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Surrey mayor Dianne Watts seeks third term

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts in her office in Surrey, B.C., November 4, 2010.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Mayor Dianne Watts is sitting ramrod straight in an armchair of her city hall office, some kind of orthopedic back cushion visible that even she is hard-pressed to explain.

Her posture is so perfect, it's kind of eerie. "I have to sit up very straight because I have got a pinched nerve that's numbing my back," she explains, referring to an August horse-riding accident that left her with two broken vertebrae.

Ms. Watts says the injury may curb her campaign activities for a third term, but not too much because she isn't taking a win for granted. Leave it to the pundits to declare her victory a slam dunk; the mayor is averse to complacency.

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"I think when you become complacent and rest on your laurels, that's when you get into trouble," Ms. Watts said in an interview. Another political peril? Politicians who overstay their welcome. "I had only anticipated doing two terms because I am not a career politician," said the former Surrey city councillor, first elected mayor in 2005. She previously worked in the private sector. "If I felt I had completed what I need to complete, then I would move on."

She's had options. Last year, she was seen as a credible successor to Gordon Campbell as leader of the BC Liberals, but she stayed in Surrey due to family commitments – she is married and has two teenaged daughters – and now wants to continue as mayor. "I don't feel like I am quite finished yet. There's still a lot of work to do."

Yet some in Surrey would like to leave the work to others.

The Surrey Civic Coalition, rival to Ms. Watts' Surrey First party, could not rally a candidate for mayor, but is hoping to seize control of the city's eight-member council. As things stand, there are seven members of Surrey First party and one lone coalition councillor, former mayor Bob Bose.

"There's a growing disquiet over the amount of power she has, so there's a strong sense that balance needs to be restored to council," Mr. Bose said.

He is skeptical about Ms. Watts' efforts to promote a new Surrey, assertive and growing as a counterweight to Vancouver, arguing the focus on the future overlooks current challenges in transportation and spending for new schools. "Growing faster is not necessarily growing better," he said.

While the citizens' coalition has no candidate in the mayor's race, Mr. Bose says he is a fan of Ross Buchanan, a 59-year-old business consultant running as an independent – one of eight candidates for the mayor's job.

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Mr. Buchanan says he has no illusions about the challenge. "I see Vancouver commentators talking about how she's a slam dunk," he said. But he thinks he might win by channelling a feeling among voters that Ms. Watts does not respect their views on current problems. "What's more important? A celebrity mayor or a serious mayor ready to roll up their sleeves?" he said.

Issues include Ms. Watts inviting former U.S. president George W. Bush to Surrey for an economic summit in October (no one seemed to have a problem with Bill Clinton, who also attended). Mr. Buchanan also claims a sense of unease about abandoning Surrey's current, functional city hall for a building that is to be part of a new downtown for Surrey in the Whalley area. "Think Olympic Village," he said, referring to the troubled development that helped oust the NPA from power and elect Gregor Robertson.

Ms. Watts defends the new downtown, including the city hall. "People have been talking about the city centre since, oh my God, the '80s, and it has limped along."

And, overall, she welcomes the debate. "Anybody that comes forward and puts their name to run for public office, I think, is a good thing. It's not an easy job," she said.

She says a third Watts term will include getting shovels in the ground for a long-awaited light-rail transit line in the city, plus continued work in getting a fair share of provincial funding for schools. On Monday, the province announced a total of four new schools in Surrey and land for four future schools. Ms. Watts also foresees initiatives in homelessness, literacy, child poverty and the needs of a refugee population.

She is a partisan for Surrey, acidly referring to the millions spent on the new BC Place roof in Vancouver. "It could have solved my transportation problem and my schools problem," she noted, and chuckled. "Won't go there."

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Beyond the vote, she says she hopes to get back to one of her passions in life – diving – by next spring, subject to her recovery. She has mingled with sharks and heard whales singing.

Asked if there are any links between politics and diving, she gives it a thought. "Be careful when you swim with the sharks," she said, and then laughed so explosively it couldn't be good for her pinched nerve.

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