a table where discussion on all topics was encouraged. "My father was an early advocate of things like drug and alcohol counselling, sex education. We talked about this stuff and it shaped us."
Like many Nova Scotians, Mike Savage did his time in Toronto, in his case working at Procter & Gamble after graduating from Dalhousie, before realizing his heart had stayed home. He came back and became a businessperson, with stints at home heating retailer S. Cunard & Co. and Nova Scotia Power.
By the time he won his first election in 2004 he was in his 40s and a father of two. Politically, he held his seat through two more elections before losing to the NDP's Robert Chisholm by fewer than 500 votes.
"It was disappointing," he says. "But it was the end of the campaign, not the end of the world. I spent most of my adult life in business, and that was my intent to get back in and I did. But as people came to talk to me about this opportunity [to run for mayor] it occurred to me that my abilities, experience and talents matched it."
Savage believes Halifax is at a turning point thanks to a smaller city council, new shipbuilding contract and offshore oil and gas opportunities. "It's time to take stock of where we are. It's about potential."
Throughout his campaign, Savage has presented himself as a conciliator, the man who will bring together sage voices before taking considered action. But it's the city's lack of action that he emphasizes today.
"There's a whole lot more that we could do to encourage arts and culture. We see holes in the street that need to be developed. We need density downtown. It came down to who would be well-suited to look at these divergent interests and bring people together around the more common goal of building the overall community?"
While Savage is the clear leader in polls, aside from cordial conduct and forging new business partnerships, it's been hard at times to decipher his stance on key issues because he says he wants to "have that conversation" before moving forward.
His firmest answer comes on the question of holding a referendum on the divisive new convention centre. "No," he says. "If there's one thing I think that's stymied the municipality it's this inability to make a decision and stick with it. I think [the convention centre] can be a very positive thing for HRM."
One goal he's been forceful on is "open government." It's the first thing he mentions when I ask what issues he most wants to tackle. "Shedding light on our municipal processes. We need more open meetings; we need more connections to the people."
Consultation with the public, something for which Halifax has a poor reputation, seems to be the key for Savage. On his website, Savage says any vision for the city "will be most effective if it is informed by the thoughts and aspirations of citizens from all parts of HRM." What Savage hasn't articulated is how citizen input will be fairly solicited and analyzed. He is definite, however, in his stance against being called Your Worship. "It's anachronistic and outdated and pompous, ridiculous terminology," he says.
Savage says his experience with federal party politics, which forced him to take a national view beyond his own riding, will serve him well as mayor of a large and disparate municipality. "The mayor has to explain to people that it makes sense to invest in downtown Halifax. At the same time we have some assets in rural HRM that people downtown have to understand are worth investing in."
He also sells himself on his economic chops---in addition to decades in managerial positions he was president of the Halifax Executive Association in the mid-'90s. He wants to see the city use economic growth as a means to address poverty---specifically, developing an anti-poverty plan.
He is not, however, a fan of universal mandatory affordable units for all new residential development, or of rent control. Instead, he'd prefer to "partner" with the private sector in addressing homelessness and housing for the working poor. "Killam Properties is doing some very interesting things in supplementing rents in their buildings, working with the Department of Community Services and Community Action on Homelessness."
Savage also wants an integrated transit plan. He is critical of the municipality and Metro Transit's short-term planning. "The Five Big Moves that Metro Transit are working on are more operational than strategic," he says of the current transit plan. But he doesn't support increasing the Metro Transit budget, preferring to "more effectively use that $100 million."
And while he wants to get people out of their cars, he doesn't commit to halting the Bayers Road widening. "The new council is going to have to sit down and figure out what has been expended and committed and where we're going," he says. "In some cases we have to make improvements for traffic."
Savage stresses his commitment to density in a number of ways, including reduced corporate tax rates downtown, generating roughly the same total revenue. "If you want to have a vibrant downtown you need to have small and medium-sized businesses," he says. "Our taxation system is driving them out." But again, he doesn't commit to specific changes and wants to explore various models consultatively.
Savage also says developers need to contribute to the city's capital costs when new suburbs necessitate new infrastructure. "If we have a discussion with the development community, homebuilders, end users and people that want to protect rivers and lakes and wilderness areas, we can come to some reasonable conclusion," he says. "If we can't, then we step in and mandate it."
And he supports "greenbelting," protecting outlying areas from development so they remain farmland, wilderness or natural resource operations. But again, he has questions about process. "How do you deal with greenbelting in areas where people want to develop?" he asks. "In certain cases say 'no.' In other cases we need to have some ability to work out a solution that makes sense."
He is perhaps clearest in his stance on the arts, saying we need more investment in them, that they are an untapped economic opportunity. "Halifax has close to the lowest if not the lowest funding for art and culture of any major community in Canada," he says. He wants a municipal arts council with more grants, studio space and mentorship.
He stresses that he is budget-conscious and cautious about proposing any increased spending, but hopes the money to pay for his ideas will come in partnerships with the private sector and other levels of government. "If you look at issues like our infrastructure, water and sewer we have major challenges; we can't do it alone."
While many of his policy positions remain undefined, Savage's pitch is clear: he'll be the business-savvy, decorum-conscious, partnership-building, consultative mayor. And given that the mayor's power over policy is largely indirect, exerted through influence and negotiation, there is logic to his tactic of holding off on specifics.
The question remains, however, whether voters buy his pitch. After years of cronyism and buffoonery, a chance for a remade council and guaranteed new mayor, residents are hungry for something special. A visionary, a bold leader unafraid to take a moral stand. Is Savage that leader? In all likelihood, we'll soon find out. And however things go, the promise of listening to the people will be remembered in four years' time.See our other mayoral candidate profiles:
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