Christy Clark: A Look Back

April 2, 2012

By Frances Bula

Her days are scripted to the minute, though not-thankfully-this early-morning practice period. From behind the Plexiglas of a near-empty hockey rink, Christy Clark is free of distraction for a whole hour and a half, able to focus on her 10-year-old son in his yellow jersey, fighting to defend his goal from shot after shot. B.C.’s 35th premier even gets 10 minutes to put on makeup in the community centre’s charmless bathroom-makeup that will have to last through a training-facility tour, an announcement about liquid-natural-gas pipelines, prep time with Korean business contacts for an upcoming trade mission, lunch on Main Street with Filipino community leaders, and a briefing in cabinet offices about the euro zone mess and what it means for B.C. When you’re a female politician assessed hourly on your ability to salvage what the Victoria news pack has dubbed Her Troubled Government, makeup is important. It has to be understated enough to deflect jabs that you look like you’re auditioning for Dancing With the Stars, but not so modest that on television you look washed out and weak.

At 8 a.m., the sprint begins. Clark’s two RCMP escorts report for duty, and after several rounds of “Hamish, come on! I have to get to work,” everyone piles into the generic minivan that’s her official vehicle to drop him off at school (with a reminder that he’s staying at his dad’s tonight), then a huddle with executive assistant Gabe Garfinkel over the pink folder with the day’s details, then a call to her team in Victoria to refine strategy (“That is such a dumb narrative. He’s such a good ally for us, going forward”). Then it’s runners off, beige high heels on (those extra four inches keep her from feeling overwhelmed in media scrums), and-ta-da!-Christy Clark is on.

Leaders parachuted into faltering political parties face unique challenges. Ask Kim Campbell, who-trying to reinvent her party in the wake of Brian Mulroney-bolstered the Conservatives’ popularity to unseen levels, then led them to electoral annihilation in 1993. Or Rita Johnston, in 1991, another first-time female leader who was unable to rehabilitate the party in the wake of a charismatic rule-bender (this time, Bill Vander Zalm). Or Ujjal Dosanjh in 2001, Paul Martin in 2006, Gordon Brown in 2010. Then again, you could look to Vander Zalm himself, who successfully reinvented the Socred party in 1986 after Bill Bennett’s long and confrontational reign. Or Ralph Klein, who revived the Alberta Tories in 1993. Or Glen Clark, who whipped a demoralized NDP past the post for an unprecedented second-term win in 1996.

A new boss can choose between two routes, says Glen, now a top executive in the Pattison empire. He or she can mount a surprise attack. Glen Clark won the leadership of his party in February (as did Christy), and within four months he’d reversed much of predecessor Mike Harcourt’s negative coverage and scandals, sailed through a few of his own making, announced that he was freezing tuition fees and Hydro rates, called a provincial election, and won it. The second route is to take it slow. “There is no right answer,” he says. “There are lots of examples of leaders waiting and letting people get to know them.”

At first Christy Clark’s team looked like it would follow Glen Clark’s blitzkrieg example. On March 14, 2011, her first day in power, she raised the minimum wage (something the previous Liberal caucus had been dead set against). Announcements followed of a new public holiday, a review of Hydro rates, a review of B.C. Ferries fares. But Christy had a particular challenge, Glen notes, because her caucus was composed of people who hadn’t supported her during the leadership run; pushing hard would have meant running “against her own caucus and against the government.” Moving slowly, by contrast, she could be more sure about “bringing her caucus members along to her view.” So instead of simply suspending the HST and calling an election, she opted to put off a vote until May 2013, a decision that has invited difficult, energy-draining tests: an HST referendum (voters narrowly rejecting the tax), and a by-election in which she got the same number of votes as Gordon Campbell had, but only squeaked by because the Greens didn’t have a candidate. Awaiting the general election, she and the Liberals grind away on the kinds of projects that are tough to build excitement around. Creating jobs. Opening trade markets in China, Japan, Korea, and India. Expanding the province’s clean-tech sector.

And all the while, the helium of her popularity slowly leaks away, just as 20 years ago it did for Kim Campbell, who in only a few weeks went from being the most popular prime minister in the history of polling to someone judged too flip, too candid, too inexperienced. In fact, the morning that Christy Clark is hustling her son to get in the van, packing his hockey bag herself in exasperation, the media is all a-Twitter over a new poll showing that, for the first time, NDP leader Adrian Dix is ahead of Clark as the people’s top choice for premier.

I think the biggest threat to success is getting distracted,” says Clark, as the van steams down the freeway toward BCIT. Distracted by the polls, by former media friends who once came to her house for parties and now tell the world she’s kinda stupid, by the tweets and blogs and stories saying everything she does is wrong. “I don’t obsess about it, because it’s just my life. They just criticize whatever, whatever.”

Her team’s focus is simple. Tell the people of B.C. that they’re better off economically under the Liberals. (Internal polling shows that people are anxious about the economy and their jobs above everything else.) The story is jobs, jobs, jobs. “I’ve got a year and a half to deliver on this jobs plan, and I am going to deliver on it,” she says. “If I can get to May 2013 and say, ‘Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick’-these are all the things I’ve done-I think I’ll win.” The corollary is important, too: make people feel like it’s too scary in troubled times to jump to a new ship like Dix and the NDP.

But the Liberals’ most important selling point-beyond the jobs/families thing, as Clark sometimes calls it-is Clark herself. Many people, like condo marketer Bob Rennie and the Wall Group developers, backed her during the leadership race not because they were entranced by her talk of Families First or her promise to create a government that listens. No, they thought Clark could conjure up another win for the Liberal Party better than Kevin Falcon, a far less huggable candidate who looked and sounded a little too much like Gordon Campbell.

