Race heats up with high-profile backers

SURREY – The battle for the Surrey mayor’s chair is shaping up to become a dry run for next year’s federal election with political heavyweights of all stripes throwing their support to the top candidates in the Nov. 15 race.


Surrey is expected to be a key focus in the next federal election, with outgoing mayor Dianne Watts vacating her seat for a possible run for the federal Conservatives or Liberals and former longtime MLA Dave Hayer seeking the Conservative nod in the new riding of Cloverdale-West Langley.


Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is also expected to visit Surrey in August.


At the same time, high-profile campaigners are getting in the municipal election game.


The list of backers includes Stu Braddock, a former campaigner for Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper, recruited by Surrey First candidate Linda Hepner, a three-term councillor endorsed by Watts; and Liberal organizer Mark Marissen, campaign manager for independent councillor Barinder Rasode, who has yet to officially declare her candidacy for mayor.


Al Payne, who has been involved in past campaigns for former Liberal Sukh Dhaliwal, is the campaign manager for former three-term Surrey mayor Doug McCallum, who has hopes for a return to municipal politics.


"There’s a little bit of pre-work going on. You’d have to think this is almost a proxy war," said Paddy Smith, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University.


"Watts is a piece of it. The fact that she’s not running puts more things into play … there’s more up for grabs. She represents a big opportunity for some shifts. Harper may not be the only person salivating to get Dianne Watts; I would assume Trudeau is also having talks with her."


The involvement of high-level strategists is expected to provide campaign managers with strong voters’ lists as well as a "pretty good read on the people of Surrey," Smith said.


It will also help them pinpoint candidates with the same philosophy to help senior governments get things done at the local level.


Hepner acknowledged it’s rare to see such involvement by heavyweight federal campaigners in a municipal race.


She only recruited Braddock and the rest of her team, she said, after discovering Rasode had the likes of Marissen and New Democrat Moe Sihota in her corner.


Rasode, who split from the Surrey First team earlier this year to serve as an independent, also has the backing of former B.C. Liberal pollster Dmitri Pantazopoulos, Surrey-Newton NDP MLA Harry Bains and Kareem Allam, the deputy campaign manager in Kevin Falcon’s bid for the last provincial Liberal leadership race. Tara Foslien, a former spokeswoman for Watts, is also in her court.


"We could be the playing ground moving forward. There’s a lot of interest in the federal election and that will impact the attendance at things locally. I just hope people recognize it’s an important election and get out to vote," said Hepner.


Pundits predict the Surrey municipal race will be one of the most interesting in the province, noting none of the candidates have the same cachet as Watts, who transformed the city from a suburban backwater into a big city player during her nine years as mayor.


Smith predicts the race will come down to Rasode and Hepner, with McCallum’s role as "spoiler rather than anything else."


McCallum and Hepner are more centre-right than Rasode, he said, and if McCallum wins even 15 to 20 per cent of the vote, he could tip the election in Rasode’s favour.


Plus, while Hepner has the Surrey First endorsement, that may not be enough given that many people associate Watts with the brand, Smith said, while recent polls suggest residents are increasingly concerned over rising crime and lack of transportation in the city.


"It’s going to be the most interesting election to watch," Marvin Hunt, a former Surrey city councillor and Liberal MLA for Surrey-Panorama said.


"They all have pieces of the puzzle that have been a benefit to the city. It will be interesting to see, as they work through the election, how they respond to the various challenges the voters throw at them."


Hunt maintains the diverse mix of heavyweight campaigners will help all the candidates, saying it levels the playing field.


But it also "shows the change in status in the city of Surrey," noting most campaigners had previously focused their efforts on Vancouver elections.


"(Surrey) has much more attention from the province and nation now rather than being in the shadow of Vancouver," Hunt said.


"There is a real shift happening in that power base."


The candidates acknowledge the election won’t necessarily hinge on high-profile backers.


Rasode, who maintains she won’t officially announce her candidacy until she is sure she has the support from the community, insists the race will be won by whoever resonates most with the voters.


Hepner says her slate will continue with the momentum that has been generated by Surrey First.


McCallum, meanwhile, argues the current council is not representative of the growing Surrey.


Candidates have until Sept. 11, 36 days before the election, to announce their intention to run.