MONTREAL - A most memorable slogan for Montreal's miserable mayoral race was splashed across the cover of this week's Maclean's magazine: "Montreal is a corrupt, crumbling, Mob-ridden disgrace."
That headline brutally summed up one of the most bizarre municipal elections in memory, which featured a disheartening drip of tales about Mafia influence in politics, inflated construction contracts, and widespread corruption.
Voters heading to the polls Sunday might not be aware of the candidates' promises on infrastructure or public transit.
But the steady slew of sleaze certainly got their attention.
Thursday's newspapers were like a one-day snapshot of the entire campaign: there was one report about a police investigation into a 330-metre stretch of road that cost almost $900,000, and another story about a fearful construction boss saying he was threatened by rivals for having dared to bid for a municipal contract.
Montrealers are now left with an unappetizing selection among three mayoral candidates.
There's the pro-Canada mayor with an administration drowning in corruption scandals, who now says he fears for his family's safety because of the controversy.
His separatist challenger has promised to take a broom to city hall, but her own party has been swept up in the same scandal. She also has a handicap with English-speaking voters, given her past musings about the stench of anglo-British colonialism.
Then there's the third-place candidate who floated conspiracy theories about 9-11 and declared that smoking was good for his health.
Montreal's most widely read broadsheet newspaper responded this week with an editorial endorsement of its own preferred candidate: nobody.
Under the headline "Leader Wanted," Montreal La Presse wrote that the campaign was one of the most depressing and revealing in recent history.
"Faced with the weaknesses demonstrated by each of the mayoral candidates, La Presse is not able to support one or the other," wrote Andre Pratte, the paper's lead editorial writer.
"Montrealers will have to choose according to their conscience."
The torrent of scandal began with a steady trickle.
Earlier this year, there were whispers about cost overruns and irregularities in a $355-million water-metre contract - the biggest ever handed out by the city.
Then the allegations and revelations never stopped coming, and they continued flowing even after the city was forced to cancel the contract.
The scandal became a national story around the time the mayor's most persistent longtime critic - the No. 2 man in the opposition party, Benoit Labonte - was forced to resign himself.
Labonte dropped out after admitting he took money from a businessman implicated in the water-metre row. And, on his way out the door, he spewed out an avalanche of allegations about influence-peddling and dubious fundraising practices that he claimed extended to all levels of politics in Quebec. His opponents have either denied or questioned the accuracy of his comments.
Add to that a bombshell report of extensive Mob influence in road repair that prompted numerous calls for a public inquiry and triggered a $26.8 million provincial police investigation.
One report alleged that the Mob controlled 80 per cent of contracts doled out by the city of Montreal, and that construction companies gave the Cosa Nostra a slice of the action for every deal.
That shock investigative piece by Radio-Canada also alleged that the companies engaged in collusion practices that drove up the price of projects 35 per cent, and that they threatened any competitor who refused to play along.
By the time the campaign was over, it was sweeping in even federal ministers who dared venture into the city.
With suggestions that the Mafia might be siphoning off infrastructure money, and with the federal government spending billions on the biggest infrastructure program in Canadian history, they were being asked: Are Canadians' tax dollars going to the Mob?
Try as they did to steer the conversation back to issues affecting the city, the main candidates faced an electorate both infuriated and titillated by the torturous tales. The single-issue campaign did produce some memorable soundbites.
"I've come to pass the broom - but I will need a vacuum instead," said challenger Louise Harel, a Parti Quebecois firebrand and ardent sovereigntist who is best known as the architect of unpopular municipal mergers.
Harel, at the helm of Vision Montreal since June, is trying to become the city's first-ever female mayor.
She campaigned on a plan to centralize services like garbage pickup and snow removal, freeze taxes and transit fares, and make a bid for the city to host Expo 2020.
But Labonte's revelations, given that he was once her right-hand man, have dogged her since his departure. She now says he deceived her.
Harel expresses hope that she might get support from the city's anglophones, despite her views on national unity and her complaints, when she was a provincial municipal-affairs minister, about the stench of anglo colonialism when English-speakers opposed her plan for municipal mergers.
She now says: "Those who want change - whether they're allophones, anglophones, francophone, Pequiste, Liberal, federalist, sovereigntist - they'll vote Vision Montreal on Nov. 1.
"Montrealers who want the status quo have Gerald Tremblay."
The federalist mayor, Tremblay, is a Liberal ex-provincial cabinet minister, now attempting to re-brand himself as the anti-corruption champion.
Tremblay told Le Devoir newspaper that he feared for his family's safety.
Tremblay, 67, said he's not afraid to walk the streets himself, nor is he afraid of standing up to corruption and rooting out any problems.
"I'm determined to continue what I'm doing and clean up what's happening," Tremblay said in an interview.
All three mayoral candidates have agreed that a public inquiry is necessary.
The incumbent mayor, seeking his third term in office, said he's doing the best he can to turn the discussion towards issues like public transit, improving city services and continuing to attract investment.
"Integrity and ethical conduct are important but you can't base a campaign only on that," Tremblay said.
"There are other issues that concerns citizens."
Added to the mix as a wild card is the quirky, scrappy Richard Bergeron, leader of third-place party Projet Montreal.
Bergeron questioned the 9-11 terrorist attacks and also told Montreal La Presse recently that he smokes to stay healthy because, he says, it reduces his lung capacity and keeps him from injuring himself when he runs marathons too fast.
Bergeron, a 54-year-old convert to Islam, said he's proud that his party's entire campaign cost only $200,000 total where others have spent up to 10 times as much.
Projet Montreal has a wide-ranging, detailed platform that includes everything from heavy investment in public transit to subsidizing reusable diapers to the possibility of a bipartisan municipal executive body.
He's aligned himself with retired judge John Gomery, who headed the federal sponsorship scandal inquiry, and Jacques Duchesneau, a former Montreal police chief.
Gomery says it's time for another inquiry - although such calls have faced resistance from the provincial and federal governments.
One prominent political commentator remembers the Gomery inquiry well. Jean Lapierre was the federal Liberals' Quebec lieutenant when his party was being battered by the sponsorship scandal.
He's hopeful that this scandal might effect positive change.
"I think what we've gotten out of all these crises and scandals - obviously, there is a need for change in the political culture at the municipal level," Lapierre said.
"This genie cannot be put back in the bottle. The municipal political culture has to change."