This is the third in a series on my experiences as the mayor of Kamloops from 1999 to 2005. I offer it for the interest of anyone who cares about civic politics and our community, and who might be wondering — as we approach a civic by-election Sept. 30 — what really goes on inside civic election campaigns and in City Hall.
Chapter 3 — ‘Let’s Unlock the Doors to City Hall’
By MEL ROTHENBURGER
‘People tell me we need to make decisions at City Hall that reflect the values of our families and neighbourhoods. Let’s unlock the doors to an open, accountable and effective City Government that listens — really listens — to what the community is saying. . . .”
— Brochure, Mel for Mayor Campaign, 1999
Barb Duggan is the kind of person who doesn’t like surprises. She’s probably the most organized person I’ve ever known. In short order, after she agreed early in 1999 to be my campaign manager, she created a large file of graphs and flow charts mapping out the campaign. All that was needed was to fill in the blanks of who would do what.
Our campaign committee came together easily — I recruited mostly people I’d known for years and who had expertise that would complement each other’s. There were, initially, 15 members, with some later additions.
Al McNair (who would become my campaign manager for my second election, and who would run for the mayoralty the year I retired) had extensive community connections especially in business. Doug Balson’s specialty was research and public-opinion surveying. Brent Humphrey and I went back many years in the media business, and he had morphed that experience into a career in what might be called political maintenance and repair.
I’ve never known anyone who had such a feel for what the public is thinking. He was genuinely excited about working on the campaign, and offered to fit in anywhere we could use him. “Mel,” he said when I asked him to come on board, “I just want to be in the game.”
The times I got into the most trouble as mayor were when I neglected to ask Al or Brent for advice. “Just ask,” Al implored one day after I committed the first of what I call my Three Big Mistakes. “Just ask.”
There were many others, like Chuck Bishop, probably the most experienced marketer in town, and Ray and Nancy Abate, successful business people.
And, my brother Bernie, whose advice I’ve always respected because he has a wonderful sense of what’s right.
But before we even got a functioning committee together, Barb wanted research. There, I had something to offer. As a columnist and editorial writer, and a sometime talk-show host, I was in the habit of keeping voluminous files of clippings and reports on issues. I had filing cabinets full of them. And I also had files on how members of council had voted on issues — useful to know, since some of them might be my opponents.
Another strategy of Barb’s was to line up key support early. So we began taking a lot of people to lunch, people in business, people who headed up key organizations or demographics, community leaders of all kinds, including politicians. Barb’s strategy was to cut off any possibility of high-profile community leaders coming out in support of anyone else who might be on the ballot.
This exercise also resulted in some excellent advice along the way. MP Nelson Riis said he would support me on one condition: that I knock on at least 3,000 doors. That didn’t sound like a lot, but he assured me it was. And he said there was no more effective campaign tool than door-knocking. People who talk to you on their doorstep remember who you are.
Lawyer and one-time federal Liberal candidate Joel Groves went a step further. When you shake somebody’s hand at their front door, he said, you’re virtually assured of their vote. A handshake is almost like a contract between the candidate and the voter, and the voter will not break that contract.
Joel, in fact, became a regular committee member, and his wealth of political knowledge was a real gift.
Another very important member of the committee was Frank Quinn, but not until we were well into the campaign. We were struggling to raise money at the time and, as if he’d been listening in, he took me to coffee one day and asked, “Why haven’t you asked me to help you raise money?”
I swear the man could get blood from a stone. We had no more worries about money after that.
When I think back on it, we had a campaign organization second to none that I’ve ever seen before or since, including better-heeled provincial and federal campaigns. It would later be labeled as a “Liberal machine,” but it wasn’t. One of the wonderful things about it was that it crossed party lines. On the one hand, we had died-in-the-wool Liberals like McNair and Groves, and on the other there were faithful New Democrats like Balson and Shirley Rhodes, Nelson Riis’ constituency assistant.
Yet Barb must have wondered about Canadian politics at times. Running a mayoral campaign in a small Canadian city was a lot different than bigtime, bare knuckle American politics. Add to that the fact she was new to Kamloops and had little feel for my electability, and we had a recipe for tension. But it was creative tension. We argued sometimes, but we always found common ground.
I knew my name recognition was unusually high, because we’d done a lot of research on readership for The Daily News. I was also a top vote-getter during my time on the school board. To Barb, though, I was just someone who wanted to be mayor, and she’d have to create me as a candidate who would be attractive to voters.
She started by bringing on board an image “consultant” — a talented local acting coach — whose assignment it was to make me into a politician. He and I had some hilarious sessions in which he tried to teach me to “own the room” through a series of mental exercises every time I entered a hall.
It was fun but it didn’t last long. Barb must have worried about it, since I’m a shy person who couldn’t “work a room” if my life depended on it. Nevertheless, the “public” part of the job — the ribbon cuttings, the “grip ‘n’ grin” pictures, the proclamations, unveilings — became highly enjoyable for me after the election.
As for making speeches, I’d never had any reservations about that. My job in the media required a lot of that sort of thing, and I’d always felt comfortable in front of a crowd.
We’d just have to make do with who I was — imperfect, but a man with a lot of ideas about how to make local government better. It was time to make the announcement.