Lisa's landslide and the Atwell attack

By David Broadland, December 2014

Theories on why the region’s two most powerful mayors lost their jobs on November 15.

November’s campaigns in the two most populous municipalities on southern Vancouver Island brought 15,000 new voters to the polls and the derailment of two long political careers. One-term councillor Lisa Helps defeated incumbent Mayor Dean Fortin in Victoria and political newcomer Richard Atwell took out long-time Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard. 

Writer Jack Knox poked fun at Helps’ victory, dubbing her “Landslide Lisa.” But her 89-vote margin of victory over Fortin was a landslide, of sorts, and Fortin was buried by it. That tiny margin hides the fact that 7770 more voters showed up at the polls this time compared to the last election, and most of them voted for Helps. This unexpected expansion of interest in voting appears to have been completely indifferent to Fortin. His core of NDP support, whipped to the polls by that party’s well-funded election machine, barely held. In fact, Fortin’s vote fell 969 points below his 2011 performance.

Landslide Lisa, in effect, captured 82 percent of the new voters. What drew all those newbies to the polls, and who were they?

The big draw wasn’t the question on amalgamation. That’s apparent in the fact that, in the City of Victoria, 1500 fewer voters answered the amalgamation question than voted for a mayor.

Few of those 7770 new voters came out to support so-called “business-friendly” candidates. In the 2011 election, the business-friendly candidate received 4229 votes. This time around that vote split between Ida Chong and Stephen Andrew and grew by about 1400 votes. But that increase amounted to only 18 percent of the 7770 new voters.

All the rest of the new vote—about 6350—effectively went to Helps. And when those were reinforced by most of the 2200 voters who supported Green Party candidate Steve Filipovic for mayor in 2011, along with most of the 1000 or so voters who abandoned Fortin—voilà—you have Lisa’s landslide. But who the heck were Lisa’s landslide?

Sonia Theroux, Helps’ campaign manager, had some ideas on this: “The easy answer is ‘youth,’” she said. Theroux gave some of the credit for getting younger voters to the polls to other campaigns. “Young people like Jeremy Loveday brought new people to the polls,” Theroux said. “His entire team was people under 30. If people see themselves reflected in the campaigners, they’re more likely to get involved and vote.” On his first try for council, Loveday leapfrogged over three long-time incumbent councillors. Extraordinary.

But the landslide wasn’t just youth, Theroux said. “It was people voting municipally for the first time from across the demographic spectrum.” Theroux is convinced Helps’ “positive” campaign attracted new voters. “I think that was entirely due to what I would call ‘the politics of hope.’ You wouldn’t bring someone new to the polls on the Johnson Street Bridge alone. Those people are already voting. I went on the theory that if you want to raise voter turnout, you have to do positive campaigning. I spoke to so many seniors who said they were voting for the first time.”

Theroux had a lot of help in getting out the new vote. Through the peak weeks of the campaign the Helps team fluctuated between 100 and 150 volunteers.

Following Helps’ victory, Vaughn Palmer wrote a story in the Vancouver Sun about a spreading “Green hue” that was “threatening Vancouver Island’s orange profile.” Did Palmer get the story right? Was Helps’ victory a surge in the Green Party’s fortunes?

Theroux doesn’t think so. “I wouldn’t characterize it that way,” she said. “We did have Green campaigners on our team, but we didn’t recruit them, we attracted them organically. Most of the volunteers we had that were affiliated with parties—and there were people from the provincial NDP, BC Liberals and both federal and provincial Greens—almost all of them are now disaffected from those parties.”

A bigger threat to the NDP’s profile on Vancouver Island may be coming from a different quarter than Palmer suggests. Theroux said she learned during the campaign that “the NDP is having a bit of a family war…the young constituency in that party are screaming for a different style of politics. The NDP is going to have to do some rethinking if they want to stop bleeding out to the Greens or post-partisans.”

Another way to guage who the new voters were is to compare Councillor Ben Isitt’s 2014 performance with 2011. Isitt topped the council contest last month, increasing his vote from 8419 in 2011 to 14,729. That’s an increase of 6310, remarkably similar to the number of new voters who likely supported Helps. In fact, they’re probably the same people. And although Isitt is arguably the greenest politician on Victoria City Council, he was also endorsed in this election by the NDP and the Victoria Labour Council, neither of which are bastions of green-ness.

Moreover, the return to council of Fortin’s close NDP allies on the Johnson Street Bridge debacle—Marianne Alto and Pam Madoff—both of whom received significantly greater support than they did in 2011, suggests that at least a couple of thousand of the new voters were, as Theroux puts it, “post-partisan.” So much for Palmer’s threatening green hue.

In Saanich, Richard Atwell’s stunning upset victory over Frank Leonard also depended on a fundamental uptick in voting interest. Nearly 7400 more Saanich voters showed up this year compared to 2011. Were those new voters drawn by the amalgamation question? Some, no doubt, but 3600 more voters cast a ballot for mayor than answered the amalgamation question. That suggests choosing a mayor was the big ticket item for most voters.

