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She is unscripted, unguarded - and unlike any politician in British Columbia.

That, plus the fact that she just might be the best mayor in the world, is the reason Dianne Watts has risen to the top of the list of likely successors to Gordon Campbell.

But will she run?

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Ms. Watts, an accidental politician who has transformed the City of Surrey from a butt of jokes to a thriving and increasingly sophisticated metropolitan centre, acknowledges she has pondered the possibility of becoming the next premier of British Columbia.

She is not sure, however, she wants to step out of the comfort zone of Surrey, where she leads a remarkably cohesive council that is driving dramatic change.

"You know, I think it would have to be something that was overly compelling for me to look at going in a different direction," she says. "When an opportunity comes along it's really important to evaluate that. But what does it mean in your life? Is it in the best interest of yourself and your family? And I don't know that it is."

If she sounds reluctant it is not the first time.

She was first elected to Surrey council in 2001, running as a busy mother with two young daughters, who had a distaste for the petty meanness of politics but who wanted to see her community thrive.

"It wasn't a choice actually. It sort of evolved," she says of her political career.

"I had absolutely no desire to go into politics. … There was a group of people pushing me to run for council and I was, 'No, no, no.' And then a couple of friends said, you've really got to do this. And I said, 'OK, fine, but when I lose, leave me alone.' "

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That was nearly 10 years ago.

"And so I'm still here," she says with a loud laugh, looking around the modest office she has at City Hall.

Her desk is strewn with papers ("If it's clean, you are anal," she says) and behind it is a large picture of the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine in Sikhism. The picture was given to her by Surrey's Indo-Canadian community, a key part of her power base.

In 2005, Ms. Watts became the first female mayor of Surrey, and again she entered the race with some reluctance.

At the time, she said, Surrey council had become so fractious and combative she was thinking of quitting.

"I didn't want to remain on council in the environment that existed then, so if I wanted to affect change, I had to step up to the plate. And I did," she says.

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In 2008, she won a second term, wiping out her nearest rival and helping all six candidates under the Surrey First banner win, too.

Not long ago, Surrey was such a suburban mess it was often the target of jokes.

One of them went like this: "Living in [insert municipality]means never having to say you're Surrey."

Or this: "How come seagulls always fly upside down over Surrey? Nothing worth crapping on."

But no one is laughing at Surrey now.

Ms. Watts, who recently brought former British prime minister Tony Blair and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani to speak at conferences, has led a transformation of the city.

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She is credited with ending the infighting on council, reducing crime, spurring $5-billion in development over five years, and giving the city cash reserves of $595-million.

A massive redevelopment of the city core is underway, which will cluster a new City Hall, regional library, seniors' centre, recreation centre and performing arts centre around an expansive community plaza, creating for the first time a cultural centre of gravity for Surrey.

The former suburban outpost is now a city of 500,000 with its own emerging identity.

All of this and the sense of racial inclusion in Surrey, which has an annual Fusion Festival celebrating cultures from more than 30 countries, has landed Ms. Watts on the shortlist for World Mayor 2010. Others in contention for the honour include the mayors of Brisbane, Karachi, Amman and Hamburg.

"Isn't that hilarious," she says, throwing her head back to laugh.

The winner will be announced Dec. 7 by City Mayors, an international think tank on urban affairs.

Comments posted on the City Mayors website heap praise on Ms. Watts.

"She has taken a struggling town and transformed it into a beautiful new city," writes Justin F.

"Her collaborative style allows her to extend her reach well beyond her city and produce tangible results for the entire region," states Gaeton R, who identified himself as city manager for the City of Port Moody.

She is called a "true visionary," "a Canadian who sometimes has to take a stand to make multiculturalism work," and a mayor whose "no-nonsense approach has dramatically reduced crime levels."

Ms. Watts says the praise is nice - her husband Brian has read her some - but at the end of the day, she is just another person, a mom who has to slip out of meetings to watch her teenage daughters play volleyball or perform in dance recitals.

Once a month, she visits a school to talk to kids about their city.

"They are so innocent and just so bright that it really keeps me grounded. They don't really care who you are and what you do. You are just a person … it is probably the highlight of my day because it gets you away from politics," she says.

"I never enjoy politics. But do I like what I am doing? Yes. When I come to a point where it's not fun any more, then that's when I quit."

Ms. Watts says the most distasteful thing about politics are the personal attacks and vows that, no matter where her career leads, she won't "get down in the gutter."

But she says she is no pushover.

On a coffee table in her office she keeps a statue of a great white shark.

"It reminds me that politics can get very nasty," she says with a smile.

On her desk is a statue of a baby Buddha and on one wall a picture of the female Buddha of compassion.

She says she is not a Buddhist, but "I follow that philosophy … it's just having reverence for humanity."

So that's where Ms. Watts finds herself at the moment, balanced between the serenity of Buddhism and the menace of the big political shark pond.

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