Tuesday, December 6, 2011

With hard work and groundwork, rookie politician wins his first election

George Anderson relied on hardworking volunteers and social media to get his message across to Nanaimo voters. The 20-year-old won election to city counci and will be a politician to watch. Geoff Howe photograph for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 28, 2011


George Anderson showed up for an evening’s bowling with his right index finger heavily bandaged after an incident with a sledgehammer.

In solidarity, his companions decided to bowl with their weaker hand.

As the pins fell, his phone buzzed with calls and messages.

He apologized, but left early. He needed to get to the Shaw Auditorium in downtown Nanaimo.

It was election night and Mr. Anderson was among 22 candidates vying for eight spots on Nanaimo city council.

An earnest, well-spoken student, Mr. Anderson juggles part-time jobs while studying biology and criminology at Vancouver Island University. He will decide on law or medical school later this year. A busy schedule always includes charity work.

Without a hint of insincerity, he speaks of love for his birthplace of Nanaimo, a community not known for inspiring paeans.

When the ballot count ended, Mr. Anderson had 7,450 votes to finish in fourth place, ahead of seasoned incumbents.

Just three years removed from high school graduation — he was class valedictorian at John Barsby Secondary — this Canadian-born son of Ghanaian immigrants earned a place on city council.

“I still live at home,” he noted. “Now I can have my parents yell at me about their property taxes.”

Mr. Anderson operated an insurgent campaign online and on the streets of the Hub City. On occasion, his volunteer team met at the Tim Hortons at 1812 Bowen Rd.

He posted an impressive, one-minute campaign video on YouTube.

“We can no longer be a city that is business versus residents, north versus south, new-timers versus old-timers,” he says in the video. “We need to come together and build upon a collective vision that each and everyone of us can be proud of.”

The message owes more than a little to the optimism of a recent presidential campaign. His own platform included such uncontroversial stands as calling for a stronger business community. If the rhetoric was less than meaty, the Anderson campaign made up for it through the gritty work of knocking on doors.

The candidate himself lost count after 2,000. (He was distracted by midterms midway through the campaign.) He even made a point of canvassing little Protection Island, where residents told him they had not before had a politician on their stoop. “People really liked that I was able to come and talk to them,” he said.

In the end, his 62 votes led the island’s poll.

The campaign spent under $5,000, less than a dollar per vote.

About the only misstep came when his financial agent accidently mashed his finger with a sledgehammer as they tried to erect a homemade sign.

The finger was fractured, but the doctor assures him he will be able to return to playing the piano. As well, he leads an eponymous jazz trio, and also plays tuba, trumpet, and alto and tenor saxophone.

Mr. Anderson has been a postal clerk, a customer service representative, and a “sandwich artist” for a fast-food chain. In this year’s federal election, he held a position as a youth outreach worker for Elections Canada. Now he can add councillor to an impressive resumé.

He decided to run in June, having closely followed civic politics for several years. A controversial severance package paid to the retiring city manager was among the issues that convinced him to enter the race.

John Ruttan, the re-elected mayor, told the Nanaimo Daily News that he considered the youngest addition to council to be “bright and articulate.”

Mr. Anderson counts among his political inspirations Wilfrid Laurier (“someone who wanted to pull our country together”), Robert Borden (“who brought the government together in a time of war”), and Tommy Douglas (“who helped father our health-care system”).

“In everything I’ve tried for, I tend to win,” he said. A rare exception: He lost a race for student council when in Grade 6 at Park Avenue Elementary.

His father, Nicholas, is a machine operator for PostMedia, while his mother, Elizabeth, is a collator for Black Press. George is the youngest of four children. His parents taught him that he should be polite even should he be disliked solely for reason of his ethnicity.

“People want to put people in boxes. I don’t think that’s right,” he said.

In high school, he found his straight-arrow image challenged stereotypes.

“Just because I look a certain way I’m supposed to act a certain way,” he said. “I don’t think I should have to wear baggy pants, or have my teeth look ugly and have a do-rag on. I’m George Anderson and I should be able to be the way I want to be.”

He has been involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters, helped organize a summer camp for poor children, conducted a symposium for high schoolers on drugs and mental health. Every yuletide, he rings Christmas bells as part of the Salvation Army’s kettle campaign.

On Friday, though, Mr. Anderson took a rare day off. He had good reason. It was his 21st birthday.

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