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Mr. Nice Guy

With conviction, charm and humour, Mayor Mike Savage has built a more harmonious City Hall in his first year in office

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HRM Mayor Mike Savage. Photo: Randal Tomada

HRM Mayor Mike Savage. Photo: Randal Tomada

Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published in the Halifax Magazine October 2013 issue.

One year in office and Mayor Mike Savage feels liberated.

“I want to wear a dress, I want to wear high heels. I want do a video comparing myself to Brad Pitt,” Savage says of his goals as mayor. And in less than a year he’s managed to do all three: wearing high heels for a YWCA fundraiser, dressing in drag for the Dykes vs. Divas softball game during Pride Week in July. And making a video comparing himself to Brad Pitt to enter (and ultimately win) a contest from Benjamin Moore’s Main Street Makeover campaign.

And while all three weren’t official mayoral duties, they point to something different about his leadership style, a significant difference in the way City Hall runs. “I do think, by and large, people would be more supportive of a mayor who has a bit of a personality,” he says. “That’s what I am hearing. Maybe I have closed off my ears to the criticism. Certainly I was pretty ugly in that dress. It wasn’t meant to be a huge political statement but it did show to me that in the spirit of Pride Week, it’s about celebrating whoever we are.”

Jeffrey MacLeod, associate professor and chair of the political-science department at Mount Saint Vincent University, says while such stunts have their critics, they also demonstrate how Savage sees his role. “He, like his father, has that sardonic wit and he’s a practical joker,” says MacLeod, who worked for John Savage’s government as executive assistant for health minister Dr. Ron Stewart and has known Mike Savage for years. “He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He can be serious, obviously, as a politician but he’s not afraid to dress up in drag and go out there. That’s a bold move.”

MacLeod recalls overhearing Savage once say, “Politics is show business for ugly people.”

“That is a very insightful comment,” MacLeod says. “I am not saying Mike Savage is ugly, but he’s not, you know, Brad Pitt. What I get is when he says things like that is that he really understands politics as performance. And that’s not fake or lying to people. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. I think he gets that. It’s not just the words; it’s the actions.”

Councillors say he’s set a new tone for municipal government. “I think he’s doing a good job,” says Gloria McCluskey, Councillor with District 5 (Dartmouth Centre) and former mayor of Dartmouth. She was less enthusiastic in January 2012, when her comment to News 95.7 about his candidacy was “Great, another Savage…I’m not impressed.”

“Some people said to me when I was running for election, ‘Will you be able to work with the mayor?’” McCluskey recalls. “Of course, I will be able to work with the mayor! Why couldn’t I work with the mayor? I went to see the mayor during the election. They thought that me being so upset with his father over amalgamation…that has nothing to do with this mayor… He’s not as serious as [Peter] Kelly was. Each person has their own style…I see no problem with his style.”

For the new Councillors, that sense of humour has eased their transition into a municipal government that’s as new to them as it is to Savage. “He has the ability to diffuse potential conflict with a couple of jokes,” says Waye Mason, councillor for District 7 (Peninsula South-Downtown), was elected for the first time in 2012. “In Council he’s actually more effective, but almost, more importantly, Council appears to be a more cohesive, more effective unit…For the most part decorum has been kept and the discussion has been very good. Even if I don’t get my way, I feel like discussions have been really high quality.”

Down to business

But while he may have lightened the mood at City Hall, Savage is also seen as a mayor very much connected to the job. And even though he has limited executive authority, he says he’s more involved in even the most mundane of details. “I often tell people you don’t have to be a good mayor to be a busy one,” Savage says. “I am surprised at the number of things that go across the mayor’s desk, the things I have to sign off on or the things people think I should have input in… from really important local issues, to concerts that are coming to town to all those sorts of things. I hope over the course of being mayor I can change some of that so that people who have more knowledge in some of these areas have the final say.”

Photo: Randal Tomada

Photo: Randal Tomada

Council is far different from the House of Commons, where Savage spent several years as the Liberal MP for Dartmouth-Cole Harbour. He admits the process of Council, with no parties or caucus, tests his patience. “I am not somebody who spends a lot of time going through the rules and procedures on how Council works,” he says, joking about how that frustrates veteran Councillors like Bill Karsten. “Partly, I am new at it. And partly I get a little impatient with it…But I think that is something I have to work on. I am interested in the relationships it takes to get done. I am less interested in the process and procedures of getting it done. But I do want to get it done.”

