Gusto, guts, glory-seeking: The Denis Coderre treatment

He may be the saviour Montreal needs. But can even that enormous job possibly satisfy its uber-ambitious mayor?
Photograph by Roger Lemoyne
Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

It’s the smile you notice first. Broad, toothy and visible from across the room, it stretches his face seemingly to his eyeballs—a caricaturist’s dream in the flesh. Next, the handshake: firm, professional, brief. You can then expect a slap on the back, an eerily accurate personal anecdote about your family, and perhaps a remark about the Montreal Canadiens. The laugh comes next, a roar emerging from somewhere in his expansive chest. Finally, you’ll get a long, lazy wink. For those few moments, this jovial, hair-sprayed man in a tie and suspenders is your best friend in the world.

Call it the Coderre treatment, at once a trademark and key political tool of Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, the loudest noise to come out of city hall in decades. Coderre has enjoyed a ten-month extended honeymoon with Montreal; many say he has given a feel-good shot in the arm to a city long a prisoner of its own corruption and hostage to Quebec’s forever unstable politics. A devout populist, he’s Naheed Nenshi by way of rural Quebec, or Rob Ford without the myriad overindulgences. He quotes City Slickers and takes selfies. Twitter was invented for people like him.

Yet under the hammy exterior lies a truly political animal with a keen survival instinct, an appreciation of power and an uncanny ability to remain in the limelight. A Liberal MP who represented the Montreal riding of Bourassa for 16 years until being elected mayor last November, Coderre has spent much of his life either searching out or expanding his political influence.

“There are some people who are interested in money, and stuff sticks to their fingers. And there’s some people who have trouble keeping their trousers up. And there’s some people, the thing that gets them up in the morning is power, visibility and being in on the action. Denis is emphatically the third,” says former Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff, whose early political career benefited from Coderre’s organizational skills before the two had a public falling out in 2009.

Montreal is a difficult city to govern at the best of times, and its citizens tend to be as fickle about their mayors as they are about the Habs—they are the best thing in the world until they absolutely stink. Coderre has so far done all the right things. He’s reassured the city’s business community, put in place a permanent anti-corruption czar, formed allegiances with his political foes in council and generally impressed voters by being unrelentingly optimistic about Montreal’s prospects. “Montreal is back,” is Coderre’s favourite of many catchphrases.

Yet few politicians leave the federal scene to govern a city, no matter how large, and fewer still have Coderre’s ambition. It begs several questions: Can the man who has long coveted the prime minister’s office be contained within Montreal’s borders? Will he be able govern a city in which the powers of the mayor’s office are decidedly restrained? Can he even stomach the job, when the honeymoon inevitably peters out?

The office of Montreal’s mayor opens onto a terrace overlooking the city’s downtown core. The modest heights of Mount Royal, topped with a giant illuminated crucifix, poke up between the highrises. Inside, the similarly modest desk of iconic mayor Jean Drapeau sits off in one corner. Paintings by early 20th-century Montreal artists Georges Delfosse and Adrien Hébert hang on the wood-panelled walls. One of Coderre’s additions to the collection is a caricature of himself drawn by La Presse’s Serge Chapleau, in which Mount Royal forms the bulk of Coderre’s body and the crucifix is tied birthday hat-style around many chins.

CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward
CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward

The Coderre treatment with a visiting reporter dispensed with, the mayor sits down, takes a big breath and assures me he isn’t leaving. “There’s a soul here, and the more I’m here, the more I love it. I truly, really love the place. And to be candid, after 16 years in Ottawa, and with all that I’m living right now, I’ve said, ‘Wow, I’m really pleased and proud of what I’ve accomplished in Ottawa, but this is my place.’ ”

Montreal is home, he says. Growing up in the tiny village of Saint-Adolphe-de-Rodriguez about 100 km north of Montreal—his father was a carpenter, his mother a housewife—Coderre moved to the city in 1973. Today, he lives in a modest brown-bricked home in Montreal North. He has a wife and two children. He often calls himself Montreal’s first Haitian mayor, a nod to his affinity for the sizable Haitian community in his old riding of Bourassa.

Apart from Chapleau’s caricature, Coderre’s office decorations include Team Canada and Canadiens jerseys, both emblazoned with his name, and an Expos cap with the words “build it and they will come” stitched into the side. His belief that the baseball team will return to Montreal (it left in 2004) is, like his Habs obsession, part of the Coderre persona. Much of his career—the most visible part of it, anyway—consisted of attacking and haranguing his political and ideological opponents in the press and in the House of Commons. Today, he is more likely to open the door for them. With a few exceptions, Montreal’s is a party-dominated political system; following the elections, Coderre brought two members of one of the opposition parties onto his executive committee.

