Councillor Ferguson directly challenged Mayor Eisenberger during today's Council budget meeting to declare that he will not support ending transit area rating during the upcoming 2018-2022 Council Term.
Eisenberger declined to make that commitment, repeating his previous commitment to not have a debate on transit area rating during the remainder of this Council term.
As Council sees growing grassroots organizing of citizens groups leading into the 2018 campaign, there is a growing awareness at City Hall that people are paying attention and Councillors are campaigning accordingly.
The significance of today's short exchange is that Ferguson's tone and rhetoric may point to him preparing for a mayoral run in 2018.
Ferguson's being both Pro-LRT and from the suburbs will make him a very interesting candidate in 2018.
Ferguson's oversized ego and bully demeanor will be attractive to voters who believe Council needs a "strong leader" to address the problems of "Clowncil".
To make matters more difficult for Eisenberger's re-election, he needs Ferguson's continued behind-the-scenes support and coalition. More on that after context of today's debate.
Here's the context of the Council debate leading into Ferguson's challenge of Eisenberger:
Councillors were discussing the 2017 Public Works budget with a few suburban councillors suggesting they would not support continuing with the 10-year transit strategy on the grounds of not supporting property tax increases to fund additional transit.
Sam Merulla asked Public Works staff to confirm that none of the tax funded transit increases in year three - the 2017 budget year - will be in the suburbs. Staff confirmed this.
Merulla continues stating this means, due to transit area rating, none of the suburban areas will see tax increases from the transit budget, and therefore, suburban councillors should vote to continue the plan this year.
Merulla ends saying he is not willing to discuss changing area rating because doing so would result in Lloyd Ferguson withdrawing his support for LRT - which would give the one needed vote for Council to cancel the LRT project.
Ferguson responded that Merulla's correct - he would cease supporting LRT if area-rating is considered for debate.
Then, unexpectedly, Ferguson challenged the Mayor - who was not involved in the exchange - to commit personally to a pledge of no consideration of changing area rating during the 2018-2022 term if he's re-elected mayor.
The Mayor chuckled towards Ferguson, and later committed to not debating area rating this term, but did not take a stand on the 2018-22 term.
This marks a very public disagreement between Eisenberger and Ferguson, who've been political allies for just under three years.
In 2014, Lloyd Ferguson was planning to run for Mayor. His campaign financing was lined up, his campaign team was put together, and then he decided to assault a journalist (me) just days before he was expected to officially kick off his campaign.
His mayoral ambitions had to be shelved.
Ferguson and his donors needed to look after their political interests with another Mayoral candidate.
Brad Clark was a principled Red Tory, Brian McHattie a principled Social Democrat environmentalist - this left Fred Eisenberger who had positioned himself previously as a progressive running for Mayor, but had also run for the Harper Conservatives federally.
Eisenberger's campaign received both donations from Ferguson's associations and the public endorsement of close Ferguson associate former Mayor Larry DiIanni.
Eisenberger won the 2014 mayoral campaign, and Ferguson won reelection in his Ward 12 Council seat.
It's one of the more interesting political coalitions of Hamilton's political history, one which benefited both parties. (Which is how politics works)
Eisenberger lived up to his end of the coalition, only tweaking the status quo at City Hall, giving the province a willing mayor to move forward LRT (securing the construction contracts that will come with it), Eisenberger voted for Ferguson to be on the Police Board (which Ferguson only kept by one vote), backed Ferguson during the blowback following his remarks about Colombia, and provides steadfast support to Ferguson as Chair of the Police Board.
Eisenberger wants to be re-elected in 2018, and he needs Ferguson's help to support a well financed campaign.
Hamiltonians have yet to re-elect a sitting Mayor since amalgamation, this means Eisenberger will need the funds to wage a strong campaign with a lot of advertising.
There are only two means of doing this - a group of large donors, or a very large group of small donors.
Hamilton's large donors are more likely to back Ferguson over Eisenberger. Ferguson is one of the donor class, while many of them will also donate to Eisenberger, this loss of support will make re-election more difficult.
Hamilton's small donors are concentrated in the older areas of the old City. They financed the campaigns of Matthew Green and Brian McHattie, and are motivated by principles and beliefs.
For the most part, they are strongly pro-LRT, but are not single issue voters or donors.
Those active on Twitter are unhappy with the current lack of leadership on Council, and many are agitating for change in Hamilton. Eisenberger may be able to attract their vote, but will have to convince them to open their wallets.
If, and this will be very bad for our city, the campaign becomes a single issue referendum on LRT, we could see a repeat of 2003's single issue campaign on the Red Hill Expressway during which David Christopherson lost Wards 5 to 8 to pro-Red Hill candidate Larry DiIanni. Given the choice between Ferguson and an anti-LRT candidate winning, how many in Wards 1 to 3 will vote "strategically" for Ferguson?
It's worth keeping an eye on the Eisenberger/Ferguson dynamic during the coming months.
Today's unexpected disagreement could be an isolated event, or a significant shift of the power coalitions on Council.
(Image at top, Credit: Jason Leach via Raise The Hammer)