A week before the end of a gruelling by-election campaign in Chilliwack-Hope this spring, candidate Gwen O’Mahony’s team shut down operations for a one-day rest. Everyone, that is, except Ms. O’Mahony, who put in a shift at the group home where she worked.
Ms. O’Mahony, the first New Democratic Party candidate to win the Fraser Valley riding, took her seat in the legislature in early May. After 18 years on the front lines working with the developmentally disabled, she is still in awe of her new gig.
“It was shocking, actually,” she said in an interview. “I’m a regular person, I know what it is like when prices go up, because I’ve lived paycheque to paycheque.”
The oldest of seven children, Ms. O’Mahony’s family was battered across generations by addictions. Nine years ago, she became a single parent overnight when she took over guardianship of her two nieces her sister was unable to care for them. Taking over the responsibility for raising the girls, aged 4 and 9 at the time, meant Ms. O’Mahony had to set aside her academic studies and cut back on her work hours.
“Going to the courts to get guardianship, that was what sparked my desire to become politically active,” she said. “I knew I would survive this with the girls, and we are going to have a life. But I saw vulnerable people falling through the cracks.”
It was the struggle to find child care while she put in shifts at the group home that led her to the NDP. Four years ago, she spoke to a group of New Democrats to explain what government cuts to child-care funding meant. They in turn encouraged her to stand as a candidate.
But it wasn’t an easy decision to run. As the sole breadwinner for her family, giving up her steady wage to campaign was difficult. It meant burning up her holiday time and taking unpaid leaves all with no guarantee of a payoff. “It was a great gamble.”
Her first campaign, in the 2009 election, was a low-budget affair. The NDP didn’t invest heavily in a riding they had no expectation of winning. It was mostly Ms. O’Mahony and her campaign manager. They lost to the popular B.C. Liberal incumbent, Barry Penner.
But Mr. Penner’s resignation in January changed the equation. The B.C. Liberal government was low in the polls, battered by its unpopular move to adopt the harmonized sales tax. The B.C. Conservatives were eating into the Liberals’ base of support. The by-election to replace Mr. Penner presented the New Democrats with an opportunity.
This time, Ms. O’Mahony had to fight for the NDP nomination. The party brass parachuted in veteran organizers. There was a large campaign office and more than 200 campaign staff to work the phones and distribute signs and leaflets.
Ms. O’Mahony’s breakthrough victory on April 19 was marked with a packed campaign party where she was toasted with champagne then told to be on deck for media interviews starting at 6 a.m. the next day.
Having now set up a constituency office and experienced a taste of the legislature, Ms. O’Mahony is still adjusting to her new world. Few of her 84 fellow MLAs have made as dramatic a shift. Almost 60 per cent of B.C.’s legislators come from a white-collar world with management, business or consulting backgrounds. Lawyers and doctors are overrepresented. There are just two social workers who would have an idea of the front-line caregiver job she has just left.
That is an imbalance that needs to change, NDP Leader Adrian Dix said.
“I think we need more diversity in the legislature,” not just measured by race and gender but by experience, he said.
But Ms. O’Mahony also brings a strategic regional value to the New Democrats.
The NDP caucus held their meeting in Chilliwack on Tuesday. They want to plant a flag here and figure out how to hold this seat in the next election. As it stands, the B.C. Liberals who held this seat for 15 years are showing no signs of rebuilding. Their failed candidate, Laurie Throness, has not committed to running again and the party’s long-time riding association president recently quit.
“It’s hugely advantageous for us to have a voice in that region, and it gives us hope,” Mr. Dix said. “It’s one thing for me to say that we are going to campaign everywhere; when you actually do, and win, that is a real bonus.”