But while he might still have problems with the process of Council, building consensus and establishing relationships with Councillors, he admits, is his biggest strength.

“We’re all in love with each other,” he jokes. “We have people like Reggie [Rankin] and Steve Adams and David Hendsbee who have been around a long time. We have others who have been in there for a decade or less, Bill Karsten, Lorelei [Nicol], people like that. And then we have the brand new ones, Mattie Whitman, Waye Mason and Steve Craig. And I think that’s a good balance…I think the people who have been there a long time bring a collective wisdom that comes from in some cases a decade a half or more of solid learning. But you need the new critical eyes on things to say just because things have always been done that way there’s no reason to continue to do it.”

Like father, like son

Comparisons to his father John were inevitable, even before Savage got into city hall. John Savage was a Liberal premier and mayor of the city of Dartmouth from 1985 to 1992. MacLeod says one trait Savage shares with his father is the ability to bring people from different political backgrounds together. When he announced his mayoral candidacy, his supporters spanned the political spectrum, including members of
the NDP (NDP MP Robert Chisholm defeated Savage in his last attempt to run for the Dartmouth-Cole Harbour riding).

“He doesn’t hold political grudges,” MacLeod says. “He’s not a rabid partisan person. It gives him a lot of advantage because the mayor, as a position, is the chair of a group. His executive authority is pretty limited, as mayor, and the ability to get things done is entirely based on the ability to persuade members of Council to follow you. And if you don’t have that ability you’re not very useful in that role. It’s only early in his tenure, but he seems to be able to convince people to follow his lead.”

He’s also like his parents in his interest in social-justice causes. “He is the product of John and Marg Savage,” Mason says, noting the mayor will often seem visibly moved when he discusses those issues closest to him. “He is seriously that guy. And you ask him and you will see.”

For Savage, social justice was a huge part of his upbringing. “My mother taught me that politics is about helping those who need help, not just those who don’t need help,” Savage says. “There’s often a lot of people lobbying for those who don’t need much help. Politics to me is about making the community a better place to live.”

Real test to come

Of course, a real test of Savage’s leadership as mayor hasn’t happened yet. Mason thinks his first could come in November when Council completes the five-year review of the Regional Plan (RP+5). McCluskey says a test like the one Kelly faced with Occupy Nova Scotia movement could be a key moment for Savage. In November 2011, former mayor Kelly faced criticism when police broke up the Occupy protest in Victoria Park on Remembrance Day.

“Mike said to me one day, I was in his office, ‘I look out the window [over Parade Square] and wonder what I would have done in that situation,’” McCluskey says. “So, I thought [Kelly] did the right thing. The only thing… was that he wouldn’t speak out and say what he thought. But I think [Savage] will do all right in handling that sort of thing. He doesn’t seem to be hot headed. Time will tell. We never know how anybody will handle anything.”

MacLeod says one year in is not long enough to make a fair assessment of Savage’s leadership or how he will handle true political tests. But he’d advise the Mayor to stay the course.

“My advice is probably what he doesn’t need to hear from me, which is be yourself,” he says. “People are much more perceptive than they are given credit for. They can tell when you’re putting on an act. They can tell when you’re trying to avoid responsibility. And if you’re upfront and not trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes and be pretentious, that’s where you get in trouble. And I haven’t seen Mike Savage doing any of that.”

It’s a plan Savage already has in place, one of caring and not caring at the same time.

“There wasn’t a day, there literally wasn’t a day, when I wasn’t thinking about re-election because we were in a minority parliament situation and because of the highly toxic nature of federal politics you are always thinking of re-election,” Savage says of his time in Ottawa. “That doesn’t enter my mind as mayor. I will think about it. I don’t worry about it. I have no idea if I will run for mayor again. I am mayor unless I mess up – and if you follow Canadian mayors, anything is possible. I am here till 2016 or until I die and no matter how much people like or don’t like me.”

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