Keith Gerein: Outsider candidate Cheryll Watson faces tough climb to rarified air in mayor's race

Article content

Perhaps the most well-known Albertan to pull it off, at least in modern times, was Ralph Klein in 1980.

Edmontonian Bill Smith followed suit in 1995.

And most recently, Naheed Nenshi managed the feat in 2010.

The accomplishment I’m talking about is winning a big city mayor’s race without any public office experience, whether you want to call that being an “outsider” or a non-politician politician.

This year, Cheryll Watson is aiming to join that rarefied air, hoping her outsider status in Edmonton’s mayoral race can be sold as a benefit going against four contenders with city council experience.

In a recent interview I had with Watson, she came across as well spoken, strategic and ambitious. But I also know she faces a very steep climb to win on Oct. 18.

Underdog is an understatement in this case.

“I haven’t served on council, and so I’m not going to bring bias to programs that perhaps aren’t as relevant to Edmontonians today,” said Watson, best known as the vice-president of Innovate Edmonton when it was still under the umbrella of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation.


Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

“I have new ideas on how to do things and have proven practice on how to bring the community along with me to co-create solutions.”

Such framing isn’t entirely unconvincing, but it’s also pretty boilerplate messaging that we’ve often heard from outsider candidates hoping to portray their biggest disadvantage as the opposite.

The main reason outsiders win so rarely is that they lack name recognition, which is particularly decisive in a crowded race like this one. When Klein, Smith and Nenshi broke through, their list of major opponents was much shorter.

That said, Watson does have a few things going for her.

For one thing, she’s running at a time when there is considerable anger at all levels of government, including city hall, which could lead to a rejection of candidates perceived to be part of the establishment.

More important, her career in innovation and technology — her resume includes stints at IBM and Intuit before joining Innovate Edmonton — will be an asset in an election expected to be dominated by questions about the economy.

Still, while Watson is leaning heavily on her time at Innovate Edmonton to sell her leadership credentials, those four years were not without controversy. A real low point came in the fall of 2018 when EEDC went to city hall to propose the creation of a Downtown “innovation hub,” offering workspace for startups and scaling up companies.

Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that Watson’s team had failed to consult certain players in the innovation community — a competitive, disagreeable lot at the best of times. A vocal group of entrepreneurs blasted the hub idea and EEDC itself, prompting council to order a rethink of the proposal.


Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

There were also mixed impressions of Watson’s job performance generally. While almost everyone I spoke with in the innovation community felt she worked hard on a number of initiatives and was a strong advocate in a notoriously difficult field, questions were raised around whether too much of the effort was about boosting Watson’s personal brand.

At one point, some said, an impression developed that Innovate Edmonton was less of an EEDC entity than it was a Cheryll Watson entity.

(This could be seen as a compliment, though that’s not how it was portrayed to me. That said, we also have to remember that ambitious women often face unfair backlash).

Regardless, by late 2019, city council had decided to strip EEDC of its innovation mandate and instead create a new standalone agency to lead the effort. Watson left the organization around the same time.

For her part, Watson says she was a long-time advocate of that split, and even helped to enable the move, though she feels the new entity is not yet making enough headway.

While some critics suggest what Watson really wanted was to continue to lead a beefed-up Innovate Edmonton free from the strings of EEDC, she says she was already planning a move toward politics.

“Having those opportunities … to work directly with the mayor, with council, with city administration and really be part of the process the last two years I was at EEDC, that became my intent, that was this was going to be my next job.”


Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

Asked what direction those politics tend to lean, Watson is cagey in her response, saying only that her campaign team has people from all parts of the spectrum.

In this vein, it is notable that one of her first major platform announcements was not economic, but rather a “basic needs” policy. It proposes to offer greater access to washrooms, water, food and hygiene products, while also finding ways to reduce red tape holding back the development of new housing.

“I think now more than ever it is important that we really bring the needs the everyday Edmontonians to the forefront,” said Watson, who grew up in the east end neighbourhood of Beverly.

Though I still don’t favour her chances, that’s the kind of policy voters will need to hear more of from Watson.

Because while her innovation experience will provide much of the campaign’s horsepower, an outsider candidate needs to be more than one-trick pony to join the likes of Klein, Smith and Nenshi in the winner’s circle.


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Latest articles

Related articles