Dianne Watts got 80 per cent of the vote when she last went to the polls to seek re-election as Surrey mayor – a result that helped confirm her status as one of the province’s most successful politicians.
The mayor of B.C’s second-largest city has recruited the likes of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to attend her annual regional economic summits, and former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard is among the guests coming next month.
But Ms. Watts – once seen as a possible contender to challenge Christy Clark for the leadership of the B.C. Liberals and thus the premier’s job – is facing unexpected turbulence as elections loom in November in a city of about half a million people growing by up to 1,000 each month.
The death of a hockey mom last month, beaten in an apparent robbery attempt in a troubled neighbourhood, has raised questions about Ms. Watts’s handling of crime.
In an election year, it’s a particularly tough challenge for the gilded politician once named the fourth best civic leader in the world by a British mayors foundation.
And then there’s history. A decade in power has been the rule for Surrey mayors for a century. If she is re-elected this fall, Ms. Watts will enter the race with nine years experience as mayor, but it remains unclear how much longer she will stay.
The former credit manager first ran for mayor as an independent in 2005 and ousted Doug McCallum, mayor for nine years. Ms. Watts won with 55 per cent of the vote to Mr. McCallum’s 40.
Former mayor Bob Bose remembers Mr. McCallum in early 2005 was as formidable a candidate as Ms. Watts is now. And then he was not. An independent councillor ran against him and won.
“Nobody is completely immune from a change of circumstance,” said Mr. Bose, mayor for eight years and a city councillor for 18. “Dianne was elected because McCallum was unelectable. She was independent. People wanted a change.”
Ms. Watts organized a slate of candidates under the Surrey First banner who now hold all eight council seats.
Mr. Bose has been a critic of Ms. Watts, but says she is likely safe without a strong challenger to personify the case for change. “If you don’t have anything else on the shelf to choose from, you’re stuck with what you’ve got,” Mr. Bose said.
Mr. Bose says the crime debate has presented more challenges for Ms. Watts than any other issue. Her watch has included the construction of a downtown, including a new city hall and central public library. She is intent on new light-rail transit for Surrey. So far, her management of the city’s massive growth has connected with voters.
“I don’t think Dianne, as well meaning as she is, has any answers here,” Mr. Bose says of the crime file.
The fate of Julie Paskall, who was killed while waiting to pick up her son, capped a year that saw a record 25 homicides – 18 linked to gang or drug activity – compared to six in Vancouver. There were nine Surrey homicides in 2012.
Earlier in 2013, Ms. Watts struck a task force to deal with the homicides. When four bodies were found within six weeks along a remote road, Ms. Watts saw to the installation of closed-circuit cameras and lights. Ms. Watts, who was unavailable for comment on Tuesday, has said Surrey could use more police officers.
Barinder Rasode, a Surrey First councillor, says recent events have been a reminder to the team to better manage crime prevention.
Ms. Rasode, who chairs a community safety committee, said city hall has heard calls for more police on the ground, and having RCMP, who police Surrey, have a better sense of neighbourhoods and make it easier for the public to report crime.
“Any election is a performance evaluation for elected officials,” Ms. Rasode said. “I fully expect the residents of Surrey, just like residents around the Lower Mainland, to be looking at decisions we have made. That’s the value for the democratic process.”