“This isn’t a parliament, it’s an administration. I need strong people, strong ideas. We’ve got to deliver and we have to make a difference, because we’re losing an opportunity for not doing it,” Coderre says.

He appointed one mayoral rival, Richard Bergeron, to a committee tasked with covering the Ville Marie expressway through downtown—one of Bergeron’s main election planks during the campaign. He made another of his mayoral rivals, Marcel Côté, an adviser to executive committee president Pierre Desrochers. (Côté passed away last May.)

Bergeron’s Projet Montréal party leads the largest opposition party against Coderre. He is nonetheless effusive in his praise for his rival. “We need a mayor with backbone, and Denis has a backbone. He doesn’t bend. After nearly a year in office I’m forced to say that he is quite good.”

Then again, this new, suddenly non-partisan Coderre might be a matter of circumstance. His is a minority government, having elected 27 of 65 members to municipal council. Coderre himself garnered 32 per cent of mayoral votes—the lowest percentage in the history of Montreal’s elected mayors. The bulk of his support came from those boroughs surrounding his old federal riding in the city’s north. A few months ago, Bergeron criticized Coderre’s suburban base, comparing him to Rob Ford. Coderre seems nonplussed about the insult. “After 30 years, I don’t take things personal,” he says.

In fact, Coderre often turns such attacks into politically beneficial spectacles. In May 2013, dozens of protesters showed up for Coderre’s official announcement of his mayoral intentions. Some carried signs, others wore masks. Everyone was loud and hostile. Others might have called it off. Coderre stood at the lectern and made his announcement nonetheless. Two protesters in masks and sunglasses stood behind him, strangely stoic as Coderre spoke. They looked like hired goons.

On a recent sunny Monday evening, several hundred firemen and blue-collar workers converged on city hall in protest of the Quebec government’s plan to restructure public sector pensions, which Coderre supports. Smoke bombs went off in the square behind city hall, and protesters stormed into council chambers, where municipal council was holding its monthly meeting. The workers jumped on desks, threw water at councillors and tossed reams of paper in the air. Someone pulled the fire alarm. They unfurled a banner reading “Coderre bandit” across the speaker’s chair.

Standing amidst a handful of councillors, Coderre watched from the western entrance, a hand on his hip, shaking his head. As they left, many protesters embraced the police outside, who did nothing to stop the vandalism; they, too, would be affected by the proposed pension clawback. Coderre met with Bergeron and said the meeting would go on. An hour after the protesters left, municipal council members sat amongst the garbage and finished the night’s affairs. Bergeron and Coderre hugged it out on the floor of chambers. “That was one of the greatest moments of my life. I was very proud of my democracy that night,” Coderre says.

Dario Ayala/The Gazette
Dario Ayala/The Gazette

The ensuing media coverage was almost unanimously favourable to Coderre.

Ten days later, police laid charges against 44 people allegedly involved in the protest, and Montreal police Chief Marc Parent ordered an investigation into the conduct of his officers. “The unions virtually handed Coderre a 10-point boost in the polls overnight,” opposition councillor Marvin Rotrand marvels.

In 1986, 23-year-old Denis Coderre, then the president of the Quebec chapter of Young Liberals, backed Liberal leader John Turner, then facing a leadership review following his loss to Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives roughly two years before. “Jean Chrétien has no vision of the future,” Coderre said of the man he would eventually call his “political father.” Turner would seem an odd choice for Coderre, if only because his outspokenness, organizational prowess and backslapping persona so resembled those of Chrétien.

But Coderre hopped on the Turner bandwagon with typical gusto nonetheless. “A lot of us, Coderre included, didn’t see Chrétien as electable,” says Jonathan Schneiderman, who was leader of the Liberal party’s youth wing at the time. Turner, on the other hand, was a British-born Bay Street progeny and a veteran of Pierre Trudeau’s government—“our white knight,” as Schneiderman says.

Yet by 1987, with an election 15 months away, Turner was faltering in the polls and on the fundraising front. Most, like Schneiderman, wanted Turner to tough it out. Others were suddenly impatient, including Liberal senator Pietro Rizzuto, a fundraising powerhouse within the party and, as it happens, one of Coderre’s mentors. A year nearly to the day after Coderre backed Turner, the Quebec youth wing president called for his resignation. “I think he saw the way the wind was blowing and joined the anti-Turner forces,” Schneiderman says today. “Coderre was fiercely loyal. He was very direct. He was just equally direct in both directions.”

