Allison Hanes: Could Denis Coderre save the Quebec Liberals?

With his track record, the former Montreal mayor has attributes that could be useful and relevant in the current Quebec political climate.

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Denis Coderre is right about one thing: everybody is talking about him.

But are they cheering or cringing after he let it be known Wednesday that he is seriously considering vying for the leadership of the Quebec Liberal Party? That’s a whole other question.

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For Coderre, the flamboyant former Montreal mayor and scrappy one-time minister in the federal Liberal cabinet, is right about something else, too: He leaves no one indifferent.

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His potential candidacy could be a double-edged sword for the Quebec Liberals, who have been without a permanent leader since the party’s worst electoral showing in history prompted Dominique Anglade to quit in 2022.

On the one hand, Coderre, 60, is a high-profile figure whose potential candidacy ignited instant interest in a contest that has so far generated little attention.

“I am still looking for the five per cent (of people) who don’t know me,” he quipped during his radio gig on CKVL 100.1 FM, the sole venue where he spoke publicly about his reflection on seeking a job that no one else seems to want.

Marwah Rizqy, the MNA most people have ardently been hoping would vie to lead and admitted she is tempted, announced during the Christmas holidays she is pregnant. Several other elected members have also closed the door.

With only MNA Frédéric Beauchemin potentially interested — who recently rejoined caucus after being ejected over a now-withdrawn intimidation complaint — the Liberals have lobbed their selection of a new leader all the way to 2025, hoping someone will come along with the charisma and vision to revive their fortunes.

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But is this blast from the past that long-awaited saviour?

Coderre lost to current Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante – twice, the first time in 2017 as an incumbent unseated by the underdog, the second time in 2021 in a failed attempt at redemption that prompted him to retire from political life. Does he have what it takes to beat Premier François Legault?

On the radio, Coderre noted Joe Biden lost four times before winning the U.S. presidency at 77.

Coderre would certainly come with baggage if he throws his hat into the ring — a decision he won’t make until after a pilgrimage on Spain’s famed Camino Santiago de Compostela in May where he hopes walking will complete his recovery from a mild stroke he suffered last year.

During his one term at city hall he is remembered for his sometimes clownish political gimmicks, once taking a jackhammer to a Canada Post mailbox; his improvisation, doubling down on a flawed pitbull ban after a fatal dog attack; and his bombastic stubbornness, insisting on holding an unpopular electric-car race through a residential neighbourhood despite local opposition.

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He had a penchant for the grandiose, spending millions to celebrate Montreal’s 375th birthday. Although the granite stumps he had placed on Mount Royal remain an oddity, the once-controversial illumination of the Jacques Cartier Bridge and the Fleuve-Montagne Promenade are legacy projects now regarded more fondly.

As a veteran of the Jean Chrétien- and later Paul Martin-era federal Liberal cabinets, Coderre could easily be dismissed as yesterday’s man. And yet it would be a mistake to brush him off.

With his track record, Coderre has attributes that could be useful and relevant in the current Quebec political climate.

The first is flair. Although his antics may prompt eye-rolling at times, Coderre is rarely boring. He would stand out in a crowded field of opposition parties competing for attention in the National Assembly, something the Quebec Liberals sometimes struggle to do.

Coderre’s brand of inclusive populism just might prove an effective antidote to Legault’s dog whistle politics. Where Legault aims to divide, Coderre brings people together. Where Legault creates an “us and them,” Coderre embraces the “nous.” He is proud of his roots in Montreal North and his time representing the diverse area as an MP.

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“Francophones, anglophones, allophones. They’re are all Quebecers,” Coderre said Wednesday. “We have to stop building walls. We have to start building bridges.”

As a former mayor, no one can doubt his love for Montreal. But the Joliette native’s folksy charm could perhaps give paternalistic Legault a run for his money in rural Quebec, where the Liberals would need to score votes to form a government. Perhaps Coderre was actually ahead of his time with his populist style.

Known as “Captain Canada” under Chrétien, Coderre could also put up a spirited defence of national unity against a resurgent Parti Québécois.

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Yet, no one can doubt he is a staunch champion of Quebec. He quit as Quebec lieutenant under former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff over concerns the party had become too Toronto-centric. And who could forget the fight he picked with former National Hockey League player Shane Doan over an anti-French slur the Phoenix Coyote allegedly uttered toward officials during a game against the Habs?

The off-ice brawl resulted in an expensive court battle – illustrating how Coderre is also sometimes his own worst enemy and his stunts can backfire.

No, Coderre is certainly not perfect.

But his swagger will enliven a dull leadership contest — and in a best-case scenario, encourage another candidate with vision, passion and credibility to take him on.

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