Catherine Kitts will (virtually) take her seat at Ottawa city council for the first time on Wednesday, and it’s frankly hard to imagine a more intense time to start her gig as the new representative of Cumberland Ward.
Kitts was sworn in as the new Cumberland councillor on Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after she won a majority of the votes in the byelection to replace former rep, now-Liberal MPP Stephen Blais.
Kitts has had little time to bask in her victory.
Unlike the typical municipal election, turnover, when a new slate of incoming councillors has the remainder of the previous term to get acclimated to the inner workings of Ottawa City Hall, Kitts’ waking hours have since been consumed by a council crash course to bring her up to speed before she’s expected to vote on a slew of motions at next week’s meeting.
On top of that, the city is in budget season, an already busy time complicated by an unprecedented deficit and economic uncertainty tied to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
So if you’re one of the hundreds of well-wishers waiting on a response to your email congratulations in the inbox of Ottawa’s newest councillor, you could perhaps excuse a slight delay.
Taking a moment Thursday morning to reflect on the “complete whirlwind” of a week since she was declared the winner of Monday’s Cumberland Ward byelection, Kitts tells Global News that the hard-fought election amid the pandemic was worth it.
“All of our hard work really paid off in the ballot box. That’s a great feeling,” she says.
At 32, the graduate of Carleton University’s Bachelor of Journalism program and former editor of the Orléans Star now becomes the youngest person on city council.
The byelection marked the second campaign for the lifelong east-end resident, as Kitts ran in Orléans
Ward during the 2018 municipal election. Then, she came within a few hundred votes of beating the eventual winner, Matthew Luloff.
Since then she has moved her family to Navan, and when Blais announced his intention to run for the vacant provincial seat in Orléans, she sensed the opportunity but says she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to run through the political gamut again.
It was a flurry of messages from supporters encouraging her to take another run at city council that convinced her to give it another shot — she would even go on to score the backing of Luloff, her political rival-turned-colleague.
While Kitts — and almost everyone else in Ottawa — expected the byelection to be called in March, the novel coronavirus pandemic would end up delaying the vote until October.
Kitts says she wasn’t sure how she’d be able to connect with residents in the new campaigning environment, which would see far more emails and social media videos and zero handshakes exchanged.
But she says she and her team knocked on 20,000 doors over the campaign and, after stepping back to an appropriate distance, was received warmly at the stoop by most residents.
“I really just wanted to be accessible in whatever way people felt comfortable to me, and everyone had a different comfort level,” Kitts says.
Though the pandemic might have changed the way she campaigned, it didn’t have a great bearing on what residents told her at the door.
Chief among the priorities of Cumberland Ward residents was speeding and dangerous driving on east-end streets — a concern Ottawa police have said is exacerbated by an increase in stunt driving during the pandemic.
Kitts says she also heard concerns that the financial burden created by the pandemic would end up on the taxpayer’s shoulders.
Among the biggest projects on the horizon for Ottawa’s east end is Stage 2 of light-rail, a $4.6-billion project that will connect the city’s downtown all the way to Trim Road in a few years’ time.
Kitts says the second stage of Ottawa’s LRT remains a massive opportunity, despite the troubles that have plagued phase one of the Confederation Line.
“We need to work really hard to regain the public trust in our transit system and make sure that Stage 2 is a reliable service,” she says. “If and when it is, I think it could be transformational for the east end.”
Kitts says she has never belonged to a political party and was attracted to the municipal level because it tends to avoid the partisan politics common in provincial and federal government.
She considers herself a “moderate” and says she’s willing to “work with everyone at the table.”
“I’m endeavouring to be a councillor who is very accessible, very responsive and really feels like a member of the community,” Kitts says.
“I’m really excited to go to work for the community that elected me.”