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Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts holds a ribbon during a ribbon cutting at the official opening of the new city hall in Surrey, B.C., on Saturday April 26, 2014. Ms. Watts gave her unreserved support to Surrey First’s new mayoralty candidate, saying Councillor Linda Hepner will “lead with an experienced, steady hand … to take this city to the next level.”The Globe and Mail

Surrey First leaned on the star power of its founder, Mayor Dianne Watts, as it launched its new team for this November's election on Wednesday.

Ms. Watts gave her unreserved support to the party's new mayoralty candidate, saying Councillor Linda Hepner will "lead with an experienced, steady hand … to take this city to the next level."

Ms. Hepner, in turn, promised in the launch that she will be "building on the momentum" created during Ms. Watts's nine years as mayor.

The new Surrey First team includes three new candidates with a broad range of backgrounds: VanCity community projects manager Vera LeFranc, who has worked on homelessness issues with the city; the city's retiring chief fire-prevention officer, Mike Starchuk; and a former district RCMP commander in Surrey, Dave Woods.

Ms. Hepner has also brought in some very experienced campaigners from the federal Liberal and Conservative camps. Stew Braddick, a one-time campaigner for Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper, will be the campaign manager, and Mike Witherly, who has worked on many provincial and federal campaigns, is also part of the team. (Ironically, Mr. Braddick was hired by Ms. Watts's opponent, then-mayor Doug McCallum, in 2005 in a campaign that Ms. Watts won handily.)

That group, along with the message that only Ms. Hepner can carry out Ms. Watts's vision, will be a challenge for the other city councillor, Barinder Rasode, who is trying to convince Surrey voters to elect her as mayor instead of just letting the torch be passed on to Surrey First's candidate.

Ms. Rasode, recruited by Ms. Watts and elected as part of the Surrey First team in 2005, left the party two months ago. She said it wasn't listening enough to community concerns about crime, had become a bit reckless with city finances and was making too many decisions in the mayor's office instead of in public.

She has set up a community office, organized events and dialogues in it, and drawn support from several people who have worked for Premier Christy Clark in the past, including Ms. Clark's ex-husband and long-time federal Liberal powerhouse Mark Marissen.

Ms. Hepner said her opponent hasn't identified much of a platform yet, except for calling for more police officers to combat crime, so she's not sure how different they will be. "The only thing I've heard is about crime, and I think she's myopic in her solution. It's a narrow approach and ours is multifaceted."

However, Ms. Hepner, who worked for Surrey city hall for 20 years before being elected along with Ms. Watts in 2005, acknowledged that she is facing a tough election. "Obviously the challenge is enormous," she said.

An Insights West poll in April indicated that two-thirds of Surrey residents wanted to see some change on council in November, even though Ms. Watts remains popular.

Ms. Watts won her third term in 2011 with 81 per cent of the vote.

The new Surrey First team hasn't unrolled a detailed platform yet, except to say that they'll build on Ms. Watts's vision, which included creating a new downtown in Surrey, attracting enough jobs to employ most local residents, and tackling the city's homelessness problems.

Ms. Hepner did say she plans to do more to lobby the provincial government for the things Surrey needs. Ms. Watts had pushed during her time for better transit, a sobering centre, and more help creating low-cost housing.

"I will be on the doorstep at Victoria more," Ms. Hepner said. "I just want to make sure Surrey is getting its fair share."

>>She has also talked about turning part of King George Boulevard into a cultural corridor, bringing a ferris wheel and more entertainment to the Surrey waterfront, and pushing for more agri-business in Surrey.

Ms. Hepner and the three new candidates were chosen through interviews and internal discussions among the existing Surrey First councillors.<<

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