The Candidate: A council hopeful deals with fear, despair, hope and loss in pursuit of voters

Behind the scenes of the emotional ups and downs of a would-be Abbotsford councillor’s campaign

It’s the eve of October’s municipal election, and an Abbotsford council candidate is standing in his driveway holding a single piece of paper plucked from a mysterious envelope.

There is no return address on the envelope, and no other indication of who may have mailed it. The paper bears the list of names of council and school trustee candidates whom the sender has proclaimed should be elected. Those endorsed seem to have no one thing in common, save, maybe, for a general reasonableness.

Aird Flavelle hands over the paper with a puzzled look on his face. Among the names on the paper is Flavelle’s own. He has a million questions – including the general ethics of such anonymous mailers. But he also finds it impossible to ignore the possibility that his inclusion on the list could – emphasis on the word “could” – signal that this election is going to turn out much better than that of 2014, 2011 and 2008.

A month or so earlier, a reporter had asked Flavelle if he could track his progress through the campaign to learn about the mental ups and downs of campaigning for office. Flavelle was a perfect subject: he had run in each municipal election since 2008, is the only member of the public to regularly attend public committee meetings and is gregarious, open and self-aware.

One other aspect made him a good subject: If the past was any indication, he probably wasn’t going to win a seat, a fact that would hopefully encourage the subject to remain candid after polls closed.

Flavelle’s vote count has fluctuated over the years. In 2008, he campaigned hard, raised money and garnered around 3,200 votes. Bruised, when he ran again three years later he did so on his own dime.

“I was too embarrassed to ask anybody to help me,” he remembers.

That year, in 2011, buoyed by his opposition to the P3 water project and, he thinks, a front-page photo in The News of him holding a sprinkler and talking about water conservation, Flavelle did much better. He appeared on 6,000 ballots – still thousands short of the 9,500 needed for election, but three times as much as he’d get three years later.

His most recent swing at municipal office, in 2014, did not go so well.

Flavelle had become an outspoken and passionate environmentalist after a pair of flights turned his attention to the degradation of the Fraser Valley’s airshed and the province’s forests. (He has run provincially for the Green Party in the last two elections.) He had come to the cause with a newfound fervor, and had the idea of forming a “Green” slate for that year’s municipal election.

They got walloped: in an election with 30 council candidates, Flavelle finished 28th, with just 2,000 votes. His fellow Greens did only slightly better.

“It was a disaster,” he says four years later. “Just a disaster.”

• • • • •

Still, Flavelle’s dream of having a council vote does not easily die.

Having sold his successful IT business and ventured into semi-retirement and dedicated volunteerism, Flavelle decided a decade ago that if he wanted to run for council, he should act like a councillor and know as much as a councillor. That meant putting on a suit and attending nearly every city meeting and event open to the public.

The unique electoral strategy – one enabled by having a grown son and a wife, Sheila, with her own causes – has been continuous. It has brought with it a depth of knowledge equalled by few others, along with the feeling that he’s left a tangible impact on Abbotsford. He knows that a stretch of bike lane exists because he suggested it to a city staffer at an open house. He regularly explains city policy to concerned, and sometimes angry, friends and fellow residents. And he can chat amiably with councillors and the mayor. Indeed, some people think he’s already a councillor.

“After every election,” Flavelle says, “Sheila gets calls from people who say, ‘And your husband: Was he re-elected?’”

But Flavelle, like other would-be candidates, doesn’t just want the voice of a super-engaged citizen; he wants the vote of an elected representative.

In September, Flavelle sits at a table outside his comfortable home on Horn Street, flanked by huge trees, but buzzed by the sound of nearby Maclure Road.

Flavelle finds all the city hall meetings fascinating (even as he is the only person present not obligated by their job to attend). But he links his attendance directly to his goal of attaining elected office.

“I learn something every single meeting I go to – cool stuff, interesting stuff that, should I ever be elected, will make me wonderfully useful,” he says. “I’m not afraid of debates, I’m not afraid of media interviews, I’m not afraid of bullies … because I know what I’m talking about and I know the only people who know more than me are city councillors and staff.”

