Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The next generation sails into local politics

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 19, 2008


Tara Ney played host to an election-night gathering of close friends at her home, a safe venue lest the evening succumb to disappointment.

Only after the announcement of civic election results for Oak Bay did the party move to the Penny Farthing Pub.

Ms. Ney need not have worried. A newcomer to politics though no stranger to campaigning, she finished second in balloting for a six-person council of a municipality teasingly known as being ensconced behind a Tweed Curtain.

Her father long ago told her the secret to being a successful politician.

“You’ve got to look people in the eye,” he told her. “Let them know who you are. Let them know what you’re going to do. And then do it.”

One of the things her father did is dress as a pirate and slice the air with a cutlass while promoting Nanaimo as “the sun porch of Canada and the jewel of the West.” Frank Ney’s boosterish description stood in contrast to more common comparisons of the Hub City with sunshine-deprived body parts.

A showman and a salesman, he turned the annual bathtub race across Georgia Strait to Vancouver from a silly pastime into an international sensation. Henceforth, Nanaimo became known for washbasin wackiness rather than an addictive dessert (the Nanaimo bar), or an all-white male wardrobe, down to shoes and belts (the Full Nanaimo, not to be confused with, or likely contributing to, the Full Monty).

Mr. Ney served as mayor from 1968 to 1984 and from 1987 to 1990. While mayor, he also spent three years as a Social Credit MLA. An elementary school now bears his name. A bronze statue portraying him in pirate regalia can be found on the waterfront. They loved him in Nanaimo, even if they didn’t always vote for him.

His eldest daughter, now aged 53, remembers a childhood spent on the hustings with 10 siblings. Her father always threw his pirate hat into the ring.

“He was campaigning all the time,” she said. “His life was one long single campaign. He was always talking to people and listening to their stories. He never stopped.”

Where her Nanaimo birthplace is proudly blue collar, her Oak Bay community remains steadfastly blue blood.

Ms. Ney won without resorting to a peg leg, an eyepatch, a flintlock pistol, or a parrot on the shoulder. Instead, she hung out in the villages (High Streets), chatting up passersby and drinking coffee by the bathtub load.

After Saturday’s balloting, Ms. Ney is not alone as a civic neophyte with a political pedigree.

Constance Barnes won election to Vancouver park board. Her father was a professional football player and a Speaker of the B.C. Legislature, while her mother was a pioneer female sports commentator who wrote a tell-all book titled, “The Plastic Orgasm.”

Amid the returns, some other names stuck out.

The voters of Keremeos opted for mayoral rule by a Despot — Walter Despot, a retired phramacist.

Pitt Meadows has a Bing and a Bell on council, while Wally Cheer topped the councillor poll in Port Clements. Donna Shugar was acclaimed in the Sunshine Coast.

In suburban Richmond, voters contemplated a ballot graced by four Chens and a Cheng. None were related. None were elected. The same ballot also had three Halsey-Brandts — Greg, the ex-mayor; Sue, the ex-mayor’s ex-wife; and, Evelina, the ex-mayor’s not ex-wife. All were elected.

Newspaper editors will need more than spell-checking software to avoid misspelling Rimas Zitkauskas (Telkwa), Holger Schwichtenberg (Kent), Bonnie CruzelleMyram (Thompson-Nicola), and Candus Pelton-Graffunder (Clearwater). These politicos may make headlines, but they’re unlikely to see their unwieldy family names in one.

Some familiar names failed in bids to return to the political arena. In Smithers, town councillor and former MLA Bill Goodacre finished third in the mayor’s race. In Sidney, population 11,000, Mel Couvelier failed to win the mayor’s chair, a disappointing outcome for a former finance minister of the third-largest province of a G8 nation.

In Oak Bay, Chris Smith missed joining Ms. Ney as a council rookie by finishing 12 votes behind an incumbent for the final spot. Mr. Smith, who won a Canadian tennis championship in boys’ doubles as a teenager, is the son of former Oak Bay mayor Brian Smith.

Ms. Ney had even bet a friend $10 that Mr. Smith would win a spot on council.

This was the first time her name appeared on a ballot since she won a student council race at age 16 back home in Nanaimo. A psychologist who has worked in the war-torn Balkans, she is known by her friends as Tool Time Tara for her renovations of old houses. During the demolition of the Oay Bay Beach Hotel, she donned steel-toed boots and a hard hat to salvage light fixtures and wood panelling.

She scavenged steel frames for her campaign signs from the local recycling centre, which had plenty on hand after the recent federal election.

Her father died 16 years ago this month, his passing noted that afternoon in the B.C. legislature, where Premier Mike Harcourt rose to pay tribute. He quoted Mr. Ney on his failure in what would be his last campaign for mayor. “In South America they shoot the old mayor when they want a new one,” Mr. Ney said. “I prefer this system.”

Four years ago, the Ney clan learned they had a half-brother born before their father met their mother.

He had black hair and olive skin. Like their father.

He was gregarious. Like their father.

He was a realtor. Like their father.

When Tara Ney told Peter Birrell she was running for council, he did what any Ney would do.

He threw his hat into the ring.

As it turned out, the voters of North Vancouver district opted for other candidates.

He should not be discouraged. Even Frank Ney never won them all.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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