Valérie Plante faces a daunting challenge to unseat Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre in Sunday's municipal elections, but the one-term city councillor has already accomplished a feat few of Mr. Coderre's political opponents have ever pulled off.
She's humbled him.
Faced with a challenger who has eliminated his lead with big promises, a positive outlook and ready laugh, Mr. Coderre recently went on an apology tour free of the bombast and dismissiveness he usually dishes out to people who question him.
"If I stepped on any toes, I'm sorry," Mr. Coderre said in one interview. "Maybe I need to smile more … But what's important is the city stay in the mode of getting things done."
Opinion polls in municipal elections are a dicey enterprise with unpredictable accounting for chronically low turnout, but two recent surveys suggested Ms. Plante has caught up to the former runaway front-runner, Mr. Coderre.
"Ms. Plante's support is more fragile but the trends are in her favour," said one of the pollsters, Jean-Marc Léger. "She incarnates change. People are fed up with politicians and are looking for new people."
In one telling breakdown that helps explain the tightening race, 55 per cent of respondents in a CROP-CBC poll found Mr. Coderre to be arrogant. Only 17 per cent said the same for Ms. Plante. "This is not a race to win polls," Mr. Coderre told reporters this week. "It's a moment in time, and we'll do what we need to do by Sunday."
Ms. Plante was buoyed by the momentum her campaign appears to be building. "It gives me a boost and makes me feel like I'm on the right track," she said.
Mr. Coderre's large and constant presence (one pundit nicknamed him Omnimayor) can obscure the fact he won in 2013 with just 32-per-cent support, beating then-unknown political neophyte Mélanie Joly, who had 26 per cent and went on to become a cabinet minister for Justin Trudeau. Combined, 68 per cent of the vote went to three Coderre opponents.
This time Ms. Plante is the only rival. Born in the northwestern mining and forestry town of Rouyn-Noranda 43 years ago, Ms. Plante moved to North Bay, Ont., as a teenager, where she honed her English before studying anthropology at the Université de Montréal. She worked as a cultural and community organizer before winning her first council seat in 2013.
Ms. Plante has held her own in one-on-one encounters with Mr. Coderre. In debates and joint TV appearances, Mr. Coderre attacked Ms. Plante for underestimating the cost of promises, but voters also took note he often cut her off when she would try to defend her calculations.
Ms. Plante launched cheeky advertising campaigns (in one she declared herself "the man for the job") and made big promises such as adding a metro line to the city's network and 12,000 social-housing units. But she's facing sharper questions about the billions these things would cost.
In a wide-ranging recent discussion with editors of Le Devoir, Ms. Plante struggled with details concerning Montreal's status as a "sanctuary city" for undocumented immigrants and the police chief's handling of internal scandal.
"I'm not a computer," she said at one point as she tried to deflect detailed cost questions. "There are subjects where we don't have [internal city] information."
Mr. Coderre does have a daunting gift for electoral organization and retail politics. One of his adversaries recently quipped Mr. Coderre has probably shaken hands with every Montreal seniors-home resident – people who turn out to vote.
Ms. Plante recognizes the challenge. "He uses the municipal machinery, he has a record to defend, the establishment is behind him," she said. "These are advantages I don't have."
Mr. Coderre won in 2013 after leaving federal Liberal politics, promising to restore civic pride, repair infrastructure and provide a corruption-free administration after a mayor resigned in disgrace and the interim replacement was imprisoned.
Four years later, he has largely delivered but the city is nearly exhausted from major construction and a calendar filled with events to mark the city's 375th birthday.
Montrealers have also seen an authoritarian streak. They regularly read tales of him berating police and city officials. He made national headlines for taking a jackhammer to a Canada Post platform to protest the end of home delivery. He gloated over the failure of an oil pipeline project dear to Alberta and Saskatchewan but unpopular in Montreal.
Mr. Coderre likes to say he's in "solution mode," which translated into things like a hasty pit-bull ban that mobilized dog lovers against him. He spent $28-million to help a concert promoter expand an outdoor venue into what Mr. Coderre hopes will be Montreal's "Hollywood Bowl." They chopped down 1,000 trees on a bucolic island park in the process.
A downtown neighbourhood group organized a revolt against an electric car race that turned their area into a fenced camp for weeks. The mayor declared the event a success while refusing to divulge how many people paid to attend the event subsidized by $24-million in city money. Instead the information dribbled out in the final week of the campaign and showed at least 20,000 people took freebies for the 45,000-seat race. Sponsors handed out thousands more. Mr. Coderre was forced to apologize for the lack of transparency.
At the same time, Montreal's economy and real estate market are hotter than they've been in decades and unemployment at record lows. Mega-projects to radically change the face of the city are well under way, including a replacement Champlain Bridge to the south and a massive new interchange to the west. A new light-rail system should revolutionize commutes for thousands.
The projects are mostly managed and financed by the province or Ottawa, but Mr. Coderre is wearing the consequences. The improvements are making Montreal's chaotic construction traffic worse than usual – the top civic irritant identified in polling.
In the last week of the campaign Mr. Coderre was himself caught in construction traffic, making him late for an interview with the city's biggest radio audience. Even he had to laugh about it.