11/03/2013 04:00 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Scandal-plagued Montreal elects Denis Coderre as mayor

MONTREAL - The stewardship of a scandal-afflicted city has now been entrusted to Denis Coderre, the back-slapping political populist who was elected Sunday as mayor of Montreal.

Coderre's knack for grabbing attention has followed him from the federal arena, where he was a perennial purveyor of high-publicity causes who built a huge online following, in part by live-tweeting Montreal Canadiens games.

The former minister and party organizer for the federal Liberals held a five-percentage-point edge in his first attempt at municipal politics.

Polls all year showed Coderre ahead of his lesser-known rivals but the final result wound up tighter than expected, as he received just under 32 per cent of the ballots cast on a day when a clear majority of eligible voters chose to stay home.

Coderre hoisted the municipal flag as he took the stage, just before midnight. He spent part of his speech defending the battered reputation of Canada's second-biggest burg.

"We have a magnificent city. It is one of the most beautiful metropolises in the world," Coderre told a cheering crowd.

"This is not a crisis," he said, referring to ongoing ethics scandals. "This is an exceptional opportunity to demonstrate that we belong among the greats."

The last two mayors have resigned in controversy; the most recent one was arrested on fraud charges; and a disheartening drip of kickback and bid-rigging allegations have corroded locals' trust in city hall.

Of all the elections Sunday in 1,100 cities and towns across the province, few featured change as drastic as in Laval. The party that controlled that suburb for decades was recently dissolved and the 23-year mayor was deposed and slapped with gangsterism charges.

This time the people of Laval picked a police officer. Like Coderre, and like countless other candidates across the province, retired cop Marc Demers promised a cleanup at city hall.

Coderre plans to create an inspector-general's position while acting as a more forceful advocate for local issues, in the style of other big-personality mayors and in sharp contrast to the lower-key types who recently held the position in Montreal.

He complimented his opponents and pledged to co-operate with opposition parties, who will have more council seats than his. "The message today is clear, for me: On the one hand, people wanted Denis Coderre as mayor. On the other hand they asked us, at city council, to work together."

A persistent question of the campaign, though, was whether Coderre really was the best-suited candidate to clean up Canada's second-biggest city.

His supporters insist he is.

"He has the political experience," said Meme Noel, who came to cheer on Coderre with a friend, Sherly Severe.

"He's never been involved in a scandal in all these years, so I don't see why he would get into trouble as mayor."

Severe added that she's excited to have a mayor that'll be accessible — both in person, and on social media.

Another supporter, when asked if Coderre has what it takes, seemed almost surprised the question was asked: "Oh yes," said William Quianbao, 65. "He has a strong personality and he's very imposing."

That high-wattage persona began flickering at an early age, when he was raised in the community of Saint-Alphonse-Rodriguez, northeast of Montreal.

Coderre recently joked in an interview with The Canadian Press that, when he was five years old, instead of being prescribed Ritalin, he was invited by an exhausted teacher to burn off some energy by delivering speeches in front of his class.

He talked his way onto television as a boy by declaring he'd encountered a possible UFO.

Years later, as a federal politician, he talked his way onto an Afghan military base. When he was the Liberal defence critic in 2007, he went to Kandahar without a government invite and all but forced his way onto the base, and kept media back home abreast of his adventures along the way.

He became embroiled in a defamation lawsuit and counter-suit with NHL star Shane Doan following 2005 reports of a slur against French-Canadian referee.

His accomplishments as minister for sports included a successful lobbying effort to bring the World Anti-Doping Agency agency headquarters to Montreal. He was then promoted to minister of immigration by Jean Chretien and served different roles in Paul Martin's cabinet.

Coderre's share of the vote Sunday was about 32 per cent to 27 per cent for Melanie Joly, a fellow federal Liberal and a political newcomer who began her campaign in such obscurity that she was initially barred from participating in debates.

The political rookie forced her way into those debates in the final weeks as polls showed she'd become the principal threat to Coderre.

Joly said a low-budget, social-media-driven campaign like hers would have been impossible four years ago. She applauded the democratizing power of the Internet over traditional interests.

"We started with nothing," said Joly, to a celebration of supporters akin to a victory rally.

"I hope our success has encouraged a new generation to get involved in politics."

The third-place finisher, Richard Bergeron of the left-leaning Projet Montreal party, lauded Joly as a "rising star" of local, provincial or Canadian politics.

His ticket included another candidate well-known in federal Liberal circles.

Janine Krieber, a counter-terrorism expert and the wife of former Liberal leader Stephane Dion, was elected to Montreal city council. But because she was running as Bergeron's sponsored candidate, the rules would allow him to replace Krieber on council.

Across Quebec, voters hoped to turn the page on an era of scandal-ridden leadership in provincewide municipal elections.

The elections came as the province's Charbonneau Commission continues to hear shocking testimony detailing a system of kickbacks and illegal party financing at the municipal level.

The longtime mayors of Montreal and next-door Laval were forced to step down a year ago amid corruption allegations.

Months later, their interim replacements resigned in scandal as well.

Coderre was the perceived frontrunner from the start, as a household name in Quebec. But he was dogged by attacks from his opponents on ethics issues, most notably his party's ties to former members of the corruption-ridden, now-dissolved Union Montreal party.

One borough mayor aligned with Coderre's ticket, Michel Bissonnet, was the subject of a two-page spread last weekend in Montreal La Presse exploring his ties to key actors under the scrutiny of the province's corruption commission. Still, Bissonnet won his St-Leonard borough with 65 per cent of the vote.

In Quebec City, the city's firebrand mayor, Regis Labeaume, was easily elected to a third term with nearly three-quarters of the popular vote.

Jean Tremblay, who has fought a legal battle for the right to pray at council meetings, was elected mayor of Saguenay for a fourth term.

Quebec's minister of municipal affairs, Sylvain Gaudreault, issued a statement urging more Quebecers to head to the polls this time around.

During the last municipal election, in 2009, voter turnout across the province was around 45 per cent. In Montreal, it was 39 per cent.

But the turnout results appeared marginally higher this time around — at just over 40 per cent.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version stated that Richard Bergeron failed to win a council seat, when in fact he didn't seek one.