Thursday, May 14, 2009

Exclusive club ready to welcome ex-MLAs

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 14, 2009


It was Isaiah who prophesied a day when the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling shall party hardy.

But the Judean prophet had nothing to say about the Socred and the socialist breaking bread. Maybe it was just too far fetched.

Hugh Curtis, 76, and Jim Rhodes, 78, both served as members of the Legislative Assembly.

Mr. Rhodes was elected in 1960 and defeated in 1963.

Mr. Curtis was elected in 1972 and retired from the campaign trail in time to avoid the divisive 1986 campaign.

Mr. Rhodes sat as a member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner to the NDP.

Mr. Curtis was originally elected as a Progressive Conservative, then switched parties to join Social Credit.

They first met at a meeting of the Association of Former MLAs, a non-profit and strictly non-partisan grouping of former politicians, including some of the most formidable partisans in the province.

They now are bosom buddies.

"While we carry our own political persuasion, we all get along," Mr. Curtis insists.

"He calls quite often for my advice," Mr. Rhodes said. "I tell him he's crazy if he takes it."

What all association members share is the experience of having represented voters in the B.C. Legislature. They speak of the privilege of their service, of the sacrifices made, of the middle-of-the-night telephone calls from angry constituents, of the unfair besmirching of their motives by rivals, of the not always perceptive analysis provided by the press corps.

It is an exclusive club that conducts a quadrennial membership drive when the legislature is dissolved.

Some recruits become eligible by their own decision to retire (such as Mr. Curtis), while others get a pink slip from voters (such as Mr. Rhodes).

Most incumbents survived the election on Tuesday. John Nuraney, a two-term Liberal, lost Burnaby-Deer Lake by 287 votes. Jenn McGinn's stint as an NDP MLA for Vancouver-Fairview lasted only five months and two weeks after a by-election victory.

Two other incumbents are clinging to their seats, pending recounts.

The NDP's "Landslide Charlie" Wyse had a 23-vote lead in Cariboo-Chilcotin on election night, while Liberal Attorney-General Wally Oppal's margin was a (your cliché here) razor-thin, neck-and-neck, too-close-to-call two - count 'em, 2 - votes.

Mr. Curtis knew nothing but victory in his election nights. He went 11-0 in his career, beginning as a councillor in the Victoria suburb of Saanich, where he also served as mayor before being elected to the legislature on a night he remembers as "exhilarating. Astonishing. Exciting." He later served as finance minister under Socred premier Bill Bennett.

Mr. Rhodes's own success was unexpected. He narrowly won election in Delta in 1960 when the dual-member riding was a rural expanse encompassing Delta, Richmond, Surrey, Langley, Langley City and White Rock. (Today, Surrey alone counts eight seats.) The campaign turned on a newspaper exposé of Socred candidate Donald Riggan, who was reported to have done prison time. He insisted he had done so as part of an undercover RCMP operation to infiltrate the Communist Party.

"Crash," Mr. Rhodes said. "I got elected by a stroke of luck. I'll be the first to admit it."

Defeated after one term, he went into business, reviving a near-bankrupt printer.

A newspaper columnist called him the only bilingual businessman in British Columbia, as he spoke fluent capitalist and socialist.

As it turned out, the Red Capitalist sold the company on the very day in 1972 when Mr. Curtis won election to a legislature dominated by Dave Barrett and the province's first NDP government.

As Mr. Rhodes joked at the time, "If the NDP get elected, I'm going to be the first free enterpriser to sell."

These days, the group's membership is swelled by members of the classes of 1972 (NDP victory) and 1975 (NDP defeat).

The Association of Ex-MLAs, as it was originally known, was founded in 1987 by five former MLAs - Dennis Cocke (NDP), Gordon Gibson (Liberal), Don Marshall (Conservative), and Jim Neilsen and Garde Gardom (Social Credit). The idea was the brainstorm of Mr. Gardom, who later was named the province's lieutenant-governor.

Mr. Curtis edits the group's newsletter "Orders of the Day," for which he has written lengthy profiles of 38 living MLAs, focusing on backbenchers. A few more of these and he figures he'll have a nifty collection worthy of permanence as a book. With more than 200 subscribers, the newsletter also includes historical articles on "Alexander Mackenzie, Sir James Douglas, or some scalawag in the Interior who stole from gold miners."

"The challenge," he said, speaking in a beautiful baritone that is a reminder of his days as a radio announcer, "is to inject some humour."

The newsletter features editorial cartoons by Adrian Raeside of the Times Colonist and the late Len Norris of the Vancouver Sun.

(Either British Columbia has been blessed by talented editorial cartoonists, or the cartoonists have had the good fortune to work in a place where so many buffoons are rewarded by voters.)

About 150 members belong to the association. Mr. Curtis expects that number to grow. "Hopefully, a new crop us coming in now," he said.

If it turns out the voters of Delta South did indeed reject Mr. Oppal, he may find some small comfort in knowing an exclusive club will extend to him an open hand. Most of the members know exactly how he feels.

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