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Who is Matt Brown? The 'Mr. Nice Guy' leading the race to be London’s mayor

It’s hard to get a handle on Matt Brown.

He’s the single-term councillor who, after the public disgrace of Joe Fontana, found himself the favourite to become the next mayor of London. He’s been called a puppet, a nobody, a crowd-pleaser who lacks ideas of his own and just represents the interests of the same people who ran other political campaigns.

He’s Mr. Nice Guy, and somehow his critics have turned even that into an insult.

But who is Matt Brown? This is where we find out.

You don’t call Brown directly. He has people for that. Put in a request for time with him and the arrangements change over and over again. He’s a busy guy, and closely managed. With barely a week to go until the Oct. 27 municipal election, every minute counts.

Father-of-two Matthew Brown is 41. But don’t say he’s too young to be mayor. Of the last four mayors, three were elected when they were younger: Tom Gosnell, Dianne Haskett and Anne Marie DeCicco-Best.

He’s London-born, proudly saying he was born at St. Joe’s hospital, and grew up in Woodstock before attending the University of Waterloo. Asked to define his background, he agrees he’s middle-class. There are many teachers in Brown’s family. His hobby is canoeing, by the way.

Brown outlines his career in corporate sales, with the YMCA as a senior manager, and now as a teacher. Opponents like to suggest he has nothing to qualify him as mayor, so it’s no accident that Brown always emphasizes the word “senior.”

Brown during a campaign fundraiser at the former Kingsmill's department store. (Metro file)

But his inspiration comes from family.

Asked about the greatest influence on his life, he refers to his late grandfather, John, who moved to Canada from Scotland as a child. He served in the infantry in the Second World War, then had a successful career in the insurance business in London.

“He delivered a lot of important messages to us when we were growing up, but one was key,” says Brown. “It was that the world was run and decisions were made by the people that show up.

“Find something you believe in. Find something you’re passionate about, and show up.”

Brown started showing up by volunteering for Strengthing Neighbourhoods, a widespread consultation about improving London.

That ended with Brown and his wife, Andrea, presenting the results to city council. He’s diplomatic about what he saw in the council chamber, even when pressed on the point. But he clearly wasn’t impressed.

“We looked around the horseshoe and it was a real eye-opener for us,” Brown says. “We didn’t really see anyone around that horseshoe that was representative of us. At that time we were in our mid-30s. We had two very young children.”

Unsurprisingly, Brown quickly pushes his big campaign theme: Teamwork. With the campaign slogan “Better Together,” he’s wants to emphasize that he’s out to unite London and its council.

“If we’re building a community, we need to have every perspective represented around the council horseshoe,” he explains, and that inspired the decision to run for council.

Arguably, the little experience that he does have could work against him. Brown has spent the last four years as part of a divided, much-criticized council that spent much of its time in pitched battles about minor issues.

Some municipal candidates are quietly telling off-the-record tales of front-porch conversations with voters whose first question is: “Have you been part of this council?” If the answer is no, the reward is a smile.

The past four years have been “a real eye-opener,” Brown says. Council was flawed.

“It was as if someone had introduced – I shouldn’t say someone; it was the mayor at the time (Fontana) had introduced partisan politics at the municipal level,” he says. “And that might work at the federal level (and) it might work at the provincial level, but in my mind there’s no room for partisan politics at the municipal level.

“You’re working together to get things done for your community.”

Brown was the first to launch his mayoral campaign during an event that packed Aeolian Hall. (Metro file)

Was that frustrating?

Mr. Nice Guy’s answer is to talk of successes, such as the London Medical Innovation and Commercialization Network, designed to create high-quality jobs, his time as audit committee chair, or the audits of boards and committees that have controlled spending. Brown, painted by others as a tax-and-spend politician, has a message to deliver in interviews and he’s determined to do it.

Let’s try that question again. Were the last four years frustrating?

“You know, at the end of the term, I had to make a decision,” Brown replies. “That decision was, do I run for my ward seat again? Do I risk with the community to go through another council like we’ve all just experienced?

“Or do I step up and do I run for the mayor’s job and do I offer the community the kind of leadership that I believe we’re all looking for?”

A third attempt clarifies that he wasn’t happy: “That was a motivating factor, for sure.”

Such is a conversation with Brown, the nice-guy politician. The big accusation he always gets is that he’s stage-managed. That word “puppet” is tweeted at him daily.

“This is my campaign,” Brown replies, “and it’s a campaign that’s based on the ideas that I bring forward to the table and offer to the community.”

Again, he refers to that “Better Together” slogan.

“Certainly, my campaign is about electing me for mayor, but my leadership style is to lead from within a group, and to bring people together, and to say: ‘Here’s where we need to go, and none of us alone is as strong as all of us together.'”

Brown – if he wins this election — is committed to running again in 2018, saying anyone serious about being mayor should be around long enough to finish the job. But he also believes in term limits, to allow fresh ideas.

“This shouldn’t be a career,” he says. “This should represent public service.”

He’s fine with the criticism. Brown says he knows he’s a public figure, but he’s careful about how that affects his home life. Even during this tightly-controlled campaign, he’s built in time to see his two sons, John, 8, and Braden, 5, every day.

As we talk, they’re in another part of the campaign office, eating pizza. Brown’s is the only campaign office with a “kids’ zone,” where the children of volunteers can play while their parents work the phones.

So how nice is Mr. Nice Guy? Privately, some of his supporters say he’s too nice.

In the final days of the campaign he’s seemed tougher, but it’s still hard to provoke him, even with impertinent questions designed to do just that. It takes two attempts and a rude interruption just to get him to talk about anger.

“I’m a person that doesn’t often get angry, but what I would say is I’m a person that’s tough,” Brown says. “Tough doesn’t have to be loud. Tough doesn’t have to be mean. Tough doesn’t require the employment of bully tactics. Tough is standing your ground.”

Let’s have yet another try. Doesn’t he ever get angry?

“I think how I would describe myself is calm, cool and collected,” he smiles.

Want to find out about Matt Brown's competition? We also asked the question: "Who is Paul Cheng?"

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