Today, Coderre says he regrets the way he asked for Turner’s resignation. “When you’re young, you don’t notice the collateral damage of your decisions.” Yet it wasn’t his first political contradiction, nor his last. At the age of 17, Coderre first put his fledgling political muscle to work by campaigning for the Yes campaign in the 1980 referendum. Coderre did so out of a reverence for René Lévesque and an affinity for Jacques-Yvan Morin, the Parti Québécois MNA elected in the very neighbourhood that, 17 years later, Coderre would represent as a Liberal MP.

“René Lévesque was above all a democrat, someone who did on-the-ground politics, who tried to help people understand the political stakes,” Coderre says today. “I wasn’t a separatist, but I’m someone who is proud of his identity and that influences my work.”

Morin vaguely remembers him, but couldn’t speak to Coderre’s organizing prowess. In any case, in 1990, La Presse journalist and éminence grise of Quebec politics Denis Lessard wrote that Coderre was an “ex-ardent nationalist”—though Coderre’s nationalist fervour didn’t last much longer. “I discovered Ottawa,” he said of his one year of university there. “I spoke to people from other provinces.” That was when, in 1985, Coderre organized a shock troop of young students under what he called the “Coalition Coderre,” and promptly got himself elected as the Quebec chapter president of the Young Liberals of Canada.

“When he came into the party, you knew he was going to have a political career,” says former justice minister and Coderre’s longtime political adversary Martin Cauchon, who says he and Coderre are on good terms today. “It was the first time the youth wing was so well organized. He loved politics, and loved being high-profile.”

Lino Zambito was a member of the young Liberals who has known Coderre since 1991. Though they haven’t seen each other in three years, they remain on friendly terms. “He hasn’t changed a bit since those days. That year, he led a cheer at the Liberal convention in the Calgary Saddledome [when Chrétien became leader]. When Chrétien was elected, me and Denis helped hoist him onto the bar. People say he plays a role, but he is honestly like that,” Zambito says.


Not surprisingly, Coderre fast became a resolute, almost ferocious Canadian patriot. “I will never let anyone to whom we’ve offered political asylum—because they were in mortal danger in their country—to come spit on our flag by advocating the separation of Quebec. Sometimes I think we should re-enact the deportation law and send these people who spit on my flag back to their country,” Coderre said a few months before the 1997 election.

The comment incensed Bloc Québécois MP Osvaldo Nunez, Coderre’s political opponent at the time. Born in Chile, Nunez worked for Chilean president Salvador Allende and was forced to flee the country in 1974, shortly after Augusto Pinochet’s U.S.-backed coup d’état, in which upwards of 3,500 people were killed, tortured, kidnapped or disappeared.

Coderre promptly trounced Osvaldo in the election. Nearly two decades later, Nunez politely declined Maclean’s invitation to speak of their rivalry. “I don’t like talking about Denis Coderre,” he says.

Coderre got his first taste of real power, such as it was, when he became secretary of state for amateur sport in 1999. At first blush, the position may have seemed a slight to the ambitious 36-year-old. For the first time since the department existed, it wasn’t a full cabinet position; his days would seemingly consist mostly of photo ops and ribbon cuttings without the weight of a ministerial budget behind him. As it turned out, though, Coderre quite liked the photo ops.

“In sport, it’s your job to go out and get your picture taken with athletes and champions; it was an excellent entry point for a minister,” says former International Olympic Committee vice-president Dick Pound, a Montrealer. “Coderre had been ID’ed as being in Chrétien’s mould. Not a Rhodes Scholar, but a guy who relates to people, who works well in the ridings.”

Coderre’s biggest coup was luring the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) from Lausanne, Switzerland, to Montreal in 2002. In the wake of several high-profile doping scandals, including that of Ben Johnson in 1988, policing the world’s athletes had become an important concern. “The Swiss wanted everything,” Pound recalls. “But Denis played on the huge concentration of support in Europe. He said, ‘Let’s put the “W” back in WADA.’ As in, ‘the world,’ not just Switzerland. He was very good at getting government support. It would not have happened without Denis.”

The impact for Montreal was huge, Pound says. “WADA is a high-profile international organization that attracts a lot of worldwide attention. It’s in your face, making calls on high-profile athletes and countries. We are very much on that map.” Pound served as WADA president from 1999 to 2007.

