Chapter 4 — ‘Kamloops At A Crossroads’
By MEL ROTHENBURGER
“Well, he’s pretty smart. He knows a lot about the community. So why not?”
— Jacob Rothenburger, 9, on his father’s candidacy for mayor, June 16, 1999.
Those words are among my most cherished memories of that first campaign. At my announcement in Calvary Temple, Jacob was approached by a TV7 reporter who stuck a microphone in front of him and, camera rolling, asked what he thought about his dad running for mayor.
It was golden stuff for the evening news. Funny part is, my campaign manager Barb Duggan had seen it coming, and spent a few minutes coaching Jacob, who had turned nine only a few days before, just in case he should be approached by reporters.
But when it happened, Jacob ignored all Barb’s gems about the need for change, and his father’s qualifications, and used entirely his own words.
Going into that announcement, I was pretty nervous. Not nervous about my speech, or the announcement itself, but nervous about whether anyone would show up. I spent the previous couple of days emailing everybody I could think of to encourage them — beg, practically — to come for an announcement about the upcoming civic election. Committee members had done the same. When we filled the hall, I was immensely relieved.
As I took the podium, there in front of me were family (Jacob spent the entirety of my speech playing with an action figure), friends, supporters and media, and it energized me.
I had decided to use St. Andrews on the Square for the announcement because it had fairly recently been saved from the wrecker’s ball and restored, no thanks to some members of the incumbent council. I saw it as a symbol of renewal. (Peter Milobar used the same venue when he announced his candidacy for mayor in 2008.)
I’d put a lot of thought into my speech, and as I delivered it I felt every word very strongly. I was running for mayor, I said, because things needed to change at City Hall (shades of Barack Obama).
“I have a vision for Kamloops, to draw this community together, to restore this city’s leadership role in the Interior of British Columbia,” I said.
“I want to prove that we can create a style of City government that opens up the doors to Council chambers and invites the public in to take part in decision-making, rather than a city government that locks the doors so they can talk about public business in what they themselves often refer to as the ‘comfort’ of secrecy.”
I ended with my view of the role of mayor, and said, “The mayor has to be busy, he has to be visible, he has to be where he’s needed. He’s not just another vote on City council. He’s got to be in the forefront of the action.”
The speech set the tone and the main message for the campaign, which we would go at in various ways but always return to the theme: we need to change the way things are done at City Hall.
“Kamloops is a wonderful city, but Kamloops is at a crossroads,” I said in one ad. “Choosing the right course for Kamloops is crucial to maintaining the qualify of life for all our citizens.”
I very carefully avoided, though, going after any individual member of council. Despite that, some councillors went on the defensive, and they were on their heels the whole campaign.
Incumbent councillor Grant Robertson, a gregarious loose cannon, decided to fight back by lacing into me in an obscenity-laced interview with Daily News reporter Cam Fortems.
“I have to say he’s not my favorite person,” he said, adding I was “two-faced” for saying I would work to end unnecessary secret meetings and council retreats.
“His advertising there will be no this or that is a crock of shit.”
I refused to take the bait, answering simply that I could work with anyone. Robertson’s outburst was greeted with disdain by voters, and he was trounced in the election.
Pat Kaatz, who hoped to make the jump from councillor to mayor, defended council’s record on closed meetings, and it backfired on her, especially when — a couple of days after Robertson’s diatribe — she accused me of asking for an in camera meeting with council to discuss the extension of City boundaries to include our Barnhartvale home.
I never did talk to then-city engineer Ernie Kurtz about it, though Kaatz said she sort of remembered him as the source.
CHNL’s Angelo Iacobucci called me on my cell as I was out doorknocking, and I told him Pat’s allegation was siimply not true, then drafted a letter to her demanding a retraction and an apology.
“Pat, I had hoped that this mayoral campaign would be waged on issues and on the credentials and integrity of candidates,” I wrote. “Having known you for so many years, I can’t believe you would allow this slanderous and untrue accusation to stand.”
The clincher came when the media talked to the City Clerk’s department, which confirmed I’d never asked for such a meeting.
But Pat couldn’t bring herself to apologize. It was an unfortunate turn of events, since Syd and I had been pretty good friends with Pat and her husband Fred for many years. We’ve rarely spoken in the nine years since, and we’ve missed that friendship, though we’re friendly enough if we happen to run into each other.
The reason going negative on the current council resonated was that the council had a genuine weak spot. Voters grow tired of a council after a time, and this council was unpopular for the very reasons I was running — it had lost touch with the public.
When mayoral candidate Al McNair tried attacking the incumbent council in 2005, it failed because he was attacking a popular council that had accomplished a lot. I warned Al about that, but he figured he needed some kind of an edge against Terry Lake.
Al would have made an excellent mayor, but his strategy put him in third place.
Murphy Kennedy tried the same thing in 2008, and it didn’t work for him, either. He wasn’t attacking council in general; he was going after his opponent, Peter Milobar, who was a tough target.
Milobar was never a very high vote-getter as a councillor, but stayed out of trouble and was a methodical, knowledgeable legislator. Despite his uninspiring “let’s try not to screw up” campaign message, he was a clear favorite. Attacking him personally didn’t score any many points for opponents.
Kennedy later focused more on articulating new ideas on how to deal with issues, and I think that was a better way to go, though of course Milobar won anyway.
While Milobar’s “Balanced Approach” slogan didn’t exactly stir one to patriotic fervor, he at least had a slogan that said something about his intentions. I had none.
What I had was “Mel For Mayor.” I was running on my name recognition, and counting on people knowing enough about me based on my years of writing about civic issues, and my community involvement, that they would be willing to entrust me with the office of mayor.
I came up with Mel For Mayor one day as I was sketching out a design for lawn signs. “Rothenburger” is just too long for a sign, so I drew a great big blue “Mel” with a smaller “FOR MAYOR” in reverse red.
Immediately after my announcement and departure from The Daily News, I started doorknocking. The address of every door I knocked on was recorded on a sheet I carried that indicated whether I felt I had the person’s support, and also whether that address would be a good prospect for a lawn sign.
If you take a look at election signage, whether for federal, provincial or civic elections, you’ll see that most lawn signs are stuck on boulevards, hillsides, wherever there’s a spot within view of traffic. But few are put on lawns.
People seldom call up a campaign office and ask for a lawn sign — it happens, but not all that often. When it came time to start accelerating the presence of Mel For Mayor lawn signs, my committee members went to my door-knocking sheets and started calling the people we felt would accept one.
Lawn signs, though, were only one way of getting the message out. We had a whole lot of other ideas about how to convince voters that Kamloops was at a crossroads, and that they should give me a chance to take it in a new direction.