KAMLOOPS — BEING MAYOR, Chapter 6 — ‘A Dog’s Bite is Much Worse Than Its Bark’
By MEL ROTHENBURGER
This is the sixth in a series on my experiences as the mayor of Kamloops from 1999 to 2005.
“I hope people will take their skepticism but also their hopes with them to the polls on November 20, and I hope they’ll agree that it’s time for some positive change and some new leadership.”
— Campaign speech, 1999
Door-knocking is, without question, one of the most effective campaign strategies, yet many candidates are afraid of it. It’s understandable — there’s a reluctance to invade other people’s privacy, and a fear of how people might react at the doorstep. Besides, its labour intensive.
In six months during 1999, I didn’t quite make the 3,000 doors I’d set as my goal, but I came pretty close. Most people are pleased when a candidate takes the time to come to them in their homes and ask for their support. They’re happy to offer their opinions about what needs to be done, and those opinions often vary markedly with a candidate’s assumption about priorities.
There’s no better way to take the pulse of the electorate. Besides, you just might get invited inside for a coffee or a cup of tea and a cookie.
The effectiveness of door-knocking in finding out what people are really thinking was what made me vow to continue door-knocking between elections. With few exceptions, door-knocking was a very pleasant experience for me. But, once in awhile, there were surprises.
One day, I stopped to talk to a group of young people hanging out on the front lawn of a Surrey Avenue home. They were enjoying a new litter of puppies. After I introduced myself, we began chatting about local politics.
Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my calf muscle and looked down to see that the mother of the pups — a mixed blood Black Lab sort of a dog — had me firmly in her grip.
It wasn’t her fault — I’d mistakenly gotten between her and her pups, and she was being protective. Profuse apologies were offered — both by the teens present, and more so by me for being the cause of it all.
As I limped off, I thought, “It was only a matter of time before I was bitten by a dog.”
But working Surrey Avenue solidifed my conviction that civic government can play a very positive role in rejuvenating neighbourhoods if it focuses the right resources in the right places.
I envisioned Surrey Avenue with sidewalks and trees and saw it transformed from an older-looking neighbourhood into something much more vibrant and proud.
Later, I would initiate and spearhead the McDonald Park project, focusing on infrastructure, social issues, programs and community involvement. That project proved what can be done in a mature neighbourhood to “bring it back.”
When asked what I consider my proudest achievement as mayor, I always say McDonald Park. It surprises some people, because they expect me to talk about the Tournament Capital of Canada facilities, or the water treatment plant, or other “major” projects, or the revamping of government at City Hall.
McDonald Park, though, is something I allow myself to feel truly proud of, because I was able to conceive it and see it through, and watch people’s lives be improved. To me, it epitomizes why I wanted to be mayor.
As the 1999 campaign ticked along, open government continued to be a key issue, along with water meters and the City’s plans for a convention centre. I continued to target the past council on its secret meetings, opposed mandatory universal water meters, and supported the concept of a convention centre but criticized the lack of consultation on the plan.
There were two late entries in the mayoralty race. Ken Ellerbeck, chair of the City’s water quality committee, entered the race for mayor, and so did businessman Bob O’Brien. That made five candidates in all: Ellerbeck, Coun. Pat Kaatz, former City clerk Ron Kask, O’Brien, and me. There was a herd of candidates for the eight City councillor positions — 35 in all.
The application to extend City boundaries to take in our Barnhartvale property turned into a major hickup as it remained in limbo. After a council meeting in which the application was raised, CFJC-TV’s Susan Edgell came into campaign headquarters for an interview.
I answered her questions, but when she asked if it was OK to go onto our property with a camera for “some visuals,” I asked her not to, for privacy reasons.
She agreed not to, then went straight out to Barnhartvale and took footage from a neighbour’s place. It would have angered me less if she’d been up front about it and simply said she’d get the pictures any way she could.
Pat Kaatz and her false announcement that I’d asked for an in-camera meeting on the boundary matter added some fuel to the story, which lasted several days. Peter Olsen of NL chimed in on it, cackling along with Ellerbeck on air that I was the “fringe candidate.”
Then, of course, there was Coun. Grant Robertson and his diatribes against me. He found it hard to resist taking shots, even when candidates were invited to speak at a Rotary meeting.
Clearly, I was the target, since I was ahead in every poll being taken. In early November, we commissioned a new poll to find out if any of this was having a negative impact, and it showed my numbers were undiminished.
Soon after, a McIntyre and Mustel Research poll, published in The Daily News, showed my support at 54.2 per cent of decided voters, well ahead of Kask and Kaatz who had 19 per cent each.
The only poll that didn’t put me in front was John DeCicco’s haircut poll in his Continental Barbershop. According to that, Kaatz stood at about 40 per cent, with Kask close behind. I was third with 27.
Apparently, my supporters needed fewer haircuts.
Pat received an endorsement from the Kamloops District Labour Council, which didn’t even bother to ask for my opinion on any of the issues before deciding who to back. Labour’s endorsement, though, has never seemed to help civic election candidates.
She also picked up a public endorsement from Coun. Pat Wallace, who likes to announce which mayoral candidate she’s backing.
Val Clemont, a long-time friend who now lived out of town, called me one night to tell me she was worried about the way things were going. We needed to do something dramatic, she said. I assured her everything was going well.
Indeed, the campaign was ticking along. Oleh Lazarchuk had the computer system at our Victoria Street headquarters networked and operating like a Swiss watch, Doug Balson was overseeing the phone campaign using his new tracking software, our Mel for Mayor signs dominated the streets, and we even had a second campaign HQ on the North Shore, kindly provided in a corner of Avalon Used Books on Tranquille Road.
But I had discovered early on that, while a municipal campaign has many advantages over provincial and federal campaigns, it can’t hope to match the latter with volunteers.
We had a very solid core of volunteers, but the fact was that I was the only full-time volunteer except for my manager, Barb Duggan. She worked night and day on the campaign and kept everything going smoothly.
I was finding, though, that I was getting bogged down in too much campaign grunt work, time I could have better spent meeting voters.
I was doing a lot of the media advertising campaign, writing my own ads and commercials. I was buying signs and figuring out where to put them. And, I was spending all kinds of time organizing a fundraising dinner, to the point of selling tickets, doing the seating chart and lining up silent auction items.
Barb One (the nickname we gave Barb Duggan to distinguish her from the other Barbs working on the campaign) and Brent Humphrey saw what was going on and told me to smarten up, assuring me they’d relieve me of those burdens.
When, in October 2008, a similar issue caused mayoral candidate Murphy Kennedy’s campaign manager Chad Moats to resign, I understood completely how managing the candidate’s time could turn into a big problem.
To Barb One and Brent I memoed on Oct. 25: “I gratefully accept your offer to totally relieve me of administrivia.” Then I outlined the list of chores that needed doing. “Thanks, I’ll do some doorknocking now,” I concluded.
That under control, and the polls looking good, we seemed in good shape as election day approached.
Then, my best friend died.
NEXT: ‘A Desire For Change’