Former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe spent the better part of his early career sparring with Coderre; like Pound, he remembers a young, punchy politician whose ambition and confidence seem to ooze out of his pores. Coderre had run against Duceppe in the Sainte-Marie riding in 1990—Coderre’s second of three failed elections before his success in 1997. A Liberal stronghold, Coderre fashioned himself the heir apparent of Jean-Claude Malépart, its long-serving MP. “He even wore big red suspenders like Malépart always wore in his campaign posters,” Duceppe says.

During one of the candidate radio debates, Coderre reached over and lifted up Duceppe’s earphones. “He said, ‘Do I scare you? Do I scare you?’ ” Duceppe says today, cackling at the memory. “I didn’t think this guy was serious. I changed my tune later.” Duceppe handily won the by-election, and set off to his parents’ house to deliver the news in person. At the corner of Roy and Viau in Montreal’s east end, Duceppe noticed a minivan in his rearview, its horn blaring. A man got out and knocked on his window at the traffic light. It was Coderre.

“I got out of my car, and Coderre shakes my hand. ‘It was a great campaign,’ he says to me. He’d just taken a beating politically. He could have been mad and told me to go to hell. Instead, he stops me in traffic to congratulate me.”

Duceppe and Coderre developed one of those seemingly confounding political relationships, in which they would insult each other in Parliament and the press, yet remain friendly when the cameras were turned off. Throughout the years, Coderre referred to the Bloc as “useless,” “disgusting” and “a zoo.” Duceppe, meanwhile, suggested Coderre was part of the sponsorship scandal, in which Liberal-friendly firms in Quebec benefited from government contracts tendered to promote Canadian unity in the province. The scandal nearly sank the Liberal party in Quebec.

More than once, the Bloc leader called for Coderre’s resignation. Yet the two fierce partisans found a common enemy in the governing Conservatives, and worked together to help spark the resignation of foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier, then one of the party’s rising stars. And it all started with a haircut.

“I’ve been getting my haircut at the same place in Montreal forever, and one day my hairdresser asks me, ‘Do you know a minister named Bernier?’ I said yes, of course. And she tells me that he’d been in here with woman with a short skirt and boots up to here and boobs out to here,” Duceppe says, miming two globules on his chest. It was Julie Couillard, Bernier’s girlfriend at the time. “‘She asked me to cut his hair like Brad Pitt,’ ” the hairdresser said to Duceppe.

Duceppe went straight to Coderre, then Liberal Canadian Heritage critic and the party’s de facto parliamentary megaphone. “I say, ‘Denis, I got a good one for you. I think Bernier’s got problems.’ ” By then, Couillard’s past—she’d had several relationships with known members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang—was making the rounds, as had the news that Bernier had forgotten some NATO-related documents at her home. “Yeah, I read the dossier,” Coderre said to Duceppe. “He lost some documents.”

“I said, ‘Let’s tag-team and nail him,’ ” Duceppe recalls. The next time Bernier rose in Parliament, Coderre called him “Brad Pitt” under his breath. “My God, Bernier was mad,” Duceppe says, grinning at the memory. Duceppe and Coderre didn’t let up on Bernier until he was forced to resign in May 2008. “Maybe Coderre could have done it alone, maybe I could have, but because we worked together we pulled it off really well.”

Today, Duceppe only speaks fondly of Coderre. He may have called for Coderre’s resignation in his previous political life, but now the former Bloc leader admits he never thought Coderre was involved in the sponsorship scandal. “All the info I was getting was from Paul Martin’s guys, to hurt Chrétien,” Duceppe says. “If they had anything on Coderre, they would have given it to me.”

In March 2005, Coderre heard a speech by a Canadian-born, Harvard-educated intellectual named Michael Ignatieff at a Liberal party policy conference in Ottawa. “He said he liked the speech because it was so arrogant,” Ignatieff says. “What can I say? We bonded immediately.”

When Martin lost to Stephen Harper in 2006, the Liberal party went through one of its now-familiar existential crises, and party brass inevitably looked for a saviour. Coderre knew who it should be. “You know the way Denis says, ‘You’re a win-nar!’ ” Ignatieff says. “He thought I was a win-nar. He thought he could do something with me.”

As Coderre’s preferred candidate for Liberal leader, Ignatieff says he benefited mightily from Coderre’s organizational skills, particularly in Coderre’s home province. The pair criss-crossed Quebec in the run-up to the Liberal leadership convention in late 2006, usually with Coderre at the wheel of his Ford Explorer.

