COLUMN:Surrey First loses lucky charm

Surrey First can't rely on exiting Mayor Dianne Watts for votes anymore

Surrey First, the civic political organization whose membership is restricted to elected members of council, announced its mayoral candidate Wednesday.

As anticipated, it is Coun. Linda Hepner, who in May already had the support of half the Surrey First caucus.

It’s a strange way to pick a mayoral candidate, and is another indication that the unity and consensus on council which lasted for much of outgoing Mayor Dianne Watts’ three terms in office is already fracturing.

Every other civic political organization has members – who work in campaigns, collect money and take care of the nuts and bolts of politics.

Not Surrey First. It has people who do all those things, but they aren’t able to help select the mayoralty candidate. That is restricted to the seven elected Surrey First members of council.

This state of affairs isn’t likely to please all the Surrey First campaign workers, and it is likely some of them will drift away.

The situation in 2014 is very different from 2005, when Watts won her first term as mayor. She initially won the mayor’s seat as an independent, and was beholden to no one. That also meant she had no ready-made support on council.

She set out to work with other members of council and eventually charmed all but one onside. The lone holdout was Coun. Bob Bose, a former mayor, who was part of the weak Surrey Civic Coalition.

Watts was Surrey First’s strongest selling point – something that was made obvious in the last election when the group won all nine council seats, and defeated Bose. Even at the height of the Surrey Voters Association’s formidable power in the early 1970s, the best it could do was eight seats.

Watts’ considerable clout is already fading. Like a U.S. president in the seventh year of a term, she is becoming a lame duck.

Hepner is one of the stronger members of the Surrey First group. She worked for years at city hall before taking the plunge and running with Surrey Electors Team in the days of mayor Doug McCallum. She was an early convert to the Watts charm offensive. Hepner has been a good team player and has been particularly strong on economic development issues, which are as important as ever in the current economy.

However, she does not have the depth of charm that Watts has shown to Surrey residents, fellow politicians and almost everyone she comes into contact with. Nor is she running against an incumbent mayor, and gaining sympathy as an underdog, which naturally comes in such a situation.

Hepner will enter the race for mayor for Surrey First as the favourite, given Surrey First’s council dominance. However, that favouritism is easily over-estimated.

Surrey First has been strong because Watts has been strong. The civic group is dominant, but there is no guarantee that citizens want that dominance to continue.

Most of the Surrey First councillors are relatively low-profile and they have won seats in the past two elections because Watts headed the ticket.

There is little in the way of organized opposition (yet) and citizen satisfaction with local government is reasonably strong.

However, Coun. Barinder Rasode, who was with Surrey First, has also said she will run for mayor. She has also been one of the more effective members of council, and certainly has a high profile. Her connections with the South Asian community are a big factor in her favour, as many South Asians take part in municipal politics and get out and vote.

Rasode may put together a team to challenge Surrey First. Whether that will happen isn’t clear yet.

She will be talking a lot about crime in her campaign, and it’s the issue that many Surrey residents are uneasy about. Last year’s record 25 murders were a blight on generally improving crime statistics. The Dec. 31 murder of Julie Paskall outside the Newton Arena was particularly shocking and, even though a suspect has been arrested, crime in many Surrey neighbourhoods is still a hot topic with residents.

Three murders and a public shooting in a busy neighbourhood in the middle of the afternoon, all of which occurred last week, don’t make people feel any better.

A Hepner-Rasode contest, with several other candidates thrown into the mix, will certainly be an interesting one. The outcome is vitally important for the future of the city.

Keep in mind that the next mayor will serve four years before there is another election, so the candidate chosen by voters will be in place for a lengthy period of time.

Surrey residents, even those who don’t usually vote, should pay close attention over the next few months.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.



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