What Christy Clark Needs To Do Next

May 1, 2011

The smile. It's her defining characteristic. Christy Clark's Facebook page, her campaign material, every photo and video shows that smile, often so big that her eyes scrunch into black crescents. It hung in through her leadership campaign, as she bantered in scrums ("Where will I run for a seat? I've heard maybe Mr. Campbell is thinking of leaving politics") or joked in one-on-ones ("Look at these nails," she said to me a few hours before whupping Kevin Falcon for the leadership, holding out her hands). But on rare occasions, it faltered. A week before the leadership vote, Clark stood at her podium for the televised debate. Somber, cameras not yet on, she looked as haggard as German chancellor Angela Merkel. The deflation was undoubtedly due in part to the gruelling campaign, but it also provided a glimpse of another Clark, one that many will be trying to understand in coming months.

One thing she's not is Gordon Campbell. Where Campbell was distant and cool, she comes across as the best friend you never had. Over the last five years, she has urged me to stop acting like a girl and ask for better freelancer pay (a lesson she herself had to learn), passed on political gossip, exchanged information on renting basement suites, and reflected acidly on Campbell's habit of punishing the ambitious by transferring them to loser ministries. At rallies she didn't just look happy to see people, she launched into full-body hugs, dozens of them, and remembered details of past meetings and family connections. "The best retail politician I've ever seen" is a common phrase. "I'd compare her to Jean Chrétien," says someone who should know: ex-husband Mark Marissen. "She's a real politician-she enjoys relating to the average person."

She's been through all the bumps of her generation. Marrying, then separating. Juggling work and parenting with Marissen, with whom she shares custody of nine-year-old Hamish. Getting into an accident two years ago where she rear-ended another driver at Granville and 16th, a case the driver and ICBC are still haggling over in court. Enduring the sudden death of her father when she was 30, and the drawn-out death from brain cancer of her "lovely, gentle" mother 11 years later.

Succumb to the warmth and engagement, though, and you'll be blindsided by just how tough, how combative, how entrenched in political strategy she is-and always has been.

Mike Hillman remembers the first time he saw Christy Clark. Hillman, who would end up running a mayoral campaign for her almost 40 years later, was 18. She was three, toddling around her parents' split-level on Forglen Drive in Burnaby as her dad silkscreened lawn signs for the Pierre Trudeau campaign.

Jim Clark was a diehard Liberal (both federally and provincially) who unsuccessfully ran for the B.C. party three times. A guidance counsellor at Edmonds Junior Secondary in Burnaby, he imbued his four children with a sense of politics as an all-consuming activity. His wife was an equal force. Although Mavis Clark quit her job as a hospital dietitian to raise her children, she moved beyond that '50s cliché in later years. She founded Burnaby's first nonprofit daycare, cofounded the Burnaby Family Life Institute, and earned a grad degree in human behaviour from a college in Spokane before working as a marriage and family counsellor.

Christy would need that working-mother model, but not yet. She was high-energy and confident-"sassy," according to classmates at Burnaby South. She loved to argue; Fred Lepkin, a legendary teacher at the school, remembers her as one of the group who'd hang around after class wanting to keep it going.

Her passion for verbal jousting found an outlet in SFU student politics-a hothouse where she met many of those who surround her in the premier's office. Clark, who took off after high school to study French at the Sorbonne and religious studies at the University of Edinburgh, was never much of a scholar, but people remember her outsize personality in class; she already had more real-world political experience than even the profs. (She's also remembered for her chain-smoking, giant black glasses, shaggy blond hair, and a fashion style that more than one person described as frumpy.)

At the time, free trade was the topic of the day. She was against it. "The first time I saw Christy, she was in the hallway at the Liberal table. I stopped and we had a great chat," remembers Ted Olynyk, one of a group who formed the core of that era's young Liberals, along with UBC students Neil Sweeney, Kimball Kastelen, and Mike McDonald. "For some of us trying to find our political feet, she would help us understand what it all meant. She's a very deep thinker and she gets the big picture in the people sense." Mark Marissen, a poli-sci student from Carleton who'd come out to SFU for a year's adventure, walked past that same table and was instantly drawn in. "She was this larger-than-life character," he recalls. They soon started dating, maintaining a long-distance relationship for the next few years.

Clark ran for the student society. To win, she needed allies beyond her Liberal group. "She was tight with some pretty nasty people, very right-wing types like Kevin Falcon and Ryan Beedie," remembers Stephen Howard, who was on the council in 1988/89, when Clark became the only candidate from the Unity slate, backed by the young Socreds of the day as well as her pal Mike McDonald, who wrote an endorsement for her in the student paper: "Her forceful personality will intimidate the meek; she has no time for people who pontificate and don't produce." Howard, now with the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Ottawa, says she was notoriously tough, a fighter who never let up as the "lone right-winger" on the executive. "She could be very engaging, but it was seldom that her partisan mask came off."