“My most vivid memories of Denis were riding in his SUV while he plays loud music. I remember he’s the kind of guy who courts a leader. He knew I liked Johnny Cash, so there was Johnny Cash. He’d be talking, kind of looking at his BlackBerry, all the while going down really obscure alleys in Quebec,” Ignatieff recalls.

“We’d go to these amazing Italian restaurants in the darker regions of [Montreal suburb] Laval, meeting these huge guys who were six feet across and six feet tall. He knew them all by name: Lucco and Rocco and this and that. He had incredible networks. Lots of whispering in your ear when you walk into a room: who that person was, who to avoid, look left, look right, smile.”

Coderre helped stack the floor with Ignatieff supporters during the leadership convention—“Bailing them in, tying them up and putting them in the pen,” Ignatieff fondly remembers. Yet his preferred leadership candidate ended up losing to Stéphane Dion. In 2008, when the Liberals entered into yet another crisis following Dion’s disastrous election campaign that year, Ignatieff was there to play saviour—and Coderre was at his side.

The Coderre-Ignatieff machine restarted in earnest, with the slightly befuddled former Harvard professor often following in Coderre’s expansive wake. This time, it paid off: Ignatieff won. “The palm-squeezing, shoulder grabbing, the physicality of politics, he just loves it. Everybody knocks that kind of stuff, but I’ll tell you, politics is built on loyalty, and loyalty is physical, and he understood that,” Ignatieff says.

Coderre showed the limits of that loyalty less than a year into Ignatieff’s leadership, the former leader says. Eager to topple the minority Conservative government, Ignatieff’s team began to cobble together a candidate slate. The party was particularly keen to reclaim the Montreal riding of Outremont from the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, who had taken the Liberal stronghold in a 2007 by-election.

Much of the party brass as well as Outremont’s Liberal riding association wanted as a candidate Martin Cauchon, who had represented Outremont for 10 years. Coderre, by then Ignatieff’s Quebec lieutenant, wanted a lesser-known businesswoman. After dithering on a decision, Ignatieff sided with Cauchon’s candidacy.

Coderre, furious, quickly called a press conference. “The message sent by recent events is this: to get what you want in Quebec, don’t bother with local party officials and go straight to the party brain trust in Toronto,” Coderre said, his eyes fixed in an unblinking stare.

In Quebec, the perception that Toronto rules the roost is the ultimate Scarlet Letter, the rough political equivalent of a communicable disease. Coderre’s insult was actually twofold: in one short soundbite, he damned both the leader he long supported and the party he professed to love.

“That broke our relationship,” Ignatieff says today. “Coderre is a fantastic team player when he thinks he’s running the team. He’s terrible when he has to do the other part of being a team, which is sucking it up. I have a lot of affection for him, but that’s a weakness. So he sat out the next two years, and it’s one of the reasons why we had a very tough election in 2011. I’m not blaming Denis, because I was leader. But I’m telling you, if I had Denis in his SUV prowling Quebec’s byways in 2010 we might have won a few more seats.”

“We would have won more seats if he would have listened to me!” Coderre retorts today. He says his internal polling at the time had the Liberals ahead in 60 of Quebec 75 ridings, and he was in negotiations with five star candidates to run for the party.

I suggest to Coderre that his Toronto comment was the kiss of death for the Liberal party in Quebec. “I don’t care,” he says forcefully. “I got to be okay with myself, too.”

Some believe Ignatieff was at fault. “I don’t think Michael played it openly,” says former Liberal cabinet minister Francis Fox, himself an early Ignatieff backer. Still, Fox says, the incident definitely hurt both the Liberal party and Coderre’s fortunes within it. “It hurt us badly when Coderre left and it hurt him too with the party in the rest of the country . . .  I think that put an end to his leadership ambitions at that period of time.”

Ignatieff and Coderre haven’t spoken since 2011.

Coderre didn’t have to do much to exceed Montrealers’ expectations. Two of the previous three mayors resigned in disgrace. Interim mayor Michael Applebaum, who took over from Gérald Tremblay in November 2012, was arrested and charged seven months later with 14 counts of fraud, conspiracy and corruption, relating to a real estate deal prior to becoming mayor.

