This is Part 2 of Chapter 7 in my series of articles on my experiences as mayor of Kamloops 1999-2005.
By MEL ROTHENBURGER
What makes for a winning election campaign? So many things influence a campaign that there’s no guaranteed winning formula, but there are some fundamentals.
With the Being Mayor series now at the point where I win election as mayor in 1999, let’s take an intermission before Chapter 8 and fast forward to 2017 as we get close to a civic by-election.
Are there comparisons to be made? At the least, there are things to watch for.
I’d like to think it was my charm, charisma and infallible feel for the issues that got the job done in 1999. In reality the result was created by a convergence, a near-perfect storm, that included a vacancy in the mayor’s chair, a council that many people felt was getting past its best-before date, a compelling issue and a candidate — that would be me — with high name recognition.
Here are those factors and a few others, with comparisons to 2017:
A “vacancy” in the office
Few incumbent Kamloops mayors have ever been defeated. The past several council elections show this. Peter Milobar, Terry Lake, Cliff Branchflower and Kenna Cartwright were all elected after incumbent mayors left office (in the case of Branchflower, he won a by-election after the death of Cartwright). John Dormer was defeated after one term, but that was by the formidable former B.C. highways minister Phil Gaglardi. “Open” elections almost always attract more voter interest and bigger turnouts — I think that helped me. Incumbent councillors who run for mayor, however, aren’t a shoe-in, as the 1999 results show.
2017: This is one of those “open” elections but my feeling is that the large number of candidates for both mayor and council is deceiving — the very short campaign will result in a low turnout, which could affect the results.
By 1999, I had lived in Kamloops for 29 years and had been in the media almost the whole time, as editor of The Kamloops Daily News as well as hosting a call-in radio show at CFJC for a time. My columns focused heavily on civic politics. The challenge in the election was to make readers aware of, and comfortable with, me as a politician rather than a journalist. I also had a good grounding in community service, having been on many community boards and committees.
2017: Name recognition will again play a role, maybe even more than usual, because voters will have trouble sorting out who’s who. Name recognition will be the main focus for candidates, and time is short; issues will be fuzzy.
A clear, easily understood issue
The incumbent City council had received a lot of criticism over secrecy, especially after it formally endorsed — in February 1997 — the practice of holding every fourth council meeting behind closed doors. At that time, it was legal to do so (the provincial government brought in new rules towards the end of the campaign banning such practices) but highly unpopular. I felt strongly about open government and it was one of the main reasons I ran. I promised to end it, and to get rid of out-of-town council retreats. I implemented Meet the Mayor days (in which residents could drop in to talk to me without appointment on certain days of the week), between-election door-knocking, and took council out of City Hall and into communities for some of its regular open meetings. The transparency issue allowed me to attack the status quo and put incumbents on the defensive.
2017: Ajax might be an issue, but I don’t think it will be a big one. At least two candidates oppose the mine, one supports it. Issues might be broader, such as leadership qualities, clarity of vision, and whether it’s “time for a change.”
Early out of the gate
I declared my candidacy in June, five months before the election, and made it my full-time “job” from that point on. That early start made it possible to knock on a lot of doors as well as to pay attention to a lot of details.
2017: The circumstances surrounding the calling of the by-election haven’t allowed an early start for anybody. This campaign will pass in the blink of an eye.
A clear choice
Although there were five candidates, only three of us were considered to be seriously in the race and every poll we took confirmed it. Incumbent Coun. Pat Kaatz was put in the position of defending council’s in-camera meetings, and It was a no-win situation for her. Former City clerk Ron Kask had a lot of experience in City Hall in the bureaucracy, but he wasn’t thought of by voters as the new blood they were looking for on council.
2017: The choice is a similar one to 1999 — an incumbent councilor vs. challengers.
This is huge. My campaign manager Barb Duggan knew how to organize, forming a large committee with Team Captains responsible for specific areas such as fundraising, recruiting and directing volunteers, running the campaign office, organizing door-knocking, making media buys, the all-important job of keeping the books, and so on. Volunteers are harder to mobilize for civic campaigns than for federal and provincial campaigns but we did well, and we even had a group of seniors who formed the Mel for Mayor Dancers, and a youth team of students from St. Ann’s Academy. Despite this, in the early stages I had to do a lot of the detail work myself, which took time away from campaigning, but later was encouraged to do more delegating. Our committee met regularly and often to deal with details and strategies.
2017: Who has the best machine?
