Dianne Watts transformed herself from an ignored, bullied, and abused young woman into a highly effective and appealing mayor. She's remaking the oft-abused city of Surrey in much the same way
January 2, 2009
My travels with Surrey mayor Dianne Watts take me to a Christian prayer breakfast at a golf course near the American border, where various local politicians boost each other with phrases like “We have God’s blessing that He gave us the skills to be of service”; an international wrestling match at the Guildford Community Centre, with 2,000 people-mostly men, mostly South Asian-packed into a cavernous gym on a Saturday night; and a high-school reunion at the Cloverdale Agriplex, where couples circulate in the echoing space.
Driving from place to place, we watch Surrey unroll around us: the very old Surrey of farmland and forest and ranch houses parked on huge swaths of lawn; the late-20th-century Surrey of strip malls, split-levels, churches, mini-
storages, and low-slung business parks; and the newest Surrey of tight-clustered townhouse and mini-mansion developments interrupted by occasional signs of almost-urban density and liveliness. It’s a complex, multilayered place longing to grow beyond being a collection of culs-de-sacs and highways to become a city. To do that, it’s thrown itself behind a woman who has herself transcended a difficult past and who epitomizes the new suburbanism.
Everywhere we touch down, Watts delivers a little speech-nothing fancy or particularly oratorical, just a “Welcome to Surrey” or a “Have a good time in this great facility.” Afterward, people flock to her. A young man from a Christian environmental group introduces himself: “We’re not the kind of activists who are in-your-face.” An older woman from a church group asks for help in working on homelessness. A high-school-reunion attendee thanks her for putting an end to the bad jokes about her hometown.
Watts listens carefully. She says “Oh, super!” and “Really!” She laughs her robust “Ha ha ha ha” at the funny stuff and gives hugs to those who need them. Quiet times come only when events are actually in progress. At the wrestling match, she’s one of the line of female politicians in coloured suit jackets (pale blue, pink, brilliant turquoise) in the front row. While athletic young men paw at each other’s heads and scuffle like jaguars, Watts holds four-year-old Ishraj Rasode in her lap. Ishraj-the daughter of Barinder Rasode, who will shortly be elected to council as part of Watts’s power team-gravitates to her whenever the two are together. Watts winds her fingers through the girl’s long ponytail. Occasionally, she whispers something to Ishraj or to one of her political sisters. But at other moments, she stares into the distance, chewing the gum that Barinder passed out, twirling Ishraj’s hair into a spiral over and over.
When I take my leave after a week of visiting, I feel I understand a lot more about Surrey, this flip side of Vancouver, this place that has no organized power elite because it has so many different and isolated influence clusters, this onetime farm community turned postwar suburb turned multi-ethnic edge city. Three times the size of Vancouver, with three-quarters
the population and adding more people each year than any other part of the region, it’s still so new and raw that when organizers hold the mayor’s annual fundraiser, they have to do it in unused warehouses or temporarily unoccupied office buildings. It’s a place where an old boy like previous mayor Doug McCallum could rule for nine years without having to heed the annoying neighbourhood groups and social advocates who play a role in big-city politics from Vancouver to New York. Where job one was to preserve the original idea of a 1950s suburb: a haven from the big bad city with cheap houses, low taxes, an open door for developers, and no place for social problems beyond who was going to have the neighbourhood barbecue.
Watts has introduced this wild-west suburb to the concept of gal power. She’s charmed everyone from business leaders to social workers with her utopian vision of a new Surrey: a real downtown; urban-style neighbourhoods built to complement the city’s vast green
zones, not destroy them; and a plan for tackling issues like homelessness head on. She draws people in with her relentless energy, her capacity for working alongside almost anyone, and most of all, her willingness to be unabashedly herself. In our talks she reveals her attraction to Buddhism, the impact of her domineering stepfather, how much she’s longing for carbs on her Bernstein diet, her type-A tendencies, and her shoe fetish.
Look at these boots, she’ll say, pointing to her shiny, faux-crocodile maroon ankle boots. Only $44. “And I love them. I have to dress so conservatively with everything else, so I let go with my shoes. They show my free-spirited side.”
In spite of our best-friends-forever chats, though, I leave feeling I’m
missing something about this composed and jokey woman, something that’s
key to her popularity in this vast, and growing, kingdom.
“There’s a part of her that I don’t think anybody knows,” says Brenda Kinsella. Kinsella and her political-strategist husband, Patrick, socialized with Brian and Dianne Watts when the Kinsellas moved to Surrey in 1996. “There’s a reserve about her. There’s a wound. And a lot of that collegiality and one-of-the-girls stuff is really a curtain over the window.”
On the surface, Watts, a trim, Sarah Palin-ishly attractive woman who turned 50 in October, has a very pleasant life: a large house on a piece of family land worth $2.7 million; a couple of BMWs; two teenage girls she drives to or picks up from the nearby private school every day; three cats and three dogs; holidays in Hawaii and California; and some very sparkly jewellery.
As Her Worship, she is praised for the changes she has brought to Surrey since her surprise win over McCallum in 2005. She’s put $8 million into this year’s budget for things like city beautification, a social plan, and crime reduction, and boosted the parks budget by over $3 million-this in a city that used to boast only about its zero-percent tax increases. Barely a peep of criticism has ensued. Along the way, she’s gone from being a loner independent to head of a new non-party party (no meetings, no votes, just us and our friends) called Surrey First. Her six councillors, all women except one, include both members of her former party and former supporters of the city’s left-wing party-a deft political feat.
