Now my whole career is about listening, connecting, making friends, and representing people. It’s much more grass roots and holistic.
Matt Whitman sold a car to the first person he saw after stepping out of the training room at O’Regan’s Toyota in Halifax. It was 1992 and he’d just graduated from St. Mary’s University.
“I became friends with them and still know them today,” says the now deputy mayor of Halifax, looking back on a sales career that brought him to companies including AT&T, Thompson-Reuters, and SunLife.
He joined charities and sat on community boards, which broadened his network so widely that friends dubbed him the “unofficial mayor of Halifax.” The nickname ignited something in Whitman, and in 2012 he entered politics. Like many regional councillors, his non-political background offers him an array of experience to draw from.
He aimed for the Halifax Regional Council seat in his home area of Hammonds Plains-St. Margarets. And he ran for office just like he’d been selling things for the previous 20 years.
“I did it full time for two months door to door, on foot, and on bicycle. I tried to connect with as many people as possible,” Whitman says.
“In the morning, during rush hour traffic, and in the evening, I was either on the Hammonds Plains Road, the Bay Road, or the Peggy’s Cove Road, with a sign reading: ‘Vote Matt Whitman.’”
Residents grew accustomed to the guy standing on the side of the road rain or shine. They rewarded him with a narrow win over Peter Lund, who received 40.4 per cent of the vote to Whitman’s 44.8 per cent.
“It’s my favourite career to date,” Whitman says of his time as a municipal councillor. While his sales skills translated well into running for office, he ran into some trouble deploying the same approach as a councilor.
“When I was campaigning, I was the product, whereas before I worked for someone else selling their product,” he says. “I didn’t have thick skin, and I don’t have really thick skin now. I’m still sensitive. Before I got into [politics], I naively thought everyone liked me. Once I got here, I realized not everyone does like me, or is going to like me.”
In his early political career, his positive attitude shone brightly on his Twitter feed (@matlantivex), so brightly that his bio boasted, “I block negativity.” For a while, he tried to make the case that his account was private and separate from his public duties as councillor. But he changed his approach when blocking a resident from following his tweets or contacting him through Twitter blew up into a political issue in 2013.
Whitman says he no longer blocks “negativity,” but instead accepts that not everyone will like him, or agree with his political decisions.
“It’s just a handful of people who maybe it’s their career to give someone like me a hard time, so I don’t take it too personally,” he says.
He’s still very active on Twitter, talking to constituents and news organizations over the course of his 22,200 tweets. “Now my whole career is about listening, connecting, making friends, and then representing those people. It’s much more grass roots and holistic,” he says.
He enjoys municipal politics because without a party system, he can listen to his constituents and take his ideas straight to council. He doesn’t have to speak through a party filter, but can speak his own mind.
He says the $80,849 salary of a councillor “is not the most money I’ve ever made, but it’s the most fun I’ve ever had. It’s the most rewarding career I’ve had.”
Whitman might be the only councillor with such an extensive sales background, but council always draws people from a wide range of backgrounds.
The current council includes a former Member of Parliament (Mike Savage), an urban planner with experience in Qatar and Nicaragua (Jennifer Watts), and a former RCMP officer (Barry Dalrymple). Some councilors will keep their seats so long as voters chose them, while others serve one or two terms before stepping down.
A candidate’s guide is posted at halifax.ca/election/candidate.php for those who want to throw their hat in the ring. The 39-page document for school board and council elections covers eligibility, costs, the nomination process, fundraising rules, and what happens after the election.
The bare requirements are that you’re 18 or older, a Canadian citizen, live regularly in Halifax from at least six months before nomination day, and not be disqualified under the Municipal Elections Act or the Education Act of Nova Scotia. (Those rules are also on the above website.)
Whitman says the city benefits from councillors with diverse backgrounds. “I think Halifax is counting on having folks that are really committed to the city to run,” he says.
With some councillors not planning to reoffer and all seats open to new candidates, Whitman hopes to see fresh faces around the table after the fall election this year (alongside his own face, it should be said, as he plans to reoffer for District 13.)
In the fall of 2015, Whitman took on the position of deputy mayor for the city. He sits in the big chair when Mayor Mike Savage is away on business. “I loved it. I love being in the action – I don’t crave down time, or privacy, or peace and quiet,” the married father of two says.
Whitman says he might run for mayor in 2020, if Savage doesn’t reoffer at that point. He says council, which was famous for endless bickering of rural versus urban in previous incarnations, now takes a broader, regional perspective.
“This is a full-time, hands-on [job] providing services to residents. There are 400,000 that I’m answerable to,” he says.
But you have to keep the local voice too. Whitman says he’s proud of the widening work done in his district on the Hammonds Plains Road (for which he credits Peter Lund and Gary Meade, the area’s previous councillors).
His district also added a TD Bank at the crossroads of St. Margaret’s Bay and Peggy’s Cove roads. Whitman wants to bring more services, in particular he cites a post office, dry cleaner, and liquor store.
But his vision doesn’t stop at District 13. Regionally, he’s a fan of provincial plans to allow Segways, two-wheeled, battery-powered scooters on roads, sidewalks and in bike lanes (he owns one and plays Segway polo); installing more crosswalk flags; and building the city’s economy. Plus, he wants to bring his positive attitude to more people.
“We need to focus on the positives of being here, where it matters who you know. You can’t burn bridges and your reputation is key,” he says. “I don’t want to slow down, but I want time to slow down so that I can enjoy what I’ve got.”