A complete campaign
We used all the traditional methods of election campaigning. A campaign office, radio, TV and newspaper advertising, several different brochures and cards, T-shirts, coffee and tea parties, door-knocking, lawn signs, a phone campaign, computer-tracking and polling. Facebook and Twitter hadn’t come along yet, but I set up a Mel4Mayor website. All this was possible because of the length of the campaign. I also attended every forum to which I was invited, and answered every questionnaire I was asked. One of our fundraising programs was actually a way of building committed support and promoting my platform. The High Five campaign asked for five dollars, using the slogan “Your small change will help Mel bring a big change in city hall.” Every bit helped because good campaigns are expensive. The Municipal Affairs minister issued a discussion paper in the summer of 1999 on campaign expense limits for local elections. I’m a fan of campaign spending limits in civic campaigns to level the playing field, and proposed to the other mayoral candidates that we set a limit. Nobody took me up on it. The Mel For Mayor campaign spent $29,963.53, easily a record for Kamloops mayoralty elections up to that time (Peter Milobar spent $37,092 in 2014). Our funding came from donations, in-kind donations, fundraising and my own contributions.
2017: In short campaigns, such as the 2017 by-election, it’s necessary to focus on the most productive vote-getting strategies. For example, while door-knocking may be the absolute best way to gather support over a longer term, it’s very time consuming and not geared for a campaign of a few short weeks. Expect to see a lot of signs and a lot of media advertising.
Family support and involvement
If you’re going to run for office, it takes every extra hour you can find. That leaves little time for family dinners and the usual family activities. It’s important not only that they support your decision, but become part of the process. Jacob was only nine years old, but he loved the campaign. At HQ, we had questionnaires that people could fill out when I wasn’t there. I would then call them back with my answers. One day, Jacob filled one out asking if I was going to take him to Episode 1, the latest Star Wars movie, after the campaign was over. I told him yes, and kept my promise. My other kids — Kelly, Edyn, Sunnie and Ryan — attended various campaign events. Just this past week, Edyn and I were reminiscing, and she remembered how she would come to the campaign office every day after school to help out. At one point she was given the task of working the phones off a call-out list and asking for support. When people said mean things about me — which is what happens in politics — it would upset her, so she did other things instead. My wife Sydney was 100 per cent on board as well, helping campaign and attending functions with me.
2017: The point here is it isn’t just the candidate who runs for public office, it’s the whole family. But remember, the family feels the ups and downs as much as the candidate/ politician does.
New candidates often shake their heads when I mention this, and assume it must be too expensive. We did one professional poll by a polling firm, but we also did some on our own by hiring students from the student job centre and using phones in a supporter’s law office over a couple of evenings. The polls accomplished two things: they gave us a sense of confidence and momentum, and helped clarify which issues were top of mind.
2017: There have been no indications of any camps doing any polling yet, but they’d be foolish not to.
Candidates for City councilor positions usually don’t need campaign offices but I’m convinced mayoral candidates absolutely do. Ours was in a former Boston Pizza restaurant at 322 Victoria Street and it was perfect. It gave us high visibility, especially because of the large banners and signs we put up, and because we made sure it had a feeling of energy. As part of the deal with the landlord, we gave the façade a fresh coat of paint, with a couple of dozen volunteers taking to brushes and rollers and turning it into a bit of a party. We held our official opening in October, about a month before the election. I came up with the idea of inviting other candidates to use it, too, and several council candidates did. Their campaign material was displayed, and the candidates often came in for coffee and some political discussion. There was a real feeling of inclusiveness about it, which was the main theme of the whole campaign. We had bulletin boards with clippings and slogans, an ideas box, computers and phones, furniture and our meeting area. Barb Duggan was the mastermind as the campaign manager, but others like Barb McKay, Mary Bezanson and Barb Fennuik were instrumental in making the place tick. And going ourselves one better, we opened a small, second campaign office in the corner of a used-book store on Tranquille Road.
2017: This is the week to be opening campaign offices. I doubt that more than one or two candidates will do it. Those who do with give themselves an advantage.
I’m not trying to sound all modest, but candidates, no matter what their qualifications, are only as good as their campaigns. Mine had the right combination of good people, good issues, great organization, a healthy bank account, and excellent timing.
In 2017, I see no storm, perfect or otherwise, on the horizon, meaning this by-election will depend — as they say in sports — on who wants it most. And that will be reflected in the kind of campaigns they run.