KAMLOOPS — This is the seventh in a series on my experiences as the mayor of Kamloops from 1999 to 2005.
By MEL ROTHENBURGER
“Well, so much for barbershop polls.”
— Election speech, Nov. 20, 1999.
Neil Morrison and I became friends during the 1970s, when we served together on the Kamloops School Board. He represented Barriere, where he lived on a small farm with his family, commuting daily to his job as a sociology instructor at University College of the Cariboo.
I’ve known very few people as intelligent and knowledgeable as Neil. He loved to debate social and political issues, and I looked on him not only as my best friend, but as a mentor. Every time we talked, I learned something new.
Many an evening I’d get a call from him telling me to meet him somewhere, or saying he needed a place to stay for the night because he was working late. On one memorable occasion, he called to say he was busting out of One South at RIH and needed a ride. That was because Neil struggled with demons that manifested themselves from time to time in bizarre behaviour, but it never interfered with our friendship.
After his family life disintegrated, and he couldn’t continue at UCC, he moved to Nelson, and that’s where he was living when I received a call from his former wife Donna to break the news that Neil had died. He’d been dead several days when he was found in his home.
The funeral was in Nelson on Saturday, election day, she said. “I know you won’t be able to make it, but I wanted you to know.” I was in shock, since I’d hoped Neil could be here in Kamloops for election night.
I called an emergency meeting of the Mel for Mayor campaign committee to tell them about Neil’s death. I wanted to be at the funeral, but I didn’t want to let anyone down by being away on election day. It was Frank Quinn who gave the answer, without hesitation. “You’ve got to go,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer.”
A couple of days later, on Friday, Nov. 19, I boarded a plane for Cranbrook, where I rented a car for the drive to Nelson. That evening, Neil’s son Nicholas came to my hotel room for a visit and we talked for a long time about his father.
Saturday morning, I knew that, back in Kamloops, it would be controlled chaos as my committee arranged for drives to the polls and for election night at campaign headquarters. Arrangements had been made for monitors at City Hall to phone results back to our campaign office the moment any numbers were posted, and they would, in turn, be written on a giant whiteboard to keep everyone up to speed.
But I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I joined Donna and the three kids — Nicholas, Jasmine and Heather — and we traded a few stories about Neil. I wanted to be strong in delivering Neil’s eulogy, but I had trouble getting through it. Each word I spoke about what kind of a man, what kind of a friend, he had been, was like a sharp pain to my heart, reinforcing the fact that we had lost him forever.
It was hard shifting gears as I hurried back to Kamloops, but I made it home in time to catch my breath and prepare for the evening. Since the boundary expansion we’d applied for still hadn’t been resolved, I couldn’t make the traditional visit to the polls to vote for myself.
Because of my trip to Nelson and all the stuff going on during election day, Jacob had gone to my brother Bernie and sister-in-law Jo’s place for the day, so as 8 p.m. approached it was just Syd and me who settled in front of the radio in our living room.
The first polls came in fairly quickly, and I was out to a quick lead. It was looking like a big voter turnout (indeed, it finished at 52 per cent, much higher than several previous elections). Larger polling stations were slower in coming, though, and I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions. Though I knew that candidates in our civic elections usually lead, or trail, consistently from one polling station to another, I didn’t want to be disappointed. It took awhile for me to start believing.
Meanwhile, at campaign headquarters, Barb Duggan and our committee were getting anxious. I was scheduled to be there by 9 p.m. but I was so nervous about the result I stayed glued to the radio at home.
“Where in God’s good name is he?” Barb was heard to say at one point.
Finally, at just after 9, I figured it was OK to head for HQ. I was feeling so elated, and working hard to contain it, and still conflicted with flashbacks about Neil, that Syd figured she’d better drive.
We found a parking spot on Victoria Street a block away from campaign headquarters, and walked from there. As we got closer, we started hearing celebratory noise. Before we could enter, though, we were scrummed by reporters out on the sidewalk for comments. After talking a bit about the campaign and immediate plans, Syd and I entered the big campaign office just as "I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends" was cued up.
Cheers and applause burst out as campaign workers swarmed us with congratulations. I forgot my usual reserved manner and enthusiastically began hugging and kissing people back.
I’ve never felt anything like it. When people trust in you enough to work on your behalf for months, and you all succeed, you can’t help but feel grateful, humble and just plain thrilled all at once.
And, I tell you, when I saw Jacob standing there waiting for us, I felt a special joy because I knew how much he wanted his father to win. At nine years of age, he was totally into the campaign, spending many enjoyable hours at campaign headquarters.
There were a lot of phone calls and congratulations to accept. Outgoing mayor Cliff Branchflower was among them. Former mayor Al Thompson also came by. Pat Kaatz came in to concede and to congratulate me. So did Coun. Shirley Culver, who didn't know at that point whether she'd been re-elected. None of the other mayoral candidates did, but it didn’t matter.
When I spoke to the crowd, I thanked them for their support and for not allowing our campaign to descend into mudslinging. I also paid tribute both to Neil and to my parents. I would have given anything to have them there that night, but I certainly felt their spirit.
I noted that Ben and Nora Rothenburger would have gotten “a kick out of this, that their shy little Mel is now the mayor-elect of Kamloops.”
I poked a little fun at John DeCicco’s barbership poll, too, since it had predicted I’d lose. John and I remain good friends, and I never miss a chance to remind him of that poll.
Since votes were counted manually, it took quite some time for the final numbers to be tallied. I won all 24 polls, taking 10,673 votes compared to 4,763 for Kaatz, 4,167 for Ron Kask, 1,829 for Ken Ellerbeck and 1,126 for Bob O’Brien.
Three incumbent councillors went down to defeat — Culver, Bill Walton and Grant Robertson, who had distinguished himself for poor taste by putting a pair of red women's panties on his head when he addressed an all-candidates’ forum a few days before the election.
With the defeat of those three, and retirements, six of nine members of council were new, an unprecedented turnover.
John O’Fee, Peter Sharp, John DeCicco, Brian Husband and Dave Gracey (who ran with the slogan “Able to Think") joined me as the newbies on council, along with incumbents Pat Wallace, Joe Leong and Sharon Frissell. A veterinarian named Terry Lake finished 400 votes behind Frissell and out of the running.
Asked by a reporter to sum up what had happened, I simply said there had been “a desire for change.” And that became the headline for the election: “Voters Opt For Change.”
Everyone was reluctant to let that night end but, of course, we all eventually had to lock up the campaign office and go home. Syd drove again. I didn’t sleep that night, not for one second.
NEXT: ‘Election Reflections’