Almost a year ago I remember talking with friends and acquaintances as we speculated about the mayoralty race to come about what we wanted in the next mayor. At that time, the outcome of the mayor’s criminal charges were very much an issue. Would he be convicted or would he get off? A lot seemed to hang on that eventuality since Fontana had been clear that he would throw his hat into the ring if he had the chance.
I remember saying that maybe we shouldn’t be looking at people with council experience, maybe what London really needed was someone new, someone with no connection to the “Worst. Council. Ever.” Maybe someone who had headed a large public institution or not-for-profit or private business in London. Someone who knew the people, the stakeholders and the politics but hadn’t been part of it. Just for one term, mind you. To make a nice, clean break with the past. Someone recently retired. It could be a transition into retirement.
I hadn’t counted on a Paul Cheng.
I met Paul Cheng in the spring. I had never heard of him before, but it appeared he had thrown his hat into the ring. He would be paying his own way, I heard. He had “money.”
I met him at city hall where I was attending an informational meeting on behalf my candidate in Ward 9, Anna Hopkins. You know her; she’s the woman who fought for a dozen years to minimize the impact of the development on Reservoir Hill, a fight that was undermined by the actions of none other than now mayoral candidate Joe Swan. You’ve probably driven by the results, a beautiful building precariously placed on what was once a lovely treed hillside.
But I digress.
While waiting for my turn to test drive the new automated voting machine for people with disabilities, I found myself face to face with Paul Cheng, as I discerned from his name tag. I introduced myself and said I was there as a campaign manager for a candidate in ward 9. “Where is that?” he wanted to know. Apparently, he was not yet familiar with the location of the wards. Mentally, I wrote him off as a serious contender for mayor.
In fact I was nowhere close to deciding whom I would support as mayor in this campaign. Matt Brown had declared and there were rumblings from Joe Swan and even Bud Polhill. As members of the Fontana 8, I couldn’t take either of the latter seriously, but neither was I ready to hand over my vote to Matt Brown. He had come a long way since he was elected in 2010; he was certainly the best of the newcomers to council but that wasn’t saying a lot. Think Henderson and Denise Brown, in addition to retreads like Swan and Sandy White. The bar had not been set very high.
I hadn’t been impressed with all of his votes but, on the other hand, he seemed to work well with his constituents and tried to strike compromises whenever possible. That’s not a bad thing in a council as divided as the current one. Besides, he had the support of Joni Baechler. That’s worth a lot. I know how intelligent, knowledgeable and hardworking she is. And how dedicated to the future of this city.
So I was standing on the sidelines. Cheng wasn’t getting any traction and Brown seemed to be unopposed.
But then, a week and a half after the judge pronounced our mayor as guilty of all three charges—fraud, forgery and violation of the public trust—in to the spotlight came Roger Caranci.
I have worked with Roger. He’s never met a developer he didn’t love or a development he didn’t want to approve. In the dying days of the previous council, he and Stephen Orser seemed to delight in personally escorting them into the council chambers to bolster their requests to the planning committee of the day. Caranci decided not to run again for council in the election of 2010 having set his sights on defeating Irene Mathyssen in the anticipated federal election but he had not fared well representing the Liberals in the spring of 2011. Since that time he had been working as a real estate agent and a municipal consultant for developers.
But before that, he had been rather busy along with Cheryl Miller and others trying to get Joe Fontana elected as mayor. They had succeeded, until now. With Fontana gone, who would be the developers’ darling?
But this was a whole new Roger. He wanted to restore trust in government. He thought an integrity commissioner was a good idea although he had fought me tooth and nail on the proposal to retain one when we served on council together. He praised the ombudsman when only a few months earlier he had suggested on local radio that secret meetings were the norm, everybody did it.
So that decided me. I could no longer afford to sit on the fence, hoping for a knight in shining armor to rescue the people of London. I attended a Matt Brown fundraiser, made my donation, and when the time came, had his blue sign planted on our front lawn right beside Anna Hopkins’. I have not regretted that decision although I don’t necessarily agree with every single detail in his platform. Politics is the art of the possible.
When the polls came out in early September I was not surprised to see Cheng gaining some traction. Although he had been largely ignored by the established media, he had poured some money into a glitzy advertising campaign. That should have gained him some recognition. But that he should place ahead of Caranci and Swan (who had declared only after it was clear that Fontana would be in no position to leave his Arva home let alone run through the subdivisions of London) and very well at that, was startling.
I redoubled my efforts to learn something about this elusive candidate who was doing so well but it was hard slogging. There was little on his website. Mostly it consisted of blogs from his days as a lead on oil drilling rigs. Nothing on current activities or vision for the city. Later, there was a resume which was rather incomprehensible. He described himself as a “businessman, consultant and investor” but details regarding which business, consulting for whom or investing in what remained tantalizingly mysterious.
Eventually, I learned that he had immigrated to London from Hong Kong as a teenager with his family sponsored by a prominent local family as domestic workers. He has a sister who lives in Florida. In a discussion group that I lead, there had been debate about his current family status. One of the members who has known him for almost the entire 30 years that Cheng has been in London said he was married to a hospital worker; another member begged to differ—Cheng was not married. As it turned out, both were correct; in a recent interview Cheng described his 30 year relationship as “living in sin” with a woman who had offered to support him when he was between jobs. They have no children.
According to Cheng, he studied engineering at the University of Toronto for two years but ran out of money. Thereupon, he went out west to try his luck at various construction jobs. Eventually, despite much discrimination against Asians, he managed through sheer persistence to break into the oil industry but when the National Energy Program came into effect, he was again out of luck. He was encouraged to go back to school and, since the University of Alberta wouldn’t give him credit for his two years of study in an engineering program, he enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts degree which did recognize that earlier achievement. Some courses in economics and political science and he had an Honours BA from the University of Alberta. Later he took “distance learning” courses which allowed him to do additional study while working on oil rigs around the world.
