Dianne Watts is in, as a contender for the BC Liberal party leadership.
The South Surrey-White Rock Conservative MP announced Sunday that she will run in what will be an fairly short leadership campaign. The new leader will be named, after a vote by party members, on Feb. 3.
Watts is also resigning as an MP, effective immediately.
Watts was widely suggested as a possible candidate for the leadership in 2011, when Christy Clark won. At that time, of course, winning the BC Liberals leadership came with the added bonus of becoming premier. Clark ran an excellent campaign in 2013 and boosted the party’s seat count in an election that almost everyone thought would go to the NDP.
Back in 2011, Watts was in the process of finishing her first six years as Surrey mayor and was extremely popular throughout the region. She won that year’s election with 80 per cent of the vote – an astonishing figure, but partially due to the fact that she had no major challengers.
In 2014, she stepped aside from the mayor’s office, as she planned to run for the federal Conservative party in South Surrey-White Rock. At that time, the Conservatives held a majority government, and some speculated that Watts’ provincial profile and national role as a member of the big city mayors’ caucus could lead to a prominent position. That was not to be.
The Liberals won every seat in Surrey except hers, in a riding which has been strongly right-of-centre, which she won by one of the smallest margins in decades. She was criticized during the campaign for skipping debates, and since the election, her profile has been quite low. She has discovered, as generations of B.C. MPs have before her, that big fish in B.C. politics are rarely more than minnows in Ottawa.
Now, Watts will face a number of contenders for the post.
She brings to the table an ability to work well with people of other political stripes, a tough law-and-order approach combined with genuine compassion for people, and the aura of an outsider, which is important as the BC Liberals struggle to regroup. She also gives the party a chance to regain Surrey-area seats – a crucial factor in their defeat last May.
Her challenges are her low profile since 2014, the continuing popularity of the federal Liberals (and disinterest in the Conservatives) and her almost total lack of public stances on many of the issues that proved crucial in the provincial election, such as housing affordability, child care and political party financing.
She can be a formidable campaigner, she has talented insiders working on her campaign and she is likely to be effective in opposition, but only after going through a steep learning curve on the bear pit of provincial politics.
Many Surrey residents will be excited to see her in the race, and it’s likely the number of BC Liberal party members here will grow substantially between now and the Dec. 29 membership cutoff date for voting.
The first leadership debate is set for Oct. 15 – in Surrey.
Frank Bucholtz writes Fridays for the Now-Leader. He can be reached at email@example.com