If Flavelle loses this October, nothing changes. If he wins, he’ll need to be at city hall a little bit more, but will get a “key to the back door.”

But, he says: “If I don’t run, what becomes of me? That’s a life-changing possibility,” he says. “What does one do when one gets up in the morning?”

So Flavelle will run.

• • • • •

Before every campaign, Candidate Flavelle tries to figure out how to get those 9,500 or so votes that you usually need to win a seat. This time, he has created a platform, a story and a slogan – “Development With a Heart” – that he hopes will appeal to those who want to create a city that can retain its young people. The issue is top of mind because Flavelle’s own son moved away from Abbotsford for his job, as did one of his former employees.

His platform leans heavily on the urbanist ideas contained in Abbotsford’s official community plan, but which Flavelle worries won’t actually become a reality given current spending priorities. But that platform brings a big question: just how receptive will car-dependent Abbotsford residents be to the idea that the city should spend dramatically less on infrastructure for motor vehicles and significantly more on things like transit and bike lanes? In other words, is the lack of transit and cycling funding Flavelle decries simply a political necessity in Abbotsford?

Like many other candidates, Flavelle has a personal team of advisers and supporters. But local politics are delicate and campaigns can become personal. And so, like many of those other candidates, when it comes to appearances and the public campaign, Flavelle strikes a lonely figure, with those advising him all seeking to keep their involvement mum.

“Many people don’t wear their politics on their sleeves,” he says. “They don’t order a lawn sign, but they might be your biggest financial supporter or your biggest moral supporter; they don’t want the world to know who they vote for or why they vote – it’s their own private business.”

• • • • •

It is clear early on that winning a seat isn’t going to be easy for any non-incumbents this year. Seven current councillors are campaigning to keep their seats, leaving just one vacant position. And with few recent polarizing events, there hasn’t been the outcry of the type often needed to sweep multiple councillors out of office.

That open seat, then, will be a hot property, especially with the Abbotsford First slate aiming to fill it with a fifth candidate of their own. And Flavelle has crunched the numbers. He knows he doesn’t have any single major base of support. To win, everything will need to go right. He also knows that his association with the Greens will hinder his ability to connect with voters who think of environmentalists as “tree-hugging hippies.”

Everything only gets more difficult on the last day for nominations when former mayor Bruce Banman – a figure with political connections and name recognition that Flavelle can only dream of – submits papers to run for a council seat.

The campaign hasn’t even officially begun, but already stresses are multiplying, with paperwork, campaign rules and now questionnaires all exacting a mental toll.

“I’m terrified about getting it right,” Flavelle says about the challenge of simply following all the proper protocols. “I find myself deep breathing a couple times a day.”

There are also the personal worries about the campaign to come, a subject Flavelle will return to over the ensuing month. He once took a personality test, and was told by the person administering it that people like him are deeply afraid of not being liked.

“I’m always afraid of being attacked by people who don’t agree with my ideas and I don’t appreciate confrontation, so that doesn’t suit me either.”

• • • • •

Once the campaign starts, Flavelle gets into his rhythm. He fills out questionnaires, meets with interest groups and engages in all-candidates meetings hosted by an array of different groups. A decade after his first campaign, Flavelle is still using some of his old signs, and they start to go up with new stickers bearing this year’s “Development With a Heart” slogan.

This campaign, like his last, will be self-financed, with a couple thousand dollars from the Flavelles paying for signs and a smattering of ads.

And while Flavelle remains focused on his message, other candidates become embroiled in personal battles. The relationship between mayoral candidates Moe Gill and Henry Braun spirals downwards, as the former floats suggestions of ambiguous misdeeds at city hall. And the Abbotsford First slate comes under increasing attack from those not-aligned with the local party.

By early October, the tone of the campaign conversation has left Flavelle visibly upset.

“Amongst my personal friends, they say, ‘How are you doing?’ and my standard response these days is: ‘I hate politics.’”

Words he once heard Lynn Harris speak echo in his mind.

“I do take it personally. I don’t have thick skin. I do take it home with me,” he says, paraphrasing the former Abbotsford councillor.

He continues:

“I see some of my friends getting beat up and some of my friends doing the beating up … The tough guys who don’t care will say ‘Well this is what you signed up for.’

