Surrey mayor to take the leap into federal politics

SURREY — Surrey mayor Dianne Watts is hoping to dive into politics on a bigger stage, saying world events — and Canada’s role in foreign affairs — has compelled her to seek a seat with Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives.

Watts said she will seek the nomination for South Surrey-White Rock after “considerable reflection” on what she wanted to do after she leaves the mayor’s chair this fall.

Her decision to jump into the federal fray comes as no surprise, with B.C. pundits whispering for months that Watts was being courted by both the federal Conservatives and Liberals ahead of next year’s federal election.

Rumours began swirling in March after longtime MP Russ Hiebert announced he would not run again in the South Surrey-White Rock riding, a Conservative stronghold, opening the door for Surrey to have a heavier hitter in federal Parliament.

There’s no question why Harper would court Watts, who has become one of the country’s most popular mayors as she worked to turn Surrey’s reputation around and is seen as a consensus builder among her colleagues. But other federal parties are also gearing up for battle, with Joy Davies, a former councillor from Grand Forks and a vocal advocate of medicinal marijuana and patient rights, seeking the Liberal nomination. It’s not known yet who will seek the New Democrat nod.

Watts, who describes herself as a small-c Conservative with a huge social conscience, said she had spoken with both the federal Liberals and Conservatives but felt more aligned with the Harper government’s policies around issues such as economic investment and taxation. But it was the events happening around the globe, including unrest in Ukraine, kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria, beheaded journalists and conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel and Palestine, she said, that clinched her decision to run.

Although Watts said she hasn’t spoken with the Conservatives about a potential cabinet seat should she get elected, her announcement falls in line with a speech by Harper on Monday that touted a hard line on foreign policy after warning that “we live in a dangerous world.”

“All of these pieces really hit me and I think Canada has a moral obligation to lead and assist those countries any way we can,” said Watts, who was dressed uncharacteristically in black rather than her usual bright colours during an interview at her home. “Dealing with all of these issues, who do you want at the helm?

“That answer is clear to me. These issues are very serious issues, they need serious resolutions and someone with experience and stability who has the ability to lead and make the tough decisions. It’s not a popularity contest.”

The South Surrey-White Rock riding, which was reconfigured from Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale, is expected to be a slam dunk for the Conservatives: in the last election, Hiebert took 54.57 per cent of the votes, followed by the NDP’s Susan Keeping, who got 20.27 per cent and the Liberals’ Hardy Staub at 16.67 per cent.

Under the reconfigured riding, Elections Canada estimates the Conservatives would have received 52.9 per cent of votes, with the NDP seeing its share drop to 19.2 per cent.

Watts concedes it’s anyone’s game, but said she feels she’s making the right decision. A fiscal conservative, Watts said she has focused on ensuring Surrey has an environment for investment and low taxes and she wants to make sure “we have a strong economy and strong leadership and make sure that’s intact.”

As an MP, she said, she would support such Harper government policies as controversial pipeline projects because oil production is needed until alternative or clean energy can be developed. She also supports going after johns and pimps and keeping sex trade workers away from schools and playgrounds, she said, but not legalizing prostitution.

“I need to feel really strong within myself and that I’m making the right decisions and doing it for the right reasons,” she said. “You’ve got to just sit back and really think who’s going to make those tough decisions.”

Watts also has a record of fighting for social causes at Surrey City Hall. As a councillor, she led a campaign for zoning regulations for recovery houses, saying there were some disreputable houses that should be shut down because they are doing addicts more harm than good. As mayor, she opened three new facilities — the Phoenix Centre, Quibble Creek Sobering and Assessment Centre and Bolivar Court Supported Housing — while spearheading the development of Sophie’s Place and The Centre for Child Development, which allows police and other agencies to deal with child abuse across the region in a compassionate and highly integrated manner.

She was also a vocal opponent against the federal government’s decision to drop refugees unannounced in her city without any warning or services, led a city delegation to study community courts in New York and lobbied Cloverdale Rodeo to change its rules to ban roping events.

“You have to deal with the less fortunate, whether it’s in your city or province or country, because that’s the moral obligation you have in your communities,” she said.

Watts, who has endorsed Coun. Linda Hepner as the new mayoral candidate for Surrey First in the municipal elections, maintains a federal seat will also help her advocate for Surrey, particularly in the push for light rail, goods movement and safety on the rail corridor running through Surrey and White Rock.

Although she said she has had a good relationship with the federal government and helped to bring in federal stimulus dollars to the city, more work needs to be done.

“I’d like to take that to the next level and really be at the table advocating for Surrey,” she said. “Being a voice at that table will be an advantage to Surrey. It’s how I can assist in making this a better city.”

Watts’s pedigree contrasts with Hiebert’s low-profile approach during his decade in Parliament. As a barely-known newcomer with no roots in the riding, he won Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale in 2004 by taking 43 per cent of the vote. Hiebert, a member of the large evangelical Christian wing of the federal caucus, had difficult relations with the local media — who took potshots at him after his retirement announcement last month — and has even alienated his federal colleagues.

The transgression that landed him in the most hot water with Harper, and Surrey constituents, was a $637,093 expense tab for the 2008-09 year — more than $200,000 above the Canadian average. His other claim to fame was a private member’s bill that infuriated Canada’s labour movement, as it sought to force unions to disclose financial transactions both large and relatively small. It passed in the House of Commons but stalled in the Senate due to opposition by a number of senators who portrayed it as a “union-busting” initiative.

Hiebert, a 45-year-old lawyer, is giving up a $160,200 salary to pursue opportunities in the private sector.

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