Stephen Andrew: no political baggage

By Judith Lavoie, November 2014

Journalist Stephen Andrew’s candidacy was catalyzed by Mayor Fortin’s lack of answers about the Johnson Street Bridge.

There’s middle ground, somewhere between a pit bull and a teddy bear, where Stephen Andrew believes he belongs. Andrew, a journalist who has worked for Victoria radio and television stations since he moved from Toronto in 1994, is known as an in-your-face reporter with tough questions. Now he is hoping for a new job as mayor of Victoria and he wants voters to know that his pit bull teeth emerge only when someone evades questions or when he sees an injustice.

Collaboration, transparency, and non-partisan inclusiveness are key words in his campaign.

“On my report cards it would say ‘Stephen works well with others’—and I do,” he says during an interview at his Gorge-area home.

“I try to be as balanced as I possibly can so people can say ‘he’s tough, but he’s fair.’ I am not a teddy bear, but I am a guy that cares.”

Name recognition will undoubtedly help Andrew’s campaign, but he is facing formidable opposition from two well-oiled campaign machines. Two-term mayor Dean Fortin has the weight of the NDP and labour unions behind him and former Liberal cabinet minister Ida Chong has enthusiastic support from the business community. However, Fortin has to deal with voters disgruntled over Johnson Street Bridge cost questions and the Capital Regional District’s sewage stalemate. Meanwhile, Chong’s support could be shakier than it appears as many business owners do not live in Victoria, so will not be voting in the city and opponents are highlighting that she lives in Saanich, not Victoria, an issue that could resonate with voters.

“If Chong was elected, one-third of council would be Saanich residents,” notes Andrew, who believes local civic officials should live in the City of Victoria and experience the results of their decisions. “I live in the city and my tax bill gets higher every year…We’ve got to get a handle on affordability. Since 2009, taxes have gone up 27 percent and that’s an issue for me.”

Andrew will be vying with one-term councillor Lisa Helps for the middle ground. Helps, with a community-based platform emphasizing “sustainable prosperity” is aiming for the centre or Green vote, so Andrew could rob her of potential support. Others with their name on the ballot are Changes the Clown (aka Rob Duncan), Riga Godron, Jason Dean Ross and perennial candidate David Shebib (who is running in all 13 municipalities).

Andrew does not see that his lack of government experience, compared to the other three major candidates, will be a disadvantage. “Democracy is not the exclusive right of those sitting in the chairs,” he says, promising a fresh approach and unique ideas to improve the city’s liveability and ambience, such as more festivals and rule tweaks to ensure streets are lively and welcoming.

In Victoria, which had an abysmal voter turnout of 26.4 percent in 2011 and 26.9 percent in 2008, a few votes can make the difference and, on November 15, much will rest on the ability of candidates to get their supporters out to vote.

That could skew the odds to larger campaign machines, with more volunteers, but Andrew insists that his campaign has the backers and the funding to win and he is hoping that his approach of finding solutions and building relationships will add interest and bring out younger voters.

Sean Holman, assistant professor of journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary and founder of the BC political news site Public Eye, says Andrew’s challenge will be to appeal to groups not previously engaged in local politics and then get them to the polls: “Stephen has an opportunity to win this election by getting people excited about his candidacy and presenting new ideas.” Andrew’s journalism background will help, believes Holman, who is a friend of Andrew, both because of his skills and the name recognition it has given him. Good journalists, says Holman, know how to ask the right questions, how to listen, how to find out information, and they have a working knowledge of government—at least from the outside. And, adds Holman, “[Andrew] has a public name and that does matter an enormous amount, especially in local elections.”

However, Michael Prince, University of Victoria Lansdowne professor of social policy, says that despite the advantage of face recognition, Andrew’s challenge will be to define himself as a credible candidate—not only a journalist—and then identify groups of unaligned voters.

For voters frustrated with Fortin over issues such as the Johnson Street Bridge, sewage treatment, and empty Downtown business premises, notes Prince, Andrew has to make it clear that he is bringing something to the table that is different from Chong and Helps. If he can do that, it should add to the excitement of the campaign and increase voter turnout, he says, adding, “If [voter turnout] doesn’t go up to the mid-30s [percent] it would be pretty sobering.”

Andrew refuses to stake out a position on the political spectrum and says, if elected, he will pull expertise from wherever he finds it, whether it originates from the left or right. “I am not coming with political baggage,” he says. “I believe partisan politics shouldn’t play a role at the municipal level and it clearly has in recent years.”

The toxic combination of political partisanship and inter-municipal squabbling has hurt Victoria at the provincial and federal levels and the job of mayor should be to bring all levels of government to the table, regardless of who is in power, Andrew emphasizes, recalling a recent conversation with a provincial cabinet minister: “He said they simply don’t have confidence in the leadership of the City.”

In addition, he feels, Victoria is not taken seriously because of its size and the city needs to grow, whether from more intense infilling or—wading into the contentious a-word debate—by amalgamation with neighbours. A municipality with 100,000 residents, he says, is taken more seriously than one with 80,000 because where there are votes, there’s influence. “We are the capital city, but we are not at the big city table nationally and that’s absolutely insane,” says Andrew. “I believe we should amalgamate. I’m not convinced it will save us money, but I believe it would offer us better government.”

With that has to come an understanding that homelessness is not solely a Victoria issue, he adds. “I believe services need to be spread out across the region. We have to convince other municipalities it’s the right thing to do.”

For many reporters, who have sat through interminable council meetings, the nagging question is: Why run for office?

The catalyst, says Andrew, was anger over Fortin’s lack of answers about the Johnson Street Bridge. He claims the other candidates cannot claim the high ground as Helps was at the table during bridge debates (though she and Ben Isitt voted against signing the contract with builder PCL); and Chong, while a cabinet minister, turned up for the federal funding announcement without offering a penny of provincial money.

So, what would he do differently with the bridge? There’s no going back on the project, he admitted, but the key is strong supervision and instructions for staff to adhere strictly to contract conditions.

And then there’s the sewage treatment impasse. It has to be addressed with a collaborative approach, he feels. “There has been too much staking out territory. We have to do this by 2020 or there will be lots of fines levied. We’ve got to stop fighting and the petty not-in-my-backyard.”

Andrew, 56, has volunteered with a variety of community organizations, but among those close to his heart are groups helping to improve treatment for cancer patients.

Andrew was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2006, but has been in clinical remission for more than three years. “There is no evidence of the disease anymore and I’m not on drugs anymore…There’s nothing wrong with me today,” he says. “My doctor says I am his star patient. Now I talk and advocate and I really want to make life better for people with cancer.” Throwing in a quick reminder of the value of a second opinion, he adds, “A second opinion can change your life.”

The cancer and his recovery have changed Andrew’s outlook on life. “It has shaped me. I cherish life and I cherish my community,” he says.  

As Andrew prepared to launch his campaign, he and his husband Danny Everett Stewart—a well-known local artist—took a trip to California to relax before the frenzy of door-knocking and speeches started and Andrew, who plans to be a full-time mayor, knows that, if he is elected, some of their travelling habits will have to change.

Andrew and Stewart, who have been together for 20 years and married for 8 years, enjoy impromptu trips. “But one of my favourite parts of going away is coming home. We have it so good here. It’s a great place to live,” he says.

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