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Jim Watson: Ottawa's longest serving Mayor


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On Sunday March 21st 2021, Jim Watson will officially be Ottawa's longest serving Mayor. 

 

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EGAN: Jim Watson hits the record books as longest-serving mayor. Here's why.

Watson, who also turns 60 this year, is remarkably like Stanley Lewis, the mayor (1936-48) being overtaken.

Author of the article:
Kelly Egan
Publishing date:

Mar 17, 2021  •  4 hours ago  •  5 minute read

Files: Mayor Jim Watson

Files: Mayor Jim Watson PHOTO BY JULIE OLIVER /Postmedia

On Saturday, Jim Watson will become the longest-serving mayor in the history of Ottawa, which officially began in 1855.

The milestone will be greeted with pride — and, possibly, horror — politics being a fairly vicious enterprise and longevity the sure way to accumulate hordes of friends and enemies, sometimes the very same people.

Watson, who also turns 60 this year, is remarkably like Stanley Lewis, the mayor (1936-48) being overtaken. Both masters of small talk, each criticized for having only modest civic visions, they began their careers as aldermen and were adept “retail politicians,” comfortable with paupers and kings.

Their lengthy tenures also suggest Ottawa returns leaders who are cheerfully bland, decently presentable and, in the back kitchen, just ruthless enough to manage the wilder ambitions of fellow councillors.

So we take the measure of the pair.

OF THE PEOPLE

It was once written of Lewis that he knew the names of more people in town than any mayor since the days of Bytown. The same could be said of Watson who, after a couple of encounters, will remember your name, your spouse and children, and your dog’s birthday. (Hence, the card.)

Except during Lent, Stanley Lewis rarely spends an evening at home,” it was once noted of the war-time mayor. And is it not exactly so of Watson, he of the famously empty fridge, the bursting agenda of ribbons and grins?

They were both Liberals, so ideologically centrist. Lewis did not drink or smoke; Watson, loosely, the same. Partly because city hall had burned down (1931), Lewis was well-known for running things from lunch counters (Bowles on Sparks) or booths in restaurants (Uwanta on Bank) where the roast-beef diners sometimes made a quorum of council. (A writer once said, deliciously, that many a bylaw was concocted over apple pie.)

Watson, meanwhile, also likes his mid-brow digs, and mixes up the venue in the name of geographical diversity: Ralph & Sons in the west end, Bobby’s Table in Vanier, John’s Diner on Wellington West, the Elgin Street Diner, the odd trek to the country (Dunrobin, Osgoode.)

“By choice and office, Stanley Lewis is a member of more committees than any other man, woman, or child in the capital, and since Ottawa practically makes a career of committees, you can see that Lewis really gets around,” a magazine writer said in 1945. 

Substitute “Watson,” same.

  Microfilm from an October, 1944 edition of the Ottawa Citizen with Shirley Temple and the mayor of Ottawa, Stanley Lewis (left) Microfilm from an October, 1944 edition of the Ottawa Citizen with Shirley Temple and the mayor of Ottawa, Stanley Lewis (left) jpg

AGILITY, SALARY

Lewis, a self-made man who owned an electrical shop, had a reputation as a fine athlete. He was a renowned paddler and roller skater, a hockey and football player.

Watson? Not so much. An admitted klutz, he is among the few mayors in history to sustain a serious injury while in a sitting position. Who can forget his tumble off a moving snowmobile in 2015, resulting in a broken pelvis? We can safely say there are very few photos of Watson catching a football.

The current mayor is also one of exactly four Canadians who never learned to skate as a child, making his first venture onto the frozen Rideau Canal, at the age of 53, an initiation so rare it was covered as a news item. He is, however, capable on a pair of skis.

Lewis was relatively well paid for the era. He made $5,000 as mayor, plus another $1,000 as a hydro commissioner, worth about $89,000 in today’s dollars. Watson is paid roughly $190,000.

  Stanley Lewis Stanley Lewis PHOTO BY CITY OF OTTAWA ARCHIVES /jpg

POLITICAL CHOPS

Both men came up “through the ranks,” Lewis in life and politics. According to Dave Mullington’s invaluable book on early mayors, Chain of Office, Lewis was the eldest of 11 children in a family that grew up on York Street. He quit school at 14, was a delivery boy for a drug store (bicycle, roller skates) and, when his father died suddenly, went to work for an electrical shop, eventually starting his own at age 26.

He was first elected to council in 1930 in what was called Central Ward, spent a couple of terms as a “controller” and was first elected mayor in 1936 at age 48.

