BEING MAYOR, Intermission – Anatomy of a winning campaign

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
September 11, 2017 - 5:09am
Media election forum at TRU, Nov. 16, 1999.

KAMLOOPS — 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 November 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, an imperfect 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 couple of more, 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.

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.


Name recognition

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. Whether name recognition is a positive or negative for some candidates remains to be seen, but it will be the main focus. Issues will be fuzzy.


A real, 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 open up City Hall, and to get rid of our-of-town council retreats. The transparency issue allowed me to attack the status quo and put incumbents on the defensive.

2017: Ajax might be an issue, but I doubt it. At least two candidates oppose the mine, one supports it. Issues might be broader concerns such as leadership qualities, vision, and whether it’s “time for a change.”


Early out of the gate

I declared my candidacy in June, 1999, 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 hasn’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 identified with the council’s insistence on in-camera meetings, and was put in the position of defending them. It was a no-win situation for her. Former City clerk Ron Kask had a lot of experience in the bureaucracy of City Hall, 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.


Campaign team

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.

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. I attended every forum to which I was invited, and answered every questionnaire I was asked. Good campaigns are expensive. 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: While door-knocking may be the absolute best way to gather support over a longer term, it’s very time consuming and not as effective in a campaign of a few short weeks. Expect to see a lot of signs and a lot of media advertising.


Campaign Central

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 paint 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. We invited other candidates to use it, too, and several did. Inclusiveness was the main theme of the whole campaign. Barb Duggan ran the office 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 will 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.