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The Rise and Fall of Surrey First

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Jordan Bateman: Linda Hepner & Tom Gill blew this election for Surrey First months ago

There’s an old Irish folk song I think about at election time:
You’re goin’ out the same way you came in.

For the once unbeatable Surrey First, the little ditty certainly proved true Saturday night.

In 2005, Councillor Dianne Watts left the Surrey Electors Team (SET) slate that helped her get elected, and ran against Mayor Doug McCallum. At the time, McCallum’s city hall was bogged down in controversy and scandal—Watts called it a “culture of control and conflict” – and said she would return integrity to the hall, and deal with crime throughout the community.

Watts thumped McCallum in 2005, winning by 15 percentage points.

Over the next two terms, every member of McCallum’s former SET slate joined her Surrey First party, and she won re-election in 2008 with 86 per cent of the vote, and a third term in 2011 with 80 per cent.

With support like that, Surrey First campaigners and candidates got used to riding on Watts’ coattails.

When Watts handed the party to her longtime right hand on council and chosen successor, Linda Hepner, the public were less enthused. They gave Hepner the win in 2014, but with less than 49% of the vote. Still, Surrey First held every single seat on council – and Bruce Hayne was elected and already being touted by Surrey First insiders as a future mayor.

However, control and conflict was back at city hall. Hepner and Hayne never saw eye-to-eye. Stories swirled of Surrey First councillors having to wait weeks or months to get a meeting with the mayor who led their coalition. As soon as the 2014 ballots were counted, Tom Gill, filling the fixer role that Hepner used to play for Watts, and Hayne started jockeying for position.

Gill had the inside track. As chair of the city’s budget committee, he could have approached each of his eight council colleagues for their priorities and found ways to fund them. This would have built goodwill with the Surrey First caucus.

Why is that important? Under Surrey First’s rules, the caucus selects the mayoralty candidate. There were only nine members of Surrey First; funding their priorities seems like a logical way to build trust and show leadership. It didn’t happen. In fact, the “star chamber” approach to select leaders would later be a nail in the coffin: voters wanted openness and transparency, not backroom deals.

Gill was virtually invisible last term, except for when he would champion new taxes like the “Cultural & Recreational Parcel Tax.” That tax was announced less than month after the 2014 election – an election where it was never mentioned.

What little Gill the public saw was too political. Where was the young, relatable, suburban dad that thousands of voters would have connected with?

By the time he the campaign started, and he tried to show more personality, it was too late. The public’s view of him was baked in. Hayne sensed it, and fought him tooth and nail for the First mayoralty nomination.

In the end, Hepner held Hayne’s political ambitions against him, and said she would vote to make Gill the mayoralty candidate. Hayne left the party, bitterly disappointed.

You go out the same way you come in. Just as Watts left SET, so Surrey First splintered under Hepner and her chosen successor, Gill.

“Control and conflict” were back at city hall, with Surrey First disintegrating into two different slates. Incumbent First councillors Hayne, Barb Steele and Dave Woods formed the Integrity Now slate. Only Vera Lefranc and Mike Starchuk stuck with Gill.

Hepner and Gill had failed where Watts had succeeded: they could not hold a coalition together.

Desperate, Gill tacked hard to the left, trotting out endorsements from NDP luminaries such as Sue Hammell, Bob Bose, and Moe Sihota.

The public was tired of First’s inability to deal with shootings and other serious crime. They weren’t convinced that light rail was a better option than SkyTrain; a blunder magnified by Gill when he stuck Narima Dela Cruz on the Surrey First ticket – her son leads the biggest anti-light rail organization in Surrey. If she couldn’t convince him of the merits of Gill’s plan, how could she convince a voter?

Reinforcing how tone-deaf Surrey First seemed, city hall stuck out light rail signs on the eve of the campaign. The move was so blatantly supportive of the ruling Surrey First party, that Elections BC had to step in. City hall also brought in mail-in ballots, and – not surprisingly – some were allegedly misused (police are investigating).

On Saturday night, the people spoke. McCallum and seven members of his new Safe Surrey Coalition were elected. The lone Surrey First candidate to make it was newcomer Linda Annis.

The Gill-Hayne vote split didn’t matter. Even if Gill or Hayne had managed to pick up 75% of the other’s votes, they still would have lost to McCallum. It was a crushing rebuke to the control and conflict of the Surrey First regime.

Surrey First is dead.

Their only members were their elected officials, and now they are down to one. Annis would do well to declare herself an independent and try to build bridges with McCallum’s group.

Surrey First was murdered by the same thing that birthed it – control and conflict.

 

Jordan Bateman has a long history of public policy work, championing small business and fiscal responsibility. Currently the Director of Communications for the Independent Contractors and Business Association (ICBA), Jordan also served six years as the B.C. Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and was a two-term Langley Township Councillor. 

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