Teamwork, drama, and other takeaways from Saturday’s election

How local political parties can be a ticket to power—or a ticket to defeat.

By Tyler Olsen | October 17, 2022 |5:00 am

Change is in the air. Except for all those places where it isn’t.

After a month of election coverage and several hours of watching and talking about results, it’s easy to turn to tired cliches to sum up what just happened.

You can always say “Change is in the air!” It’s a meaningless statement. Things are always changing. It’s like saying the sky is blue.

So let’s get practical because municipalities—and the elections to determine who runs them—are incredibly practical things. (The same goes for school boards, even more so.)

An election is just a process to determine who makes decisions about our cities, towns, schools, regional districts, and so on.

But they also tell us other things beyond who will get to be called councillor or ex-councillor. From the effectiveness of local political parties to voters tolerance for confrontation and controversy, Saturday showed how local politics are different.

Having watched a dozen or so elections play out across our region the last month, here are a few conclusions that can be drawn from Saturday’s results.

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Teamwork works

On Saturday, Eric Woodward showed the value in creating a local political party (sometimes called a slate). Woodward easily won the mayor’s sash in Langley Township, defeating three other strong challengers. His Contract With Langley brand probably helped. Slates are an efficient way of introducing new names and faces to the public. If a voter is familiar with one person on a slate of six, that voter can draw a conclusion about the policy preferences of the other five candidates. If each candidate brings a certain constituency to the table, a party can end up with a very large pool of voters that understands, at least a little, about what the slate stands for.

In an era with election spending caps, parties are also efficient, allowing candidates to pool their money and spend it on group advertisements and signs.

We saw a similar dynamic in play in the Chilliwack school board race. Both the conservative and progressive sides organized non-official slates.

The progressive faction was particularly active. Five candidates joined forces to buy ads as a group to spread the word about one another and their stances. They all won seats. The one prominent progressive candidate not part of that five-person group, Brian VanGarderen, finished eighth without a seat.

Back in Langley, Woodward’s slate will now provide benefits that reach far beyond election day. BC mayors are not particularly powerful, and they require a majority on council to get anything done. And Woodward is a polarizing figure in Langley who can ruffle feathers. With five Contract With Langley members elected to council, those majority votes will be easier to come by over the next four years than they would have otherwise been.

Sometimes, teamwork does not work

If Woodward showed the benefits of a political party, Rich Coleman and his Elevate Langley team showed its limitations. So too did AbbotsfordFirst to the east.

Whereas Woodward and Contract With Langley stressed the need for change and dramatic improvements to fix things, Elevate Langley stressed fiscal responsibility and building gradually. Those ideas are in keeping with Coleman’s brand, and they’re not much different than how Langley Township has been run in recent years.

Maybe if Elevate was the only slate on the ballot, the pitch would have worked. But in the mayor’s race, if you wanted to stick with the status quo, there wasn’t an obvious reason to choose Coleman over, say, Blair Whitmarsh. (Whitmarsh ended up claiming more than 2,000 more votes than Coleman in the mayor’s race.)

When it came to the council vote, Elevate’s pitch couldn’t match that of Contract With Langley. And those voters who didn’t want such huge change could also opt to re-elect incumbent, independent councillors.

AbbotsfordFirst showed that a local political party advocating responsible government could win in 2014, when its four candidates all won seats on council. But Saturday demonstrated that timing matters and that a political party isn’t all you need. Only two of the four AbbotsfordFirst candidates won seats (incumbent Kelly Chahal and Mark Warkentin), while two-term incumbent Sandy Blue was unable to crack the top eight.

A promise of steady government is often more attractive after years of tumult and discord than after eight years of steady government. And having a political party beside one’s name on the ballot can help new candidates be recognized, but it can weigh both incumbents and newcomers down, associating them with policies that voters may have tired of.

In 2018, Dave Sidhu, running with AbbotsfordFirst, finished ninth on the ballot. He won a seat in a by-election last year, and on Saturday, he topped the polls, winning 3,300 more votes than the next closest candidate.

In the next election, Contract With Langley will have to keep those hurdles in mind.

Mission stays the course

Mission, I wrote before the campaign, has a history of ditching the status quo. After writing that story, I did some research on the turnover rates of various communities. And indeed, they proved that theory to be true.

On Saturday, the city returned all five incumbent councillors running for re-election. Mayor Paul Horn also easily won another term. The results were a hearty endorsement for both the city’s waterfront plan and the last four years.

Speaking of endorsements, no councillor in the Fraser Valley outpaced their peers quite as handily as Jag Gill. Gill, running for the second time, claimed nearly 5,000 votes—nearly 2,000 more than the next closest councillor.

The vote tally, and Gill’s age—just 27—may prompt questions about whether his political future will move beyond the council table in the coming years.

Chilliwack school board

We will have more on the Chilliwack school board race in a future story, and I’ve already touched on it in this article, but I’m going to return to it briefly again to point out a couple things from the results.

First, this is the third straight election in which the progressives have beat the conservatives on Chilliwack’s school board. As the region’s demographics change, it’s unlikely to get any better for those vocally opposed to inclusive policies in Chilliwack schools.

For the last four years, the progressives have had four of seven seats. But in 2018 they barely won that fourth seat, claiming just 33 votes more than a conservative candidate who finished eighth. Barry Neufeld garnered the second-most votes that year.

In last year’s by-election between progressive Carin Bondar and conservative Richard Procee, Bondar won by about 700 votes. It was a clear, but still tight, victory.

This time, the progressives organized, made sure voters knew they favoured inclusive policies, and easily claimed majority control of the board. No conservative finished in the top five. Bondar claimed the most votes of any candidate—and 1,800 more than Procee and Heather Maahs, who finished sixth and seventh. Voters elected a trans man—Teri Westerby—to serve on its school board. And Barry Neufeld finished 12th in polling.

No drama here

Another lesson can be drawn from the vote totals in the Fraser Valley and, indeed, across all of BC: drama and conflict doesn’t win elections here.

Municipal and school board politicians have some very basic tasks that don’t easily fit into national and international narratives. In some ways, voters want their local politicians to be seen but not heard.

Raising one’s voice about local problems and challenges is often rewarded. Turning those challenges into soap operas is very much not.

At the national level, mud-slinging is often successful. But local politics is more personal, and confrontational behaviour that would seem inappropriate at the dinner table is often harshly punished.

In Langley City we saw an incumbent mayor who was the centre of controversy easily defeated. In Mission, Harrison Hot Springs, and elsewhere, candidates who loudly proclaim the nefariousness of their opponents lost.

And on the Chilliwack school board, the incumbents that made the most noise locally and nationally did the worst at the polling booths. Voters sought to put the ‘bored’ back in school board.

Back in the Township, it remains to be seen how Woodward’s mayoralty will play out. He has not been shy about courting controversy in the past. It hasn’t hurt him so far. But if he wants to be more than a one-term mayor, he will have to deliver on promises and think about what sort of profile best suits his long-term plans.

When it comes to local politics, there is definitely such a thing as bad publicity.

Join more than 25,000 other Fraser Valley residents by subscribing to our newsletter. Every weekday morning you’ll get a new feature story and other stories, news, and events from Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley, Mission and the rest of the valley.

Get FV Current in your inbox.

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By filling out the form above, you consent to receive emails from Fraser Valley Current. You can unsubscribe at any time. View our privacy policy here.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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