A 'People-Centred' New Mayor for Victoria

Lisa Helps' narrow win marks generational shift in local politics.

By Andrew MacLeod 19 Nov 2014 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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Lisa Helps defeated two-term mayor Dean Fortin. 'For my whole life, I've been really hard to slap a label on.' Photo credit: Lisa Helps Facebook page.

Victoria mayor-elect Lisa Helps says many people have a hard time nailing down her politics. "For my whole life, I've been really hard to slap a label on," Helps said. "I guess that's what confuses people."

She ruled out the term "progressive," which has sometimes been ascribed to her, saying the word is so overused that it's become meaningless.

"I would describe my politics as 'people centred,'" Helps said, adding that she's proactive, collaborative and has a "21st century" style of leadership. A councillor since 2011, Helps also heads a micro-lending organization and once helped lead a neighbourhood group.

On Saturday, Helps defeated Dean Fortin, Victoria's two-term mayor, winning by just 89 votes. In an interview with The Tyee, Helps described her goals, priorities and governing style.

She said divisive politics that pit business against community interests, for example, are unhelpful in a small city like Victoria where "our small business culture here, it's inherently community based," she said.

"I don't see it as us versus them," she said. "I see it all as us, and that's my politics."

Observers said Helps' upset win is a sign of a generational shift in politics, that savvy ground and social media campaigns matter, and that provincial Liberals are deeply unpopular in the Capital Region.

"I'm really excited that Lisa won," said Jane Sterk, a former Green Party of British Columbia leader and former Esquimalt city councillor. "What happened in the Capital Region is indicative of the desire for change."

Joins new breed of mayor

Sterk described Helps as "religiously non-partisan" but said she shares many Green values. Fortin, meanwhile, was backed by strong New Democrat connections and an endorsement from the Victoria Labour Council.

Sterk compared Helps' win in Victoria to similar political shifts in cities such as Winnipeg, which elected its first aboriginal mayor last month, and Calgary, where Naheed Nenshi was elected in 2010. In all three cities voters supported mayors who think and act differently, she said.

"There's a generational change happening across the country," Sterk said. "It's not just here."

Elsewhere in the district, she noted, Richard Atwell, who is in his early 40s, defeated long-time mayor Frank Leonard in Saanich, the Capital Region's largest municipality. In the neighbouring, but smaller Central Saanich, Ryan Windsor beat former mayor Jack Mar, who is around three decades Windsor's senior.*

On election night, Helps' victory was razor thin. According to unofficial results posted on the city's website, Helps received 9,200 votes, Fortin 9,111, former BC Liberal cabinet minister Ida Chong 3,275 and journalist Stephen Andrew 2,380.

Background in local issues

Helps was first elected to council in 2011. She is the executive director of the Community Micro Lending organization, which provides small loans to people who have a hard time borrowing money from other financial institutions, and a past vice-chair of the board of the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group.

Her academic work, including a completed master's and unfinished PhD, was on a history of housing, homelessness and the governance of poverty in Victoria.

Among her priorities, Helps said she wants to finish the replacement of the Johnson Street Bridge and ensure that a contentious -- but federally required -- sewage treatment system gets built. "These are the priorities given to me by the public."

She also noted that 50 per cent of Victorians over the age of 18 make $28,000 a year or less.

"That's a problem," she said. "There aren't jobs here. We've got to do some work attracting higher paid jobs." Rather than bet on big industrial projects, she wants to look at the possibility of introducing tax incentives to attract more high-tech businesses to the city.

Helps said she also wants to do more to help the homeless, improve affordable housing, and promote "active" transportation options, such as walking and cycling.

Appealed to broad base

Sterk said she supported Helps and worked on her campaign, but also said the early advisory committee around Helps included people from "virtually every party." The messages around economic development, social development, homelessness and how to best use taxpayers' money appealed to a broad base, she said.

People also like Helps' grassroots leadership style, Sterk said. "It's around being willing to collaborate with the people and let the people lead."

Others said Helps ran a strong ground campaign, made good use of social media and excelled at getting her voters out to the polls. The slogan "Voting Helps" circulated widely on Victoria lawns and Twitter feeds.

Mike Eso, the president of the Victoria Labour Council, said he was disappointed Fortin lost, but said it was a very close result in a race where the incumbent had been in the position for two terms. It can be challenging to win a third term, he said. "On balance I thought the result was fairly decent."

Four candidates the VLC endorsed won seats on the eight-person council, including Ben Isitt who topped the polls. Similarly, among council candidates in Saanich, another VLC endorsee Dean Murdock received the most votes.

Looking ahead to future federal and provincial elections, Eso said there is clearly core support for the NDP and local support for the Greens in the Capital Region.

Chong, a former Liberal cabinet minister, finished a distant third. That result is telling, Eso said.

"The Liberal brand is severely tarnished in Victoria and it ain't getting any better," he said. "It's a very poor showing."

Council tilts left

Helps will lead a council where no particular slate holds the balance of power. However, it is weighted slightly towards the left side of the political spectrum.

"She'll have to work very hard to make sure everybody has a good voice on council and feels recognized for what they bring," said Sterk. "My guess is she'll spend the next week meeting with each of the councillors and making sure they have a good start to the next term."

For now though Sterk was savouring the victory, saying it is a good antidote to her cynicism about Canadian politics.

Helps said she's already begun meeting with councillors and working towards creating a strategic plan that will be shaped by the whole council and the city's senior staff members. "There will be something in that plan for everybody," she said.

There will doubtless be debate and healthy democracy at the council table, but she says she hopes anything she brings forward will be easy enough to support that she'll attract votes from at least four councillors. "I don't think anything I want to do in the next four years is radical," she said.

Any initiative will require lots of discussion and be done gradually, said Helps, recognizing the nature of the city she'll lead: "Victoria's a place that doesn't like change."

*Story corrected Nov. 19 at 10:30 a.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: Municipal Politics

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