Not all municipal politicians looking for a bigger stage
Premier Kathy Dunderdale
When Premier Kathy Dunderdale ran for a seat on Burin’s town council in the mid 1980s, it wasn’t because she wanted to eventually sit in the House of Assembly.
“No, not at all,” Dunderdale told The Telegram in a recent interview.
At the time she was involved in the community as chairwoman of the school board and on an action committee fighting to save the town’s fishplant.
When municipal elections were called Dunderdale decided to put her experience to work.
“It was almost a natural progression for me to stay engaged in the community,” she said.
Dunderdale spent two terms on council while also working behind the scenes for the provincial and federal PC parties.
In 1993, she took a leave of absence to run provincially, though at the time she knew she wouldn’t be elected.
After an unsuccessful bid to become mayor of Burin, Dunderdale kept her political involvement in the back room.
“All through that period of time, I didn’t have much intention (of running again, although I) knew that I loved the campaigning,” she said.
In 2003, Dunderdale was elected to the House, and was named to cabinet. In late 2010 she replaced Danny Williams as Tory leader and premier.
But for her, politics has always been about serving the community as opposed to personal ambition.
That being said, Dunderdale agrees municipal politics is often a training ground for those who want to move up the political food chain.
St. John’s Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff notes municipal politics is also a fertile recruiting ground for provincial and federal parties looking for candidates whose names are known.
“I was heavily recruited, as many people are, by both the federal and provincial governments, from both major parties,” Duff said.
“You see them focusing on people who are getting a profile municipally.”
Duff was first elected to St. John’s city council in 1977.
After a decade or so, Duff accepted former premier Brian Peckford’s offer to run in a byelection in St. John’s East.
While she lost, she did win the seat in the next general election in 1989, however the Tories were sent across the floor — from government to opposition.
Duff said that didn’t suit her personality. She was named health critic for the party, but found it challenging to have to toe the line. Her job was to poke holes in policies she sometimes would have otherwise supported.
“I’m in politics ... to get things to happen and I’m inclined to be an optimist and a positive person,” she said. “To be in a position where your job is to be constantly critical really didn’t suit me. I was not comfortable with it.”
About a year and a half later, Duff resigned her seat in the House to run for mayor of St. John’s.
After a single term as mayor, she was defeated in 1993 following a “nasty” 100-day strike by city workers.
But four years later, she was voted back on council, winning an at-large seat which she held until being elected deputy mayor in 2009.
“I do really like municipal politics,” said Duff.
Though she considers it a tougher job, it’s also more direct and less bureaucratic than other levels of government.
Duff said while provincial policies often take years to come into effect — after being studied, developed, debated and implemented — at the municipal level ideas can become policy much more quickly.
But she knows many who run for city and town councils do so with the House of Assembly in their long-term sights, and she says there’s nothing wrong with that.
“You can almost tell, the way people handle themselves when they get into municipal (politics) if it is a stepping-stone or if it is something they’re likely to stay with,” Duff said. “(But) sometimes (people) find that municipal is a lot more interesting than they thought it would be.”
Mount Pearl Mayor Randy Simms has been contacted over the years by all three provincial parties to run for them. He’s also been courted by the federal NDP.
After the provincial Liberals became leaderless before the autumn election, Simms was one of the people it tried to get to replace Yvonne Jones.
“Having people involved in the political life of the province look at you and say, ‘You’d be a good candidate for us,’ ... is good for your ego if nothing else,” said Simms.
He’s not sure if he’d like provincial politics, but hasn’t completely ruled it out down the road.
“I can say that I love municipal politics,” Simms said. “It’s like good wine. The more that I’ve stayed at it, the more that I’ve been engaged in it (and) the more that I’ve learned about it, the more I’ve come to like it.”
Simms even went back to school to get a certificate of municipal adminstration from Memorial University after becoming a councillor.
“I think I may be the only elected guy ever to do that,” he said.
Like Dunderdale, Simms said it’s never been about ambition.
He said he never even envisioned himself as mayor.
“But other people have their ambitions and they move on and, all of a sudden, there you are,” he said.
“As long as we’ve had local government in our culture, I think a lot of people (have viewed) municipal politics very much as a stepping-stone, a training ground,” Simms continued. “A lot of people consider it the AHL, to use a hockey analogy.”
But Simms said he’s never viewed the council chamber as the farm team of the province, or Ottawa, even though the four mayors of Mount Pearl before him — Steve Kent, Dave Denine, Harvey Hodder and Julie Bettney — all ended up as MHAs.
“I’ve got a feeling I’m going to be the mayor that breaks the string,” he said.
This fall two members of council — Paul Lane and Paula Tessier — squared off for the Tory nomination in Mount Pearl South with Lane going on to be the city’s latest MHA.
But Simms said he’s having too much fun being a provincial pundit on the radio, in The Telegram and occasionally on TV.
He did say that starting a political career at the municipal level has its advantages.
Councillors, Simms said, learn how to make tough decisions.
He and Duff agree making the move from municipal to provincial politics is more of a lateral step than a promotion.