“Well, no it’s not! Every one of them is a community volunteer. There’s not a single one up there that needs the money, and none of them need the pride or the prestige or the status.”

Flavelle would rather stick to the issues, but that’s also not always politically safe territory. On Oct. 13, The News publishes its Voters Guide, which lays out candidates’ positions on various issues. One of those issues is highway widening; of 24 mayoral and council candidates, only Flavelle and Gerda Peachey suggest they didn’t want to see the highway grow.

Flavelle knows his contrarian take – one that is identified as such in the paper – isn’t going to help him on election day.

“It’s going to affect me negatively for sure. I’ll lose a bunch of the conservative vote that might have been drifting my way a little bit.”

He is assailed on social media, and tries to make his argument that more highway will just bring more cars.

But mental exhaustion is also creeping. Even a municipal politics junkie can have too much municipal politics, and it starts to feel like there is no refuge where the election, and his participation in it, is not a subject of conversation.

“There’s no relief; you’re on 24/7,” he will later say.

Throughout, Sheila is his saviour, cooking meals, waving signs and sometimes just not talking politics.

“I picked a good one,” he will say later, when asked what he learned over the past couple months.

Sheila, sitting nearby, pipes up, in mock incredulity: “After all the elections, you finally learned?”

• • • • •

Campaigns can push men and women to ask themselves just what they are willing to do to get elected.

Over the span of months, mayoral candidate Eric Nyvall has been knocking on thousands of doors. It’s an electoral strategy that Flavelle says might be the only way for someone without an established base of support to get elected municipally.

It’s also an undertaking one that Flavelle –a man who has spent countless hours attending the most mundane of city committee meetings – just can’t bring himself to do again. Flavelle did it once before.

He said “soul-sucking” is an apt description for the exercise.

So Flavelle may run, but he won’t be the one who knocks.

Everything has not gone perfectly, but Flavelle is increasingly optimistic. More than in previous campaigns, he is feeling noticed, acknowledged and appreciated by people who he hadn’t considered potential supporters.

On top of that, there is uncertainty about voters’ feelings towards Abbotsford First. The slate’s councillors are, individually, strong. But the idea of a municipal political party has become the subject of substantial criticism. If a mass of voters abandon the slate, there is a possibility – not a likelihood, but at least a chance – that Flavelle could be someone deemed reasonable enough to deserve a seat.

The day before the election, with little left to do, Flavelle leans back in a chair in his driveway and says he feels more confident in the possibility of winning than he did two months ago.

“I have people I wouldn’t expect are continuously liking my Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. It seems to me I’m getting more rounded support than other times. But I probably know 3,000 people … but that’s not enough to get elected, so I might be overly optimistic.”

• • • • •

The next evening, Flavelle stands in his living room, watches the results come in, and sees – like 10 other candidates – that he will not be a councillor for the City of Abbotsford. By the time all ballots are counted, he will have received 5,410 votes.

“I’ve lost an awful lot of elections so I don’t keep my hopes too high,” he says. “Tonight was the first time that I really thought there was a high probability that I might gain office but, when I didn’t, I’ve been there so many times before, it’s OK. All I’m trying to do is help the community.”

This story would not be one of triumph after years of defeat. It would be one of a defeat after a defeat.

And Flavelle’s thoughts quickly turn to the future – and whether this municipal election could have been his last.

Flavelle will be 69 when the next election rolls around in four years. If he could win then, he would be on council at the age of 73. He would be inclined to run in four years, but he knows that might not be an option.

“I’m worried that I might have aged out of the system,” he says.

For the moment, though, those melancholy questions are taking a backseat. Flavelle is still smiling, and after a municipal campaign with a rough edge, he is feeling particularly happy about not engaging in some of the negative personal spats that cropped up.

He still won’t have a vote, and still won’t be able to opine every second week at council, but he says he has finished the election with a louder voice and stronger relationships.

“I can still pursue my 10-year agenda of trying to effect change from an unelected position,” he says. “The doors are still open.”

And that will have to be enough for now.

RELATED: Flavelle to run for council

RELATED: Election results


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tolsen@abbynews.com

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