Last week, the Lethbridge Herald reported that Chris Spearman will be stepping down as mayor this year.
That means there will be no incumbent candidate in this year’s mayoral race during the October municipal elections.
Spearman was elected in 2013, replacing Rajko Dodic, and reelected in 2017. Spearman also ran in the 2010 election to replace Bob Tarleck, when he stepped down, but ultimately lost to Dodic.
He was the first mayor elected here in decades who hadn’t previously sat as a city councillor.
The 2010 election was a narrow race between 3 of the 6 candidates: Dodic, Spearman, and Cheryl Meheden. All 3 finished with over 20% of the popular vote each. Dodic’s and Spearman’s votes were separated by less than 1 percentage point: 25.2% and 24.3%, respectively.
When Spearman won the following election, he did so with 46.1% of the vote, beating out city councillor Bridget Mearns, who received 30%. Fellow city councillor Faron Ellis came in a distant third—out of 4 candidates—at under 20%
Spearman’s 2017 showing was much more impressive at 73.72%, but he ran against two candidates who were relatively less well known than he was.
His time in office has been met with significant controversy, fuelled primarily by the drug crisis and increases in crime. That controversy has spilled into city council meetings, several of which have ended up divisive.
While Spearman claims to be stepping down to focus on his family and health, the decision shouldn’t come as a surprise.
This year’s election will be the 4th time in the last 20 years that Lethbridge has had to fill an empty mayor seat, preceded by David Carpenter stepping down in 2001 after 15 years as mayor and 9 as councillor; Tarleck in 2010 after 9 years as mayor and 18 as councillor; and Dodic in 2013 after just 1 term as mayor and 2 terms on council.
I anticipate that this election will be a busy one.
Even though Carpenter faced only 2 opponents in the 1986 election, there were 6 candidates when Tarleck won the 2001 mayoral race, 6 when Dodic won in 2010, and 4 in 2013 when Spearman won.
Compare that to 2004, when Tarleck faced no opponents as the incumbent—or 2007, when he had just one opponent. Similarly, Spearman faced only 2 opponents as incumbent in the most recent election.
It’s likely this year’s election will also see a large number of candidates run for the mayor’s seat. Especially given how divisive the city has been on hot button topics, such as crime, the drug crisis, the supervised consumption site, and how the city handled the COVID-19 pandemic.
Likewise, when lots of mayoral candidates run in an election, it’s paired with lots of candidates for the 8 city council seats.
For example, when Tarleck won in 2001, 35 people ran for city council. (Full disclosure: I was one of them.) There were 30 candidates in the 2010 election, when Tarleck had stepped down, and 29 in 2013, when Dodic stepped down.
Compare those numbers to elections where the incumbent mayor was running:
During that 40-year period, the average number of candidates in non-incumbent elections was 21.1, and the median was 21.5. Only 3 of the 7 were over 25.
So, who will run?
It’s anyone’s guess as far as city council goes. Races for the city council seats always attract all sorts of people, both well known and obscure. And I know of at least one opening on the city council seat, which was told to me in confidence by the incumbent themself.
The mayoral candidates aren’t as complex to predict, but at this point, it’s all rumour and guesses.
The biggest rumour was that this year’s mayoral race would be a slug fest between Spearman and current city councillor Blaine Hyggen. The two of them have been on opposite sides of issues in the city, particularly divisive ones, like the supervised consumption site. With Spearman out of the way, Hyggen could find the race easier to win. And he has a lot of support in the community and on social media.
Joe Mauro is another possibility. He ran for the mayoral seat once before, against Tarleck in 2007. He ultimately lost, but he’s a popular choice on election day, placing in either first or second place whenever he runs for city council. (He placed 3rd only once: the year he was elected.) He hasn’t indicated an interest in running, but he took everyone by surprise when he showed up out of the blue on nomination day in 2007 to challenge Tarleck.
