Ida Chong: ready to take charge

By Judith Lavoie, November 2014

An energetic downtown and fiscal restraint are among Ida Chong’s priorities.

There’s no doubt that Ida Chong has friends in high places and those relationships could be beneficial to Victoria if she is elected as the City of Victoria’s mayor.

But Chong, who during her 17 years as Liberal MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head held 10 cabinet posts, insists that she will not ask for special favours from her former cabinet colleagues; she will simply advocate strongly for BC’s capital city.

“My job, if I am elected, will be to go after the provincial government for Victoria’s fair share,” says Chong, who believes current Mayor Dean Fortin has failed the City, both in his leadership and dealings with senior levels of government.

Chong maintains that she would be a strong, budget-conscious leader and, as a bonus, can offer the benefit of cabinet experience.

“I understand how the system works. I know the structure of cabinet and cabinet committees and how Treasury Board works and I understand how they do long-term planning,” she says.

However, Chong emphasizes that she is not running as a BC Liberal and, despite assumptions that she has political support, the party machine is not involved in her campaign.

“I don’t believe there should be any partisan politics at the civic level,” she says, adding that mayors and councillors need to be responsible to their community, not to a political party.

“I am just asking all my friends and supporters if they can volunteer their time,” says Chong, adding that, because of her background, many of her friends do belong to a particular political party.

Whether or not there is BC Liberal backing, Chong’s fiscally conservative platform—with promises to freeze Victoria’s property tax rate for four years and heritage tax exemptions in Old Town aimed at encouraging new businesses—fits her political roots.

The lack of overt political involvement may help the business community feel comfortable supporting Chong, says Norman Ruff, University of Victoria professor emeritus. “She’s a strong contender. There seems to be strong support for her in the business community and they are able to mobilize a significant part of the electorate,” he points out.

Ruff believes there is a mood of unease among Victoria voters and that could mean problems for incumbents. Questions about cost overruns and delays on the Johnson Street Bridge replacement—which Ruff describes as the “Blue Bridge fiasco”—and the regional impasse over sewage treatment may swing opinion against those in power, Ruff says. “There’s not a complacent mood among the Victoria electorate.” That means new contenders, who get their vote out, could do well and Chong has the advantage of name recognition, says Ruff.

However, Sean Holman, assistant professor of journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says he cannot see Chong as a particularly compelling candidate. “Her record at the provincial level is somewhat without public distinction,” he says, adding that the performance of most MPs and MLAs is difficult to assess because of government secrecy and the necessity of towing the party line. “Was she a strong voice at the cabinet or caucus table? Who knows. All we know is, like most cabinet ministers and MLAs, she was able to use scripted answers in reply to questions from the media,” Holman says.

Opponents, such as journalist Stephen Andrew, point out that Chong was rarely seen to be advocating for Victoria while she was in cabinet and, when the federal government announced money for the bridge replacement, Chong did not come up with a penny of provincial money. “Is that someone who’s going to stand up for Victoria?” he asks.

But Chong insists she was a strong voice for the capital region and fought hard for projects such as the Royal Jubilee Hospital expansion and renovation. 

Chong is running against Fortin, who has NDP support, Andrew, and one-term councillor Lisa Helps. Others with their name on the ballot are Changes the Clown, aka Rob Duncan, Jason Dean Ross, Riga Godron, and David Shebib.

Chong’s provincial career came to an abrupt end last year when she was defeated by the Green Party’s Andrew Weaver. Her decision to run for mayor in Victoria—even though she lives in Saanich—was sparked by the number of empty storefronts downtown, overflowing garbage cans, and a general feeling of decay. “This should be an energetic, lively downtown and I felt someone should do something about it,” says Chong, adding that one of her major traits is that she never sits on the sidelines and lets someone else do the work.

Chong, who served on Saanich council before running provincially, does not believe living in Saanich should make a difference to Victoria voters. “It has nothing to do with the postal code. I am the most qualified person…and I have deep roots in Victoria,” she says, recalling her time at elementary school on Douglas Street, where the Times Colonist building now stands. 

As a child, Chong, who is now in her 50s, lived in a house that was expropriated and demolished to make way for the Blanshard Court housing complex (now Evergreen Terrace). The family then moved to Gordon Head, where eight kids, mom and dad, and grandmother packed into a 1000-square-foot home with one bathroom. “There were four girls, so if someone was putting on makeup, there would be someone on the toilet and someone else in the bath,” she recalls.

“I know what it is like to be fiscally struggling, managing month by month,” she says, remembering waiting outside Woodwards for the doors to open and then running in to grab the loss-leader specials or the $1.49 day bargains. 

Chong’s father worked as a boilermaker at Yarrows and her mother, who did not speak English, washed dishes at Victoria restaurants, such as Paul’s Motor Inn, in the days before dishwashers. It was that family history that grounded her in fiscal prudence, says Chong, who later became an accountant. “My mother always said ‘don’t get yourself indebted or someone else owns your destiny.’”

It’s a mantra that has stayed with her and she is itching to get into the mayor’s seat to take charge of projects and budgets that she believes have gone awry. For example, she finds it shocking that residential tax rates have risen 34 percent in six years.

A four-year freeze on property tax mill-rates should not hurt the City financially, believes Chong, who has also figured out how to get the $400,000 she estimates it will cost for heritage tax exemptions in Old Town. “I know the mayor has some politically-driven staff—seven or eight of them—and I don’t want politically driven staff,” she says, querying why so many communications people are needed in a city of Victoria’s size.

Chong says she was shocked a few months ago when independent consultant Jonathan Huggett found no one person was in charge of the Johnson Street Bridge project. She believes that vacuum reflects Fortin’s lack of leadership. “It’s the priciest municipal infrastructure project the City has ever undertaken and you would think the political leader in the City would be named as the one in charge and that he would take ownership of it,” she says, noting the bridge project desperately needs more oversight and fiscal discipline. “If elected, the first thing I will do is put on a pair of steel-toed boots and a hard hat and I will be at that site. I want to let them know there is a new person in charge—and I mean in charge.”

That leadership, says Chong, must carry through to ensuring Victoria, with its aging infrastructure, starts putting aside money to replace other critical public assets, ranging from the Crystal Pool to water mains. “It’s like changing the oil in your car. It is less expensive to do proactive maintenance than it is to replace the entire engine after years of neglect.”

Chong’s primary concern with the regional sewage treatment stalemate is again the finances. She says her first task will be to pick up the phone to find out whether provincial and federal contributions are still available.

What happens if the plan has changed, she asks, wondering whether local taxpayers could be landed with triple costs. “I will be on that phone and they had better pick up. I know how to hound,” she warns fiercely.

Chong is hedging her bets on the thorny amalgamation question, saying she is delighted the issue is on the ballot and she is hoping for a decisive answer from voters so there will be real evidence to take to the provincial government.

“The province is reluctant to force it,” she says. And, as Chong points out again, of all the mayoral candidates, she is the most likely to know what is going on in the collective mind of the provincial government.

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist. Twitter @LavoieJudith.