Watson, meanwhile, is not from the school of hard knocks. Born in Montreal, one of two children, he came to Ottawa to attend Carleton University and never really left. He has dabbled in journalism, worked on Parliament Hill, eventually coming to city council in 1991, a youthful-looking 30, as the alderman for Capital Ward. He became mayor of pre-amalgamation Ottawa in 1997, the youngest to hold that position, at age 36. Curiously, he resigned near the end of the first term to become president of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

(His longevity includes both stints as mayor, including the current one that began in 2010.) Given that he was also an MPP and an Ontario cabinet minister, he has a broad political base.

Both men had quite spectacular electoral results, with few close races.

  Mayor Jim Watson holding a model of an LRT train in front of the Christmas tree in the Mayor’s Office after the unanimously supported vote for Ottawa’s Light Rail Transit project on Dec. 19, 2012. Mayor Jim Watson holding a model of an LRT train in front of the Christmas tree in the Mayor’s Office after the unanimously supported vote for Ottawa’s Light Rail Transit project on Dec. 19, 2012. PHOTO BY GARTH GULLEKSON /Ottawa Citizen

WORKING ON THE RAILROAD

Lewis is said to have played a key role in the purchase of the privately-owned Ottawa Electric Railway in 1948. (We’ll call it a coincidence, but this was the same year a heart attack struck and hastened him from office.)

The railway concern was converted into the Ottawa Transportation Commission, the well-known OTC forerunner of OC Transpo. For better or worse, the city was now in the transit business, first with streetcars (until the late 1950s) and then exclusively with buses.

Speaking of cars, Lewis is remembered for trying to give World Figure Skating champion Barbara Ann Scott a new convertible in 1947 during a massive welcoming celebration that attracted 70,000 people. Things got a little awkward. Scott, wanting to retain her amateur status, could not accept the gift.

Watson, meanwhile, has accepted some really expensive cars. One of his major legacies is the light-rail system, Phase 1 of which is complete — for $2.1 billion — and working a good deal of the time. Phase 2, at a cost of some $4.6 billion, is well underway, evidenced by the massive ripping up of the west-end of Ottawa. If Phase 3 is completed by 2031, Watson, mayor or not, will take the train to Kanata as a senior citizen.

Mayor Stanley Lewis gives Barbara Ann Scott the keys to a yellow convertible in 1948. PHOTO BY NATIONAL ARCHIVES /jpg

JOIN THE CLUB

“Mayor Lewis is a founder and director of Ottawa’s Knockers’ Club,” Maclean’s reported in a glowing profile in 1945, “whose principal function in life is to moan, groan and lament over the way anything and everything is shaping up,” read the piece, written by the legendary Gordon Sinclair.

“The club goes into a huddle daily, in Bowles, and anybody from president to bus boy can take part in its jam or bull sessions.” (Lewis was also a high-ranking Mason.)

Watson, too, has an informal club — but “knockers” don’t get in. It is, evidently, how civic leaders have kept the throne — by assembling a court of the right allies.

Stanley “Stan” Lewis died on Aug. 18, 1970, when James “Jim” Watson was nine years old.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-291-6265 or email [email protected]

Twitter.com/kellyegancolumn

 

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I'm relatively happy with what he has done. Obviously in politics, you win some you loose some, so it is natural that not everyone is seen favorably all the time. Still, for what matters to me in the

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I'm relatively happy with what he has done. Obviously in politics, you win some you loose some, so it is natural that not everyone is seen favorably all the time. Still, for what matters to me in the city, he has done a good job and is very supportive on getting the O-Train across the city. We had stalled on that for too long that it is good to have someone pushing for it to be built and opened. Will be interesting to see what happens next for him, re-election or retirement from the top job in the city.

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We should thank O'Brien for starting Lansdowne and the Confed Line projects however, Watson brought the City back to earth by scaling the projects down to something more realistic, if maybe a little too modest. Had we released the RFP based on the O'Brien rail project, with super deep stations, bids would have come back at $3.5 B+, possibly killing the project. That would have been the fault of terrible estimates presented by City staff, but O'Brien would have been blamed and the City would have returned to its small town mentality.

Stage 2 is also a huge accomplishment, with Ottawa essentially octupling our rail system in 10 years, the greatest urbsn rail expansion in Canadian history up until the REM.

Beyond those two projects, the City has seen good density increases, the new Library (though we might get sticker shock due to soaring material prices), better relations with Gatineau, rejuvenated traditional main streets and soon, maybe, a revitalized Market and Sparks. 

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