Unlike Victoria’s incumbent mayor—who lost votes compared with the 2011 election—Leonard gained 2000 supporters over his 2011 tally. And that makes Atwell’s victory even more impressive. After adjusting for the ubiquitous David Shebib’s gain over his 2011 performance, Atwell’s win entailed capturing 5000 of the 7400 new voters—a whopping 67 percent.

One indication of what Saanich voters were thinking as they marked their ballots was the shift in vote experienced by the NDP’s Judy Brownoff. Brownoff had chaired the CRD’s sewage committee through a critical period in development of the doomed McLoughlin Point plan, and the change in her vote suggests voters remembered. In spite of those 7400 new voters, Brownoff’s count fell compared with 2011. On the other hand, Vic Derman gained close to 2000 votes, and he consistently opposed the McLoughlin plan.

Atwell worked with a smaller group of volunteers than Helps, and took a different approach. His campaign delivered a series of well-timed and precisely-executed attacks on Leonard’s record, and the criticisms stuck. Does anyone in Saanich not know that Leonard missed 102 meetings of the sewage committee on the way to the McLoughlin fiasco?

The war in Saanich was waged by both sides, but the biggest hit to Atwell’s campaign came from a surprising attacker: CHEK TV produced a bizarre story that purported to be news coverage of a video Atwell had created in 2013 that used a segment of the movie Downfall to parody the CRD’s failing sewage treatment plan. Downfall is about the meltdown of the German military command in 1945 as the Soviet and Allied armies closed in on Hitler’s Berlin bunker. The section of the movie Atwell used has been employed in similar internet video parodies so many times that there’s even a version on Youtube in which Hitler goes ballistic after finding out about all the Downfall parodies.

In a remarkably low point in the station’s long history of local journalism, the CHEK news story connected Atwell’s video, interviews with voters exiting advance polls (all of whom just happen to have voted for Frank Leonard), and a seemingly unconnected clip from an interview of a man who had lost family members during the Holocaust.

Perhaps by pure coincidence, CHEK’s story was quickly followed by an anonymous, paid facebook ad campaign directing Victoria social media consumers to CHEK’s story. Speculation about whether CHEK was paid to produce the bogus news story and who bought the facebook ads may have, in the end, galvanized support for Atwell. CHEK’s story was pulled from its website after Atwell threatened legal action.

Theroux’s theory that voter turnout can only be increased by positive campaigning didn’t seem to apply in Saanich.

In the final analysis, it’s hard to know who brought Helps and Atwell to power. But one thing is certain: the two new mayors face some interesting challenges.

Both will play leading roles in resolving the question of where and how Victoria will treat its sewage. Helps and Atwell could be the only new faces at the table when the CRD’s sewage committee next gathers to consider how to meet the looming provincial and federal deadlines for both funding and compliance with federal regulations. Helps and Atwell have supported a system of distributed plants that would provide a higher level of treatment and resource recovery than the CRD was proposing for Esquimalt’s McLoughlin Point. With Barb Desjardins’ resounding re-election as mayor of Esquimalt, there’s no longer any doubt she has the overwhelming support of her community to continue to decline hosting a central treatment plant.

The challenge for Atwell, Desjardins and Helps, however, will be to convince the majority of their fellow sewage committee directors to see past the inevitably higher initial capital cost of distributed treatment, once those numbers have been determined. Depending on whether Langford’s Mayor Stew Young steps up and becomes directly involved in the sewage committee, votes there seem likely to split right down the middle between those who adamantly supported the failed centralized plan and those who support a distributed system.

Back at Victoria City Hall, Mayor Helps will soon learn just how badly the Johnson Street Bridge project is faring. A press release from the City the day before the election stated construction of the bascule pier would get underway “in January.” If that’s the case, then based on a detailed project schedule created earlier this year by the company building the bridge, PCL Constructors, progress on this critical element may have slipped an additional seven months behind schedule.The City did not respond to a request for a clarification about when work on the bascule pier would resume.

That 7-month delay would be on top of a previously acknowledged 5.5-month delay for which PCL submitted a change order for $9.5 million in additional costs. Whether the new delay is related to fabrication problems in China or a further delay in completing the design of the bridge’s unique mechanical lifting system is unknown.

While the new mayor’s previous record on the bridge likely helped her in the election—she and Isitt were the lone councillors to vote against signing a contract to build the troubled design—taking on the role of chief public apologist for the project could drain her political capital over the next two or three years. While the new bridge might be completed sometime in 2016 or 2017—well before the next round of civic elections in 2018—the project’s growing record of miscalculation and mismanagement may yet attach itself to Landslide Lisa. One option she might consider would be to call a public inquiry into how the project has been handled, what it will ultimately cost, and whether it’s in any danger of producing a white elephant.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.