“People find her fresh,” says Brian Coulter, a retired business-administration professor who’s working for the Liberals in the Chilliwack by-election. Former Tory MP Chuck Strahl, one of the saints of the federal Conservatives, says much the same. “When people meet her, they like her.” So the strategy is to get her face time with as many of the province’s potential voters as possible.

It’s not a cakewalk, connecting directly with three million eligible voters. And it’s harder still because Clark has to be a slightly different person with each of them. Because, really, who is she? In lengthy interviews over a couple of days, she stresses that she’s exactly who she seems to be. That’s different from her decade as an MLA, when she thought she had to be tough and never wrong. “I gave that up. I thought, ‘I’m not going to get back into politics this time if I can’t be who I am.’ For me, that was one of the most important decisions. And if that’s not okay in politics, then okay, politics is not for me.”

So she talks about how you can take the girl out of the suburb, but. “The thing is, I’m from Burnaby and as hard as my mother tried… Well, I do know how to use the right fork, but…” Her determination to be her own person shows up in her apparel choices, which, occasionally and stubbornly, still include necklines low enough to generate Twitter debates. And she gleefully tells the story of the Filipina cashier who (even though “I was in a ball cap, real scrubby”) recognized her at a Walmart in Coquitlam and practically leaped over the counter to hug her.

But she’s more than just the regular gal her supporters believe is the persona best suited to victory. Listen carefully. When she speaks on the radio or to groups of average voters, she drops more g’s than Sarah Palin as she talks about creatin’ jobs and raisin’ families. “She’s signalling a certain leadership style, the ‘inclusive populist,’ ” says Mark Wexler, an SFU professor of business management who specializes in leadership. “She’s running against the insider politicians, showing she’s not a party animal or a wonk like Dix, who breathes Excel sheets.” But Wexler cautions that there’s a danger in sounding too breezy and casual, not like someone you’d want to hand your investment portfolio over to. And Clark, consciously or unconsciously, knows that. So when she’s outlining her government’s trade strategy-its focus on the Asian and South Asian economies, their growth rates, the incentives it will take to get them to buy more B.C. products-her voice gets crisper and clearer, the g’s reappear, and her sentences grow more complex. It’s a reminder that this is a woman who’s been talking political strategy since she was a toddler watching her father run federal Liberal campaigns, who became a political junkie in her 20s as a campus party activist, who got elected in 1996 at the age of 30, and who has never really lived anywhere but in the world of political chess.

That persona-the Hillary Clinton one, the one that makes colleagues call her a tough boss pushing hard to bend the bureaucracy to the radical and long-term changes she’s trying to make-is not the one that she or her handlers seem to want to showcase. And therein lies a danger. As Kim Campbell discovered, people like the “I’m just a woman telling you like it is” style-until they don’t. Reporters fall into a pattern, as at least one academic noted about Campbell, of always interpreting what those female leaders are saying as though it’s actually about relationships and motivation. Men make announcements; women make announcements to appeal to a particular group, to shore up support. And, as Wexler notes, women leaders who talk and dress in particular ways may invite even more gender-tinged judgments. Adrian Dix is too smart to say outright that Clark governs like a girl, but he implies she is not “serious.” Others have picked up on that. Google puts Christy Clark and “lightweight” together 56,000 times.

She herself says the coming year is a chance to truly show who she is. “Last year wasn’t really my year; it was my predecessor’s year,” says Clark, who often avoids using Gordon Campbell’s name. It will also give the Liberals and those Conservatives aligned with them a chance to terrify John Cummins’s Conservatives with the spectre of helping elect an NDP government, as they did under the Reform banner in 1996. And, in the meantime, they’ll deploy Clark-her smile and her charm-wherever possible. In Chilliwack, where, dressed sedately, she’ll give what has become her signature speech, about how families raising children are the bedrock of Canada, instilling character and building good citizens in the way that governments can’t. At political meetings, where she’ll stop to have a conversation in the hallway with another hockey mom about the danger of concussions. At every pit stop and hall and doorway in the province where she might win over one more person with her down-home empathy and ideas for how to make things better.

As the minivan pulls up to Josephine’s on Main Street for that Filipino community lunch, Gabe Garfinkel runs through last-minute details. Don’t forget to acknowledge this person who’s going to endorse you, and recognize that one. And, another thing, when they applaud after you’re introduced, say you feel like Manny Pacquiao. “Manny Pacquiao,” Clark repeats tentatively, testing her pronunciation. “Manny Pacquiao,” Garfinkel confirms. “He’s a famous boxer. He’s a god. They love him.”

With that, Clark moves into the crowd. A Filipino journalist asks her about her time as a nanny in Paris when she was 19. The answer she gives will resonate in the heart of every Filipino in Vancouver. “I learned what it was like to be lonely,” she says. “That it’s hard, when you’re in a different culture, different language, with no one you know, it’s a really difficult life when you’re a long way from your family. In Paris, being a domestic was pretty much at the bottom of the social scale. So I learned from firsthand experience those jobs need to be respected and often other people don’t want to do those hard jobs.”

Then it’s on to the restaurant: plates piled with barbecued chicken, kare kare, fried bananas. She poses for dozens and dozens of photos with groups of varying sizes, pictures that will be proudly displayed in homes throughout the Lower Mainland. When she stands to speak, there’s enthusiastic applause.

“What a nice welcome,” says the premier. “I feel like Manny Pacquiao.” VM

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