The next year, Clark ran for president to challenge the long-dominant lefties and break away from the Canadian Federation of Students and its $100,000-a-year fees. She won by five votes but was ruled ineligible because she hadn't paid a fine on time for campaign posters left up at Harbour Centre. An outraged Kevin Falcon wrote the student paper, saying it was "simply a group of disgruntled socialists attempting to remove a democratically elected woman from office for their own partisan political gain."

University politics led to real-world campaigns. In the mid 1980s, the B.C. Liberal Party was a sad organization that hadn't elected a member since 1972. It comprised a few diehards-like Capilano College instructor Gordon Wilson, Richmond vice-principal Linda Reid, and bookstore owner Clive Tanner-who couldn't bear to join the Social Credit party.

Students like Clark and McDonald felt the same way. The two were put on a membership drive. Then, in October 1991, as the province headed for an election after the implosion of the Socreds, they were deployed on an unusual mission: find one person in every riding to stand as a Liberal candidate. Clive Tanner gave them his Chrysler Caravan and one of the era's primitive cellphones. He, too, remembers Clark as a sparkplug. "She was a very aggressive young woman, but I took that as dedication to what she believed in."

She and McDonald travelled around northern B.C., tracking down any known Liberals-in their homes, their offices, even their hot tubs, according to legend-and persuading them to run. That allowed the party to argue Gordon Wilson had the right to participate in the leaders' debate, which led to the rise of the new B.C. Liberal Party. To almost everyone's surprise, the Liberals won 17 seats and formed the Opposition to Mike Harcourt's NDP government.

Clark became one of a crew of hard-working, hard-partying young caucus researchers in the basement of the legislature. Even in that crowd (whose job included digging up dirt on the opponent), her tenacity and political savvy stood out. "She was definitely dogged," says Linda Reid, who hired her. "She left no stone unturned." In January 1993, the dirt came flying back-and it stuck. News of Wilson's affair with fellow MLA Judi Tyabji broke and his leadership of the Liberals dissolved.

Clark fled for Ottawa, joining Marissen and running the youth wing of the national election campaign for the federal Liberals, about to surge into a decade of power under Jean Chrétien. As always, people were struck by her vivid personality. "She had an amazing ability to cut through the tension and the BS," says Fred Gaspar, Clark's office helper at the time, now working with the National Capital Commission.

In Ottawa, Clark also got her first mention in a major newspaper-for a nasty and juvenile publication she and two others put out for the campaign. As the Globe and Mail reported: "Under ‘Eight infallible ways to relieve stress during a campaign,' the youthful Liberals suggest: ‘Tape pictures of your favorite Tories on watermelons and launch them from high places,' or ‘Stare at people through the tines of a fork and pretend they're in jail.' " Clark said they had actually taken the worst stuff out. The party apologized.

After Chrétien's 1993 victory, Clark got a job in the office of Transport Minister Doug Young, handling the "western desk" that is part of all federal departments. Within 18 months she made a bigger move. She and Marissen, the federal Liberal Party's young power couple, hosted an event for Gordon Campbell, the new leader of the B.C. Liberal Party. Impressed, he asked her to come back and run in the next B.C. election. She did, spending a year living with her parents and campaigning in Port Moody. She won by under 500 votes.

Clark quickly emerged as a star of the party, a pit bull who could be relied on to eviscerate her opponents. "She reminded me of Glen Clark and, to a lesser degree, Moe Sihota before her. They were all Young Turks-better than most of their peers-but that early success created problems," recalls Keith Baldrey, Global TV's legislative bureau chief. "On many occasions, they liked the political gamesmanship so much, they lost sight of policy-making."

She had already started cultivating a more professional look in Ottawa, and back in B.C. she adopted power suits and, after the death of her father-a smoker and a drinker-she stopped smoking. Over the next few years, she began to dye her hair and dropped a noticeable amount of weight. The August after her election, she passed another life milestone, marrying Marissen on Galiano Island. Many of Jim Clark's old friends from the Liberal Party were there. So was Gordon Campbell.

Clark's flair for battle was an advantage in Opposition, but her quick mouth and scrappiness, and her tendency to split the world into friends and enemies, seemed more problematic after the Liberals formed government in 2001 and she became education minister. Politicians who move from Opposition to government get a chance to show what they believe in, at last, and Clark tried a few initiatives-mandatory physical education; new rules to ensure parents could do as much volunteer work as they wanted in schools (something unions were wary of)-using arguments that were appealingly down-to-earth and personal. "We know that the single most important determinant of a child's educational success is parental involvement, so shouldn't we be welcoming parents into the school system?" But the hard-line side of her personality was what people remembered. Parents who got 14,000 names on a petition seeking more funding for public education are still bitter that she dismissed them as dupes of the B.C. Teachers' Federation and refused to meet. Even when Clark had a baby she got slammed. She outfitted a room attached to her Victoria office and hired a nanny for Hamish, all at her own expense, then was blasted in the media for setting up a nursery using tax dollars.

