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Surrey Councillor Barinder Rasode, shown in 2013, says she is “strongly” considering running for mayor to give the public a choice other than the Surrey First party that she says is increasingly less open and engaged with Surrey citizens. (BEN NELMS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Surrey Councillor Barinder Rasode, shown in 2013, says she is “strongly” considering running for mayor to give the public a choice other than the Surrey First party that she says is increasingly less open and engaged with Surrey citizens. (BEN NELMS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Defection poses challenge to mayor Add to ...

A city councillor who set off a small bombshell in Surrey Thursday by defecting from Mayor Dianne Watts’s political team said she is strongly considering running for mayor – even if it means challenging the popular Ms. Watts.

That opens the door to a major power struggle in the province’s second-largest city after nine years of Ms. Watts’s rule that have won her accolades for her progressive approaches to homelessness, city-building, crime prevention and collaboration on council.

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Barinder Rasode, who was recruited for council by Ms. Watts six years ago, said voters need an alternative to the monolithic Surrey First party that the mayor created when she was first elected. The party captured all the positions on council in the last election.

“I just think that Surrey First got too comfortable and we moved off our mandate,” said Ms. Rasode, a one-time NDP staffer who first ran for council in 2005 with the left-leaning Surrey Civic Coalition. “The frustration level that people are experiencing now is quite real.”

Complicating the political scene, Ms. Watts is widely rumoured to be on the verge of announcing that she won’t go for a fourth term as mayor, but will instead run for the federal Conservatives in a recently vacated Surrey riding. Several people in the mayor’s political network are strongly hinting that is true.

Ms. Rasode was critical of the way the party had handled public concerns over crime and safety in Newton, especially after the beating death of Julie Paskall at a bus stop there in December, saying the council just hadn’t made it enough of a priority.

And she said she is disturbed by the money the city has spent on its new City Hall, $90-million, by the extent of the mayor’s travel expenses, and by the way all kinds of decisions have been moved to private meetings in the mayor’s boardroom.

Ms. Rasode had become increasingly vocal about a number of issues in the past year. She was part of a group that voted for a casino in south Surrey that Ms. Watts ultimately opposed, drawing criticism from Ms. Rasode for a last-minute change of heart on the issue.

Although the two appeared to patch things up, there have been other signs of friction. Ms. Watts recently took over the chairmanship of the city’s police committee, removing Ms. Rasode from the job.

Ms. Rasode’s decision to leave Surrey First, announced in a middle-of-the-night e-mail to her colleagues and a public tweet at 7 a.m. Thursday, has already garnered both praise and indirect criticism.

The councillor said she has received hundreds of e-mails, tweets and calls of support.

But Ms. Watts issued a statement saying she is “saddened and disappointed that Councillor Rasode feels she is unable to work within the team environment” and said she won’t “engage in electioneering” by responding.

Other Surrey First councillors were more forthcoming.

“I’m inclined to think this is more about ambition,” said Councillor Linda Hepner. She said Ms. Rasode had supported and voted with other councillors on many of the issues she is now raising questions about.

In the meantime, Ms. Hepner has been privately sounding out people in the community to ask them about support for a mayoral run if Ms. Watts does leave. “But I have asked those questions with her blessing,” Ms. Hepner said.

Ms. Rasode’s defection and public criticism is a first for Ms. Watts since she became mayor nine years ago as an independent candidate.

Like Ms. Rasode, she challenged an entrenched mayor and a political party of which she had once been a member. She has consistently been ranked as one of the province’s most popular politicians, rated higher even than Christy Clark as a contender to take over the B.C. Liberal Party after Gordon Campbell resigned in 2011.

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