There have been rumours in the past about a possible run from Ryan Parker; although those have subsided recently as Hyggen’s potential bid has loomed on the horizon. Parker is the longest-serving councillor and has consistently placed between first and fourth place when running. He’s popular, especially among seniors (he has launched campaigns in at least one seniors centre), and they make up a good chunk of those who actually show up to vote.
As mentioned above, Cheryl Meheden ran for mayor in 2010. She placed only third—behind Rajko and Spearman—but she oscillated between first and second as early results came in on election night. Plus, she got 21.1% of the popular vote, only 2.2 points behind Spearman and 4.1 behind Dodic, who won. So it was still a pretty close race. She also ran as an NDP candidate here in Lethbridge in the 2015 federal election, coming in second place and grabbing 20.5% of the popular vote. Clearly, she seems interested in politics. She also has a business background, as a business owner, a postsecondary business instructor, and a former chair of Economic Development Lethbridge. She could have broad appeal for a lot of voters.
Bridget Mearns is a solid possibility, too. She also is a former mayoral candidate, coming in second place to Spearman in 2013, when he won his first election. She garnered 30% of the popular vote, 16 points behind Spearman, but 11 points ahead of Faron Ellis, her fellow city councillor. She served a total of 2 terms as a city councillor. Like Meheden, she has significant business background, including as the executive officer for the local Building Industry and Land Development Association and development coordinator for the Lethbridge Exhibition, as well as sitting on the boards for the Chamber of Commerce and Alberta Strategic Tourism Council. When she stepped down as a councillor in 2017, she said she wanted to focus on getting her MBA, which she completed in 2018. Plus, she shared the Herald article about Spearman’s resignation on the Facebook page she used as a politician.
Speaking of Faron Ellis, he could run. He has before. Although he placed only third in the 2013 mayoral election, he’s a pretty familiar name in Lethbridge. The year after he lost the mayoral race, he tried to enter provincial politics, intending to run for the Wildrose nomination in the Lethbridge–East riding but backed out a couple months after his announcement following the party’s AGM, which had left him with doubt regarding the party’s cohesiveness. His background as a political science instructor and researcher could be attractive to some voters. He served one term on city council.
Mark Switzer ran against Bob Tarleck for the mayor seat in 2001. He placed third in that race. He also ran for the Lethbridge riding for the Conservative Party nomination in the 2011 federal election. He ultimately lost to Jim Hillyer, who went on to be elected as MP for Lethbridge. Switzer owns a local automotive business, which itself is part of a holding company that he owns. He sits on the advisory council of the Dhillon School of Business at the University of Lethbridge and is a former president of the Chamber of Commerce. His spouse, Lea Switzer, ran for city council in the a 2011 municipal byeelection and the 2013 municipal election. She also sits on the board of directors for the UCP Lethbridge–West constituency association. While the Switzers have remained out of the spotlight over the last few years, they’ve been somewhat vocal about social issues online recently. As I said in 2013, Lethbridge knows the Switzer name.
Greg Weadick is another possibility. He also ran against Tarleck in 2001, but placed only 4th place. However, he was a 2-term PC MLA in Lethbridge–West, until he was knocked out of the seat in 2015 by Shannon Phillips. He never won the seat with a majority of the popular vote—to be fair, Phillips was the first person to do it since 1982—but he was well known. He was the minister of advanced education under Ed Stelmach. He also ran once in the federal election as a PC candidate. He has name recognition, and his loyalty to the PC brand—rather than going to Wildrose or the federal Reform party—could present him as a moderate candidate against someone like Hyggen or Mauro.
Beyond that, it’s probably anyone’s guess. We’ll probably see one or two candidates with significant business experience, as that always seems to be a draw, and one or two current city council members.
Keep in mind that any councilors who run for mayor but are unsuccessful will be unable to sit on council until the following election.
Also, with the UCP’s recent changes to municipal campaign funding, a lot can happen this year.