In my long association with the Advance, I have come up against politicians of all stripes in local, provincial and federal arenas. It goes with the territory, especially as an opinion columnist.
One of my few—I hesitate to even use the word—heroes was long-time mayor Lela Irvine. I met Lela earlier in my career here, and we had something in common. She was a huge Progressive Conservative supporter and I had been working for the same party in Alberta since I was 15. Even so, when she became mayor I often got a call from her shortly after the paper arrived on her doorstep. If it was about politics she wanted to chat about it, and if she disagreed with something, I was going to hear about it.
The relationship was warm until I took exception to what I believed (and still do) to be a serious error in judgment. She didn’t give me the time of day for a couple of years, but I wasn’t reporting the news at that time and it didn’t directly affect my work. I continued to refer to her as the best small-town mayor in BC. Then one day the freeze-out was over and nary a word was ever spoken about it. After Lela died, her husband Bill came to my office and gave me the Paul Harris Fellow medal and pin that the Creston Rotary Club had presented to her years earlier. “Our family wants you to have this,” he said.
After the Gordon Campbell Liberal government was elected in 2001 our local MLA was Nelson’s Blair Suffredine, a well-known lawyer. Campbell was on a mission to slash spending and break union contracts, and I routinely took Suffredine to task about representing his government to Creston and not vice versa. I went so far as cheekily declare him persona non grata in the Creston Valley. He was defeated in the next election, and I sent a message to him thanking him for his service. We had a good chat and since, on the rare occasions that we have met, our relationship has been amicable.
I had fewer issues with MP Jim Abbott, even though the shift from Progressive Conservative to Reform-style Conservative made us polar opposites. But I admired Abbott for his dedicated effort to represent this huge constituency, and for his ability to not make politics personal. One of the low points of my career as a journalist came when I yelled at him on the phone about something that Prime Minister Harper was doing. “I am embarrassed to be a Canadian,” I said before hanging up. The next day I called to apologize and he was much more gentle and understanding than I deserved.
Jim calls to chat occasionally, which always makes my day, and earlier this month he called to invite me for a coffee when he came into town that day. “Nothing about politics,” he said. “Just to chat.” We met for a half hour, caught each other up on our lives and families, and I left feeling that this is what we should aspire to—disagreements are fine, but extending them into our personal lives is less than civilized.
Those stories bring me to the present, and what has become an ugly and divisive campaign, focused largely on the fire hall referendum issue. It started during the run-up to the first referendum and it has gotten worse by the day since. To be clear, I am not tarring the candidates who want the referendum to be defeated with the same brush. Much of the ugliness comes from the behind the scenes shadowy people who make outrageous statements and claims from the comfort of their homes, and who do not put themselves before the public very often. They manipulate information, skew data and promote fear through social media, where there is no standard for fact or decency. When I decline to print a letter to the editor because of legal concerns, I have occasionally recommended the writer to Facebook, which is the modern Wild West.
Not that these folks wrote the book on falsehoods and fear-mongering. It has been used in previous referendums, but usually as a last-minute drop of mail-outs. In the last year, this crew has made a great effort to divide and conquer, and we now have friends and neighbours in verbal battle instead of civil discourse. If the candidates opposing the referendum were genuinely interested in building a new fire hall they could have asked voters to pass the referendum, which only defines the upper limits of borrowing and term, but to elect them, trusting they can bring the project in well below those limits.
In a chat with my boss earlier this week I told him that for the first time in my career I am actually wondering about my personal safety. Given the direction politics has taken in other jurisdictions in recent years, that’s become an all too common worry. I wish I had a solution. And no, that does not mean just shutting up and walking away.