Saint John mayor challenges residents to run for office

·5 min read

Saint John Mayor Don Darling had a few things he wanted to get off his chest.

So he organized a news conference Wednesday morning, invited the media and live streamed it.

"I've been in a knot for the last couple of weeks," he said. "If I didn't come here today and say what I said, I wouldn't be able to live with myself. I feel like I've now said to the community, 'You've been challenged to step up.'"

He encouraged those who may be thinking about running in municipal elections this spring to do so.

He also wanted to nudge those who may not have considered it, including those who have criticized municipal officials and politicians over the last five years. It's a challenge he's issued before to those who criticized from the sideliness: volunteer for a board or commission.

"Try it," he said. "You know, the worst that can happen is you don't make it."

In a 15-minute prepared speech, Darling talked about the highs and lows of being mayor and the importance of citizens stepping up to run for municipal government.

Darling, who announced a year ago that he wouldn't seek re-election, spent 15 more minutes answering questions from reporters, including the reasons behind calling the news conference.

Politics is, in a way, maybe just not for me. - Don Darling

"I would not have been able to live with myself if I didn't share these thoughts today," he said.

Darling said he and council made tough decisions that weren't always the popular ones. He said "we haven't kicked the can down the road" for future politicians to sort out. And he wants to ensure those tough decisions weren't all for naught by helping to attract candidates that can carry on the work of the past five years.

"We've tackled some significant issues, wrestled our deficit to the ground, implemented financial policies with a plan to lower the tax rate. Finally, we've paid down debt and our population has grown for the first time in decades."

Darling said he and his colleagues have laid "a strong foundation for growth" and have a commitment from the province to assist.

"The future is bright. However, it will require a team with the right focus and continued momentum, and the discipline to set citizen-centred policy.

"The idea that all our progress and hard fought wins might be lost if we don't choose wisely on May 10 is, quite frankly, keeping me up at night."

He said candidates should announce their intention to run now, so that citizens can get to know them.

Graham Thompson/CBC
Graham Thompson/CBC

"We need to encourage the right people to run, even if they've never considered it before. Too many people think that being on council requires special skills and experience they don't have."

While it's important to inform oneself and do the homework, Darling said, what is needed "is a commitment to doing your best for the people who voted for you."

Darling and council have had to sit an extra year after civic elections were postponed last year because of the pandemic. He said he has not changed his mind about not running again in May.

In February 2016, when he was thinking about running for mayor, he was told he didn't stand a chance.

"So if you're thinking about it, I hope you hear this message," he said Wednesday, promising to answer questions about the job from anyone who asks.

If you speak from the shadows, there's a higher standard for you. - Don Darling on Twitter

As much as he'd like to get the right people into the job, he will not endorse candidates.

"I can't stand up and say, 'I don't think that group should endorse someone,' and then turn around and endorse someone myself."

Darling said voters should do their homework and find out about candidates. He also suggested that candidates submit to background checks.

"If doing a background check scares someone off, it's probably a good thing."

He also talked about one of the most difficult parts of the job — the mean-spirited, often-personal attacks on social media.

Darling said he has never had a problem with people expressing differences of opinion. He said he could count on one hand the number of times that someone approached him in person to voice their upset.

"Online is a totally different deal," he said.

Darling said his family has been dragged into the fray and his son was even attacked physically. He also talked about not always being able to help people.

"One of my greatest strengths is I deeply care. And one of my biggest weaknesses is I deeply care."

He had to stop briefly to compose himself before saying how difficult it was not to be able to help people "in the way that they need."

"Politics is, in a way, maybe just not for me," said Darling.

In a speech that mostly focused on encouraging people to consider running for office, he cautioned that not everyone is cut out for politics.

If negative tweets bother you, you're probably not right for the job, said Darling.

Despite the "abusive behaviours" of social media, he said "the good has outweighed the bad" over the last five years.