Her most persistent critic, perpetual city councillor Bob Bose, complains that she talks a good line but hasn’t accomplished much. “She’s incredibly good at spinning out all kinds of policy documents,” says Bose, who got along with Watts well enough at one point to strategize that only she would challenge McCallum for the mayor’s chair in 2005. “But has anything really changed?” Apparently, few Surrey voters shared his concerns. Watts got an astonishing 86 percent of the 60,000 votes for mayor and her team topped the polls on November 15. Even her newest member, Rasode, came in ahead of veteran councillors outside the Watts circle.
But two themes in her life-an antipathy to control and a drive toward compassion-sometimes cause sympathetic observers to worry about how her political future will evolve. She refuses to be a standard politician (her unusual coalition party is one sign of that) and she refuses not to be herself. “I’m not sure she sees the dangers around the corner, how people can twist and change things,” says Kinsella. “I don’t know if you can always be that straightforward and open.” She also wants to save the world, to listen to everyone and try to fix their problems-potential quicksand in the world of politics, where success usually depends on a politician’s ability to score on a few limited targets.
“The thing is, she wants to do everything for everybody,” says Arlie McClurg, a friend and neighbour who has worked with Watts on fundraising events. “And you can’t.”
In Watts’s second term, as people start to expect more of the promises she’s made to turn Surrey from Cinderella into princess, those kinds of vulnerabilities could leave her open to problems. But for now, she’s riding high in public popularity and exudes confidence about what she’s going to do next, in spite of the economic downturn and the recent blows Surrey has suffered with condo-project fires and construction freezes. It’s a long list: an economic-development task force, more work to create neighbourhood identities (Cloverdale is the new Robson, in case you didn’t know), more housing for the homeless, action on the new sustainability plan, fighting for better transit and light rail for Surrey-all part of making this much-mocked (you could even say abused) municipality into a real place.
When Dianne Watts won the mayoral election in 2005, the Kinsellas were at McCallum’s victory party like everybody. As it turned out, Watts was one of several B.C. women who defeated sitting male mayors that year (Pam Goldsmith-Jones in West Vancouver, Sharon Shepherd in Kelowna, Maxine Wilson in Coquitlam), but many thought hers would be a short-lived blip further curtailed by the steep learning curve she faced at City Hall. As a councillor, she was knowledgeable about policing but not about a lot of the development and economic issues that McCallum had controlled in a tight partnership with his city manager (who resigned immediately after the election).
Watts persisted, however, thanks perhaps to skills learned in a political life that extended back a dozen years. In 1996, Watts, who had worked as a credit manager and a materials consultant for an architecture firm during her 20s and early 30s, was a stay-at-home mother with two young children renowned for her perfectionist drive to get things done right, even when it came to wrapping presents.
Her husband’s family is from what could be called, if there were such a thing, the old old Surrey. They had a plastics factory for 30 years and counted onetime Social Credit premier Rita Johnston as a friend. Brian Watts grew up with campaigning as a family activity and, between that and her own abilities, Dianne Watts got recruited as the campaign organizer for family friend Bonnie McKinnon in 1996. McKinnon won the battle to become the Liberal MLA against an incumbent, and in the process Watts impressed enough people to be asked to run for city council with McCallum’s Surrey Electors Team. To the surprise of many, she won-spurred on after one campaign organizer told her that she didn’t have a chance and was only a placeholder candidate. “I just threw myself into making sure I was going to win,” she says, still visibly annoyed.
She quickly developed into an energetic councillor with strong interests in public safety, homelessness, and abused women. But it was immediately obvious that she was not comfortable working with McCallum. And after the two got into a dispute over his criticism of the RCMP, he removed her from every committee she was on; in response, she left the party in 2003 and sat as an independent, effectively ostracized at council and in the city. When 2005 rolled around, she decided to run against McCallum directly, figuring that, win or lose, at least she wouldn’t have to work with him after the election.
Watts hasn’t hesitated to label McCallum’s efforts to control and then punish her as bullying. She’s in a position to know. She was not an assertive girl, she says. Her stepfather, a lawyer now retired, was the kind of man who was very much in charge of the household. Watts says she didn’t even know how to make a decision when she was a teenager, because she’d never been allowed to make one. And at Mount Pleasant Elementary School and Templeton High School in Vancouver, the awkward girl in glasses and homemade clothes was bullied verbally and physically.
She married, at 18, a year after graduating from Kelowna Secondary School. At 20, she ended up in a Kelowna hospital after months of stress and physical assaults by her then husband, who used to hit her in the stomach. Something came over her as she lay in bed. “I remember feeling this incredible inner strength. I had no explanation, but I could just feel it in my body. It was a physical feeling and so overpowering. I’ll never forget it. I remember laying there and thinking, ‘I’m not going to allow anybody ever to do that to me again.’ ”
She left the hospital shortly after, left her marriage, left Kelowna, and, after a few years in Vancouver, left Canada. She took off on a boat to Australia, worked and backpacked around the world, and didn’t come back until the late 1980s.
Along the way, she remade herself from the shy, dominated girl she’d been into who she is today and found herself drawn to Buddhist philosophy, something she still relies on. Her children have been taught not to crush bugs. Brenda Kinsella has a vivid memory of Watts at a golf tournament teaching the rambunctious boys there how to trap and remove wasps without killing them. “Compassion is a huge part of the Buddhist practice,” says Watts, who keeps a statue of the female Buddha of compassion in her office, a legacy of the decade she spent on her own.
Our tour comes to an end. Back at her house, Watts takes a moment on the front lawn with one of her dogs. Apollo is one of the many animals she has adopted or fostered from organizations like Boxer Rescue and the SPCA. The once-abused animal tears around the lit-up patch of green, running excited circles around Her Worship. Watts stands for a few minutes under the night sky, alone with her thoughts. Then, Apollo in tow, she heads inside for another meeting.