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In a political rarity, Montreal gets an anglophone mayor

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MONTREAL - For the first time in a century, an anglophone has won the keys to the mayor's office in Montreal — a stunning victory inside a city hall that has been shaken by scandal.

Michael Applebaum won a vote Friday at city council, 31-29, to become the city's first non-francophone mayor since just before the First World War.

He will serve as interim mayor of Canada's second-largest city for a year, with a promise not to run in the next municipal election of November 2013.

Anglophones in Quebec rarely hold such prominent political roles.

In the municipality of Montreal itself, only 13 per cent of people claim English as their mother tongue; a far greater number of Montrealers actually speak the language in their everyday lives, however, given that 47 per cent of residents are not original French-speakers.

The flurry of developments leading to his win began last week with the resignation of Gerald Tremblay, the former mayor whose administration was tarnished in a corruption scandal.

Applebaum was an obvious contender, given that he was the No. 2 politician in the city after the mayor. But a newspaper report carried suggestions from an anonymous colleague saying Applebaum's French wasn't good enough to be mayor.

At a subsequent meeting, members of the Union Montreal caucus sidelined Applebaum and picked Richard Deschamps as their candidate.

Applebaum promptly quit Union Montreal — and cut an improbable path to victory.

He reinvented himself as a whistleblower. Until a few days earlier, he had led the city's executive body. But there he was, suddenly railing against its planned tax hikes and also revealing the existence of embarrassing documents it had withheld from the public.

He reached out to other parties. Applebaum promised to ditch the partisan politics that have ruled city hall for years and bring together council members from all banners.

His strategy enabled him to siphon support from Union Montreal, which held a majority in council, and leapfrog Deschamps.

As the results were announced, Marvin Rotrand, a veteran councillor who quit Union Montreal this week to support Applebaum, jumped out of his seat, thrust both his fists into the air and shouted "Woo!" Rotrand was among nine council members, including Applebaum, who abandoned Union Montreal in recent days.

In Applebaum's first statement to reporters, he did not mention the linguistic milestone. He only referred to it after some prodding by reporters. He insisted he would do the best he could for all citizens in what he described as an increasingly multicultural city.

"Montreal is an inclusive city, where people can get a good job, people can work together and we live in harmony," he said outside the council chamber, minutes after his win.

"I'm going to do my job as the mayor, but I do not want to be seen as an anglophone mayor."

The notion of an Anglo mayor would have seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago, while the city was involved in one of its periodic linguistic debates during a provincial election campaign where language tensions figured prominently.

Applebaum, who sometimes stumbles when speaking French and wields a thick accent, even appeared to win over Montreal opposition leader Louise Harel, a former Parti Quebecois cabinet minister.

She was considered among the most prominent firebrands in a PQ party whose raison d'etre includes the protection of francophone culture from English encroachment. Now it appears Harel might have helped put an Anglo in the mayor's chair for the first time since 1912.

Harel, leader of the Vision Montreal party, declined to reveal whom she supported in the secret-ballot vote. But she smiled broadly while casting her ballot and later noted that she was pleased with the result.

"We're happy with the openness it allows," Harel said of Applebaum's win, following campaign in which he promised to bring members of all parties together to run the city.

"The status quo was not acceptable, so we all decided to be players in this change to do politics differently."

Because the mayor resigned less than a year before an election, provincial law said his successor had to be picked by city council on an interim basis.

Harel, who declined to run a Vision Montreal candidate against Applebaum, said her party assumes that he will keep his promises.

In his speech before the vote, Applebaum cast himself as a historic candidate but not for linguistic reasons. He has brushed aside questions about language, and didn't utter a word of English in his speech Friday.

Applebaum said his victory would be historic because he wanted to create a multi-partisan coalition, uniting former foes to clean up the scandal-plagued city.

As late as last week, Applebaum appeared to have a slim chance of success — but he went about building support, and was helped along by a unique set of circumstances.

Then events shifted rapidly.

Applebaum quit the caucus to sit as an independent, citing policy differences. He said he was taking a stand in favour of two things: smaller tax hikes, and more transparency.

He insisted on tax hikes one percentage point lower than the planned 3.3 per cent. And he revealed the existence of a document that showed city officials were aware years ago that Montreal's closed construction industry created cost overruns.

Applebaum, the mayor of Montreal's largest borough, then went about building alliances.

He courted the two opposition parties, who agreed not to run their own candidates. He promised them positions in a coalition administration. And he assured them that he would not run against them in the next election.

Finally, he peeled away a handful of caucus members from his old party, the ruling Union Montreal.

His vanquished ex-ally-turned-rival could scarcely believe his eyes. He suggested Applebaum won by, essentially, creating a new persona.

"I'm not necessarily seeing the same Mr. Applebaum over the last eight days that I was used to seeing," Deschamps, Applebaum's former colleague in the executive committee, told reporters.

"Me, I stayed the same. I stood upright and told the truth."

Applebaum pledged that he would no longer talk about party politics. He promised his objective would be to represent the interests of Montrealers.

"We will regain the confidence of our citizens," said Applebaum, who was first elected in the city as councillor in 1994.

"With everything that's been going on, I understand that they've been hurt."

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