Still, Coderre’s arrival has undeniably coincided with a palpable uplift in the collective spirits of Montrealers. “It’s unquestionable that there is a new optimism in Montreal,” says Bruce McNiven, a Montreal lawyer and a long-time cultural and heritage advocate of the city. “It was a mood swing. Denis says, ‘Montreal is back’ in a room and you can see people nodding.” The optimism is also quantifiable: according to a recent report by Altus Group, a real estate analysis firm, downtown condominium sales are up 60 per cent in the second quarter of 2014—the first rise after three quarters of declining sales.

At least part of this has to do with the defeat of the Parti Québécois government last April. “I find that post-Pauline Marois”—the former PQ premier—“there has been a jubilance and a gusto and a revival in the city that’s extraordinary,” says Jonathan Wener, CEO of Canderel, a prominent Montreal-based real estate investment company. The corruptive overindulgences of the province’s construction industry, which have deeply hurt Montreal’s bottom line and sullied its image, have been blunted thanks largely to the Charbonneau commission, an ongoing inquiry into the industry.

If Coderre isn’t responsible for any of this, he can rightfully claim to have arrived at a precipitous moment in Montreal’s history, and acted accordingly. One of his first orders of business was to recruit Charbonneau commission lawyer Denis Gallant as the city’s inspector-general. Gallant’s mandate is to oversee the tendering and execution of city contracts. “I got the idea from when I was [federal] defence critic,” Coderre says. “I saw how the Pentagon had 73 departments, and one director-general who would act as sort of ombudsman but who had the power to police the procurement.”

Lino Zambito, Coderre’s friend from his Young Liberal days, went into construction in 1998; in 2012, as a witness in the Charbonneau commission, he detailed how for decades Montreal construction companies, his own included, colluded to inflate city contracts. There has been a marked decrease of such behaviour since Gallant’s arrival, Zambito says. “From what I hear and know, there’s proper competition in water mains and sewers. In asphalt there’s competition. I’m told that sidewalks are still under control, though. It’s not a free market on sidewalks,” Zambito says.

Montreal governance remains what Concordia University public policy professor Harold Chorney once called a “Swiss cheese mess.” Forcibly merged into one entity in 2002, several former boroughs elected to demerge in 2006. Today, the island of Montreal is a pockmarked mélange of 19 united boroughs and what amounts to 15 separate cities. Montrealers elect 105 representatives—more than Toronto and the five boroughs of New York City combined.

Some wonder whether Coderre will be able to leave his mark on the city. The system “has completely paralyzed Montreal,” says former councillor and PQ minister Louise Harel. “Coderre has to deal with 18 other mayors. The only thing he has, his real power, is the force of his personality. He doesn’t have much power otherwise.” Coderre’s recent attempts to centralize some powers and reconfigure borough budgets has led to several borough mayors to threaten to demerge from the city.

In his office, Coderre laughs off Harel’s contention that he is powerless—while inadvertently acknowledging her point. “Do you really believe that’s the case?” He asks, pointing to his lapels. “It’s a matter of attitude, it’s not just a matter of structure. It’s not a matter of centralization versus decentralization. It’s a matter of efficiency and coherence.” And the threatened demergers? “That won’t happen. Forget about it.” Why not? “The Quebec government has been clear: there won’t be any demergers.” OK, then.

Coderre has developed a close relationship with Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume, a populist loudmouth in his own right. Notably, they have both supported the provincial government’s pension reform plan. They’ve also appeared in cheeky billboard advertisements for the province’s blood bank.

For Coderre, there is a strategic element to the friendship: unlike Montreal, where voters are largely entrenched, Quebec City is home to several swing seats, and Labeaume has serious influence over the provincial government as a result. “Coderre needed Labeaume’s support because Labeaume pretty much gets whatever he wants,” says Danielle Pilette, a professor of urban affairs at the Université du Quebec à Montreal.

Critics say Coderre has consolidated power within his own government, leading to grumbles amongst opposition members that Coderre is channelling Jean Drapeau’s autocratic style of yore. “It’s not a party per se. It’s supposedly a banner where each member can contribute but the mayor is the star of the team and none of the players has so far voted out of lockstep or contributed any ideas that deviate at all from the mayor’s line,” councillor Rotrand says.

Maybe that is Montreal’s appeal to Denis Coderre. A magnificent and unruly mess, it stokes his inner control freak in a way governing a stable country like Canada couldn’t. Cities, not countries, are where the action is, and Coderre wants a piece. “People don’t say they’re from the States anymore. You’re from New York, you’re from Los Angeles, you’re from Boston. I’m from Montreal. I love Canada, but we’re always talking about our cities first. It’s not the size of the axe, it’s the strength of the swing.”