COLUMN: Surrey mayor's chair challenged

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Only one Surrey mayor in the past 60 years has won a fourth straight term. Until last week, it looked to me that Dianne Watts could easily repeat that feat this fall – and she may indeed do so. But it appears she has a formidable challenger, who has been prepping carefully for a showdown.

Coun. Barinder Rasode has served two terms on Surrey council. A recruit by Watts’ Surrey First organization from the left-leaning Surrey Civic Coalition, she is bright, savvy and well-connected. She has now left Surrey First and said she would run for mayor only if Watts chose not to. There are many indications she is gunning for the top spot.

Watts has been on council since 1997, and been mayor since defeating incumbent Doug McCallum in 2005. In the process, she torpedoed the Surrey Electors Team. The SET members of council elected that year eventually all came over to her, and together they formed Surrey First, which won every seat on council in the 2011 election. However, that kind of dominating power inevitably begins to crumble.

While Watts remains popular and has not really done anything to offend a lot of voters, there are a number of issues which bother some people. The expensive new city hall is seen by some as over-the-top, with amenities that aren’t really necessary in what is supposed to be a utilitarian seat of local government.

Perhaps the issue that dogs her the most is public safety. While Surrey RCMP are generally respected by most citizens, the wave of murders last year seemed to go almost unnoticed by civic leaders for some time. In the fall, Watts finally convened a task force to look into the issue.

Then at the end of the year, the shocking murder of Julie Paskall outside the Newton Arena really galvanized the public. Anger and fear levels remain high.

Another thing that is dogging Watts is the persistent rumour that she wants to become the Conservative candidate in the new federal riding encompassing South Surrey and White Rock. Incumbent MP Russ Hiebert is not running again.

Watts has said nothing about this race, but her lack of comment fuels speculation that she is just biding her time before announcing she will seek the nomination. A Conservative nomination in that riding is a ticket to Ottawa.

Rasode, the first South Asian woman on council, will scoop up a lot of votes from that  community. However, Watts has made many connections in that community and will get plenty of support should she run again.

Rasode remains a formidable challenger, should she and Watts square off. The ball is now in the mayor’s court. She will have to reveal her intentions soon.

But she needs to keep in mind Surrey voters’ fairly constant record of giving mayors about a decade or so in office, and then tossing them out. It happened to her two predecessors, Bob Bose and McCallum. Don Ross before Bose served eight years (he won four two-year terms) and then stepped aside. When he ran again in 1990, he was soundly defeated.

Only one Surrey mayor has served more than nine consecutive years in office. When Tom Sullivan was in the top council job, the correct term for the office was reeve. He was in office from 1910 to 1920.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

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