By his own account, Cheng lives in London about six months per year. He is a consultant, bidding on job contracts with various oil exploration companies. Some jobs are bigger than others but he has been the lead. He may have had as many as 130 workers to deal with in that capacity. He has worked for many companies, including the most recent one, Aramco, which is described by Wikipedia as being a Saudi-American oil and gas company which has the world’s largest daily oil production. He finished his two year stint there this year. He is not a manager or administrator or executive or director or president of the company; he is a consultant working on a contract dealing with oil exploration in a specific location.
So why is he running for mayor?
Perhaps he is simply between jobs and the current situation in London is just too irresistible.
Cheng says he wants to give back to the community that gave so much to him and his family. He remembers fondly a teacher who helped him learn English. Yet, by his own admission, he has not involved himself at all in the community he professes to love. No participation in community organizations, no volunteering for charitable groups, no memberships in service clubs or positions on boards of directors—all the activities you would expect from someone hoping to lead a community. He has donated to the Sally Ann and St. Joe’s, but he doesn’t brag about it, he says. He leads a quiet life. He’s thinking of starting up a charitable foundation but hasn’t gotten around to the implementation part.
Then last week Roger Caranci got some bad news: rather than gaining traction with the voters as he rolled out his campaign platform, he was losing them. It was enough to worry him and, no doubt, the members of the development industry who had, as in elections past, financed their confidence in him. What to do?
Having attempted to pat Matt Brown on the head too many times during the campaign to date, Caranci threw his support to Cheng, despite the fact that Cheng had run as a member of the Reform Party in 1993. Brown and Caranci are both Liberals, just as DeCicco Best and Fontana were Liberals. But Caranci was old school Liberal along with Polhill and Orser and Fontana while Brown is new school; there are no politics quite as vicious as internal ones.
It’s a dilemma for Cheng; he claims there was no deal and he has not offered Caranci a position if he is elected. That’s not the impression that he gave when shaking Caranci’s hand. At that time he indicated that Caranci would become one of his consultants to help him learn the ropes, something about which Cheng knows very little having only attended a council meeting once. He had left after an hour because he found it boring. Today, at a televised all-candidates’ debate, he indicated that he has now been present at three meetings at city hall.
Caranci’s decision to throw his support to Cheng is unprecedented in local municipal races, as far as I can recall. Certainly, it has boosted Cheng’s confidence. While his platform is still thin and vague, he announces it with gusto.
City hall is broken, he asserts. London is a cruise ship heading for Niagara Falls. If you call city hall, no one answers; they’re on vacation. Or they say they’ll call back but nobody does. It’s not an auspicious way to begin an employer-employee relationship.
He’ll create jobs by sitting down with the 100 biggest employers (shades of Fontana’s Economic Council?). The London Economic Development Corporation will be called to account; either produce jobs to targets or you’re gone. He’ll take it over.
The London Plan which involved the largest public consultation ever and is the envy of many other Canadian cities is a ridiculous fantasy, according to Cheng. He doesn’t realize that, by law, the city is required to have an Official Plan. If he scraps this, the plan that was put together in consultation with 15,000 Londoners over a couple of years, what will he submit to the provincial government?
Likewise, he has little patience with Bus Rapid Transit. Initially, he wanted to build overpasses and underpasses to accommodate railroad crossings that create gridlock; when informed of the cost, up to half a billion dollars, he revised his position to promise that within 18 months a council led by him will have a plan for that. Without consultants, of course. The time for studies is over, he says. He wants action. Apparently, he was unaware that an Environmental Assessment for an over/underpass on Adelaide is underway. It’s mandated by the province. It requires consultants. There are provincial standards involved.
He promised to give $10 million for apprenticeship training but, when it was pointed out that he had also promised no new spending, he figured that he could find the money somewhere once he had a chance to look at the income and expenses. It’s clear that he has never examined the quarterly financial reports the city issues.
He wants a 100% graduation rate from secondary schools and zero tolerance for drugs in schools, apparently unaware that schools are not within his jurisdiction. He has a plan to get volunteers to teach foreign languages to students in church basements. It seems he taught English as a Second Language as a volunteer for one year while at university in Toronto in 1975.
He wants councillors come to him with ideas for the city. He will make sure they get to implement them and take all the credit for their success; if they fail, he will shoulder the blame. He seems not to realize that many or most of the council will be rookies; they will need to learn the ropes. There won’t be much left over for bold new ideas. They’ll be counting on him for direction.
This is the stuff that movies are made of: the little guy, the outsider, the underdog emerges from obscurity to win an election and lead the citizens to victory. The populist rhetoric resonates with those who are angry and frustrated by four years of dysfunctional government. They want a clean sweep. Throw the bastards out. All of them. They don’t remember who did what on council and they don’t care. Vote them all out.
Their saviour will be the “successful businessman”, someone who will crack the whip, call a spade a shovel, get rid of the deadwood. He’ll put the unions in their place. He will change the culture at city hall. He will build overpasses and not raise taxes. There will be jobs, jobs, jobs. He’ll do it all on a half salary. They have heard it all before, in 2010 in fact, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the triumph of hope over experience.
The only thing he needs is time, time to learn the ropes and time to put his ideas into practice. That could take a while.
Fontana promised to serve only one term. He was prescient, although I doubt he ever thought that things would turn out as they did.
Cheng is not satisfied with that; he wants 12 years. But what he actually hopes to accomplish in those 12 years is unclear.
He could do a lot of damage in just four years.