Imagine trying to land a job when the screening process involves thousands of interviews. That’s what aspiring politicians go through.
“You have 25,000 people interviewing you for that job,” says Kate Watson, a candidate in the Oct. 15 municipal election. She’s running in District 5—Dartmouth Centre. “It’s a bizarre position to be in.”
This is Watson’s second time running for office. She ran in the 2012 municipal election, but says candidates walk away from an unsuccessful campaign either saying the experience was awful or it was great and they want more. She falls into the latter camp. Watson says the lack of women on HRM Council was one of the reasons she decided to run. Women make up about half of our population, but one-quarter of the city’s 16 councillors. Watson wants to help change that.
Being the change is also one of the reasons Lindell Smith is running for Council (District 8 – Halifax Peninsula North). He believes Council needs more representation from the black, native, LGBTQ, and disabled communities. “Our city has people from all walks of life and when you look at city Council, it looks like the same all around,” he says. Going into the election, all of the city’s councillors are white and middle aged or older.
The thought of campaigning door to door was a concern of Smith’s as he worried people might be thinking “Why is this black guy on my door?” He says people have been welcoming, and he thinks the worry was all in his head.
He was also worried people would think he’s a salesperson and that he’s bothering them, but most people are just happy somebody who’s running for office has showed up to talk to them. “Most of the conversations go, ‘How can you help me? How can you make sure that I’m heard?’” says Smith, 26. He says people use these encounters to form an opinion of the candidate. Many voters have told him they won’t vote for a candidate unless they meet face to face.
Door knocking is a critical part of any campaign, but especially for candidates who are not well known. Tim Outhit, the councillor for District 16–Bedford–Wentworth, is the district’s only candidate in this election, but recalls his first campaign, a by-election in 2008.
He says he knocked on thousands of doors. Besides meeting voters, the effort had another benefit: he ended up losing 5 kilograms from pounding the pavement. “Unfortunately, you put it back on afterwards with all the tea parties and social events and things you’re invited to and wonderful dinners,” says Outhit.
Running for Council isn’t all smooth sailing though. While the candidates Halifax Magazine spoke with said people were mostly civil in face-to-face encounters, Watson says the discourse on social media can be daunting. “There are some days you just don’t want to turn on the computer … people feel a lot freer to be mean,” she says.
A thick skin is a must, plus a realization that you’ll never please everybody. Watson uses the example of showing up at a community picnic. Some people will say the candidate’s there just to campaign. However, if the candidate skips the event, there is criticism for not attending. It’s a valuable lesson for being in office where politicians are often damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
For Watson, one of the things she learned from the 2012 campaign was to take up people’s offers to help. “When someone says they’ll help you, say ‘Thank you, here’s what you can do,’” says Watson, adding it’s humbling people are willing to help.
Raising money to fund the campaign is another challenge. “I’ve fundraised for homeless shelters and all kinds of things myself and I’m a bulldog when it comes to that because I’m asking for someone else, but I’m finding it really hard,” says mayoral candidate Lil MacPherson.
Taking action on climate change is what motivated her to run. She’s a trained presenter for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and she’s attended multiple United Nations Climate Change conferences. These experiences have left her convinced Halifax is falling behind. She says not enough is being done to improve public transportation, affordable housing, and have cleaner air and water.
As well, she says huge opportunities to embrace the green economy are being missed out on. MacPherson sees the mayor as the logical person to spearhead change. “I have a lot of ideas and lot of big visions and I like to oversee things,” she says.
The first-time candidates Halifax Magazine spoke with are an eclectic bunch. Watson is a journalist, Smith is a community library assistant at the Halifax North Memorial Public Library, and MacPherson is a restaurateur. (Her Wooden Monkey is one of the businesses threatening legal action against the Nova Centre for the negative impact the massive and oft-delayed construction project has had on sales at some downtown businesses.)
Outhit says he’s never viewed being councillor as a long-term position. These days, it appears he’s looking to wrap up some unfinished business before stepping aside. Improving the public transit system is one of his passions. He’s long been a vocal proponent of commuter rail, but would also like the city to embrace bus rapid transit and more park-and-ride lots. “We’ve been pumping more and more money into transit and the ridership is actually down,” he says.
Regardless of the candidates’ motivations, they all long for change and are all nearing the end of the interview process. Watson says being a candidate is all about promoting yourself and telling people what you’re capable of. “If you’re not a good candidate, you don’t get a chance to be a councillor,” she says.