Campbell shifted her to the tough children and families ministry in 2004, a move she resisted vigorously. She saw it as a demotion, and nine months later announced she was leaving politics to spend time with her son. She was one of an ebb tide of MLAs who left after that first term, Liberals who didn't seem comfortable with the always tense Liberal/Conservative coalition that is the B.C. Liberal Party.

Searching for new challenges, Clark started guest-hosting on CKNW. In an interview a few months later, she admitted she was missing politics-the way you do a boyfriend you dumped. "In the first six months after you leave you still remember all the reasons why you left," she said. "And then a couple years down the road you're sitting alone at night by yourself in your living room, maybe into a glass of wine, and you're thinking, ‘God, that guy was great! I miss him so much!' And you pick up the phone and dial."

On August 31, 2005, she announced her bid to be the mayoral candidate for Vancouver's centre-right Non-Partisan Association. But she hadn't left herself much time and her opponent, Sam Sullivan, wasn't the helpless nebbish in a wheelchair her team might have expected. Sullivan's group-many of them federal Conservatives-claimed Clark and Marissen were taking over the party with instant sign-ups of federal Liberals. She lost by 64 votes.

So she spent a year writing columns for the Province, settling into the house she'd bought for the mayoral election, and researching preschools. Anglican by upbringing and practice, she scored Hamish a coveted spot at the Jewish Community Centre, then started hunting for elementary schools. Hamish ended up at a small Catholic school on the West Side rather than the public Simon Fraser Elementary a couple blocks from her house.

Finally, she got a full-time job at CKNW. Three years as a talk-show host changed her, she says: she learned to really listen. Her life changed again when Marissen moved out of the duplex they'd bought and into his own condo 14 blocks away. She and Hamish starting hanging out in the neighbourhood park. "She seemed a very unassuming and approachable person back then," says Zoran Popovic, a parent who frequented the same park. "Definitely not a person who contemplated a takeover of the world from the coziness of her gated community." She started attending church again, "a place of support without judgment," and got involved in Hamish's school, took him to baseball games. "He taught me patience, how to laugh, how not to sweat the small stuff," she says. "He's expanded my world by taking me to the skating rink and the soccer field and meeting other parents and connecting with their lives." She joined the board of Kits Neighbourhood House, where he went to after-school programs. "She was a tremendous support to us," says chair Andrew Lyons. She brought a different feel to board meetings, he says. "She picked up on everybody's needs in the room. She made sure there was time to hear everybody." He adds: "Meetings were just more lively and entertaining. She's just energy, energy, energy."

It's those qualities that attracted people desperately looking for a new kind of Liberal leader. Condo marketer Bob Rennie, one of the first to line up behind Clark, did so because he saw other Liberals, especially Falcon, as poisoned candidates. "They were Tylenol-somebody tampered with the cap. Clark was Aspirin. She wholesale changes the image of the party."

Mike McDonald, Clark's old friend and ally, and now her chief of staff, also believes she'll broaden the Liberals' appeal. "The most partisan types resist her, but she's got a lot of small-L liberals and small-C conservatives," he says. "And I think working women of her generation are really strong behind her." But can she broadcast that new image-mom, community activist, listener-with enough wattage to overcome those on both right and left who want to pin her past on her?

"She wasn't a moderate when she was in caucus," says NDP hard-hitter Adrian Dix. "In education, she was disruptive and she made the system worse." Pundit and HST-revolt organizer Bill Tieleman seems bent on keeping the BC Rail scandal attached to her name. "No one has suggested that Christy Clark did anything illegal, but the air has not been cleared," he says of her connections with various people linked to the mess: brother Bruce, campaign organizer Patrick Kinsella, and her ex-husband Marissen, whose former political ally Erik Bornmann was in it up to his ears.

Conservatives, meanwhile, see her as a diehard federal Liberal and her "families" platform as warmed-up Michael Ignatieff. Behind the scenes, they also mutter darkly about various atrocities her ex-husband supposedly committed against Conservatives and about her own attacks on Conservatives when she had the radio program.

The Conservative/Liberal antagonism, which often seems more gang warfare than philosophical dispute, is something Clark has had to navigate in her first weeks as premier; another is her public manner. The trick is to show her spontaneous warmth while resisting the nastiness, the frivolity, the off-the-cuff policy pronouncements. Even her diehard supporters say that's their main concern. "She's going to listen to her advisers. We had that conversation the day before I went public endorsing her," says Rennie, who took flak when he joined the team, one business type warning him that "the only thing she's ever finished is her marriage."

One change is already evident: now that Clark is premier, her charm is being closely apportioned. After the leadership win, her media sessions dried up. Her appearances have become a streak of smiles flashing by. Premier Mom at son's hockey game. Conservative-Friendly Premier-Elect with Stockwell Day. Premier Not-Campbell announcing higher minimum wage.

Not that signs of humanity have disappeared altogether. After one news conference, her cellphone rang as she waited for an elevator that would take her to more meetings, more calculated chess moves. Clark answered, listened, frowned. No, Hamish. You can't just not go to goalie practice. No. That's not on. I'm telling you, no.

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