Why Not? Renee Sharpe on Going Straight for the Mayor’s Seat

The last time a citizen of St. John's ran for mayor without time served on council, and got into the seat, was the election of Charles Howlett in 1929. But he performed legendarily in the role

With the best pun-slogan in the race, “A Sharpe Alternative for Positive Change,” Renee Sharpe is running for mayor out of nowhere; she has never sat on council, but feels that isn’t a handicap.

To be clear, every mayor, stretching back to 1929, had all served time on council before running for mayor, usually as a councillor then deputy mayor: Dennis O’Keefe, Andy Wells, Shannie Duff, John Joseph Murphy, our first female mayor Dorothy Wyatt, William G. Adams, Henry Mews, and Andrew Carnell.

It’s understandable that many feel Sharpe would benefit from some time on council, before becoming the person who runs council meetings. But she disagrees, and says maybe 1929-2017 “is how long it takes an innovative, on-the-ground person to finally end up in the mayor’s chair.”

“As far back as 1929,” she says, “we’ve also often been 5-10 years behind what major cities in Canada are doing. I think there are some politicians who might have benefitted from less time on council and more time working on the ground with people in need.”

The last time a citizen of St. John’s ran for mayor without time served on council, and got into the seat, was the election of Charles Howlett in 1929. He was a dentist, Rotary Club President with a strong interest in community projects, and an artist known for organizing local theatrical performances. Imagine that, a well-rounded mayor.

Like Sharpe, Howlett ran for mayor over a conviction his city needed to take a stronger, more progressive role in delivering civic services. His were pre-confederation times, and he famously declared St. John’s has been the football of politicians for years.

Sharpe says she set her sights on the mayor’s throne instead of a ward race because she’s seeing the needs of people in this city not being met by the city, and she wants to do something about it.

“In the spirit of democracy, I think it’s important to remind everyone that you don’t need to be a man in a suit with a business degree to be a political leader. I want to encourage anyone who would add more diversity to our political landscape to run. But then it’s no good for us to have elected in a change in council if the mayor isn’t able and willing to listen to new ideas. So I stepped up.”

Whether or not we think she has enough experience to perform well in the job, we know two things. 1.) She openly acknowledges our scepticism and embraces the learning curve, after all, every job has one, and any of us who’ve held down a job has gotten through a learning curve. Why worry she won’t?

2.)  She’s stated during her campaign that there are lots of specialists in this city, on council, city staff, or running local organizations, she would lean on for answers she doesn’t have herself, and there’s no denying, in this post-Trump world,  that a leader willing to — wanting to — listen to proper advisors to inform their actions would be a good thing. Sharpe’s knowledge of who knows what in this city, and her desire to hear from and learn from them, so as to not just act on her own convictions, is an asset.

How did Charles Howlett fare, as a mayor out of nowhere? Legendarily. The city literally looked different when he was done. He was penned down in history for a revolutionary stand and a marathon of hoop-jumping and bank shopping that led to city improvements, like covering the expense of paving roads and improving sewer systems in St. John’s, founding a civic relief committee to collect money and coal for the poor, and his total overhaul of the city’s financial and administrative system.

So hey, there is a historical precedent of new blood getting sh*t done. A terrible onset of bladder stones and complications cut Howlett down at the height of his momentum. He kept on working through the pain, despite doctors’ warnings, and died from it. He worked himself to death. That’s part of his legacy: Don’t underestimate the power of passion in people doing a job for the right reasons.

Realistically, Sharpe’s biggest challenge is not her lack of council experience, but the fact that this is a city, a province, that likes familiar faces and questions change. Our political history’s motto would be, “Better the Devil You Know.” In the least, stay open-minded as you peruse ballot options. Because, what good has that motto done us lately?

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