By Jack Knox, Victoria Times Colonist, 12 November 2005
So, for a moment I think I’m in that Star Trek episode with the parallel universe, where everyone has an alter ego and the good Kirk ends up duking it out with the bad.
Here’s Victoria Mayor Allan Lowe’s platform, and it sounds like something you’d get from the NDP: sewage treatment, a safe- injection site, a green and sustainableVictoria, expanded transit. Next thing you know, we’ll see him light up a big, fat doobie while wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and chanting “No blood for oil!” at the Pride Parade.
Then comes a release from Lowe’s main rival, the Victoria Civic Electors’ Ben Isitt, accusing the mayor of insulting veterans by selling the Memorial Arena name to Save-On Foods. Makes the left- leaning Isitt sound like Preston Manning, the guy he used to harangue from the sidewalk. Next thing you know, Ben will be hiking his pants up around his waist, grousing about gun control and property taxes and demanding capital punishment for the French.
This is what politicians do during a campaign: fish for votes in each other’s pond, tilt in the relative direction of their rivals. It’s not a matter of hypocrisy, just of highlighting certain positions.
Isitt insists the Memorial Arena statement wasn’t a matter of political opportunism. “It wasn’t just me giving the veterans lip service.” Still, he acknowledges the need to sell himself to a broad range of voters, to soothe those made nervous by his activist past.
In the years prior to the 2002 municipal election, which he lost to Lowe, Isitt was a fixture of the protest scene. He saw more demos than a car lot, rallying against everything from the bombing ofIraqto the city’s anti-panhandling law. He was in a couple of raucous confrontations with the right-wing Canadian Free Speech League and the Western Canada Concept, a couple of noisy anti-Reform rallies when Manning came to town. He waded into the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, marched on Government House when the first Liberal cabinet took the oath in 2001. The next year found him on the legislature lawn, huddled around a burn barrel at theCampCampbelltent city that he helped organize.
Isitt doesn’t back away from any of this, argues that vigorous — though non-violent — protest has its place. Still, he cringes at the memory of election night three years ago, when a few minutes after he graciously conceded defeat to Lowe, a bunch of Isitt’s rowdier supporters invaded the mayor’s victory party.
“That was ridiculous,” Isitt says, adding that he didn’t know it was going to happen, and you won’t see it happen again. It took place, he noted, during his transition from street activism to electoral politics.
This is what he has to convince people of, that the transition is complete, that today’s neat haircut, blue blazer and tie aren’t just a vote-getting disguise.
It’s not an act, he says. He’s 27 now, married, has a mortgage, figures he has matured. He still has the same goals, but a different way of getting there. He spends more time as policy director of the New Democratic Youth of Canada than he does with a picket sign in hand.
“I think I’m embracing a more realistic approach to politics while retaining my commitment to progressive ideals.” The tie may stay on when he’s door-knocking in well-heeledFairfieldand come off in less-affluent Burnside-Gorge, but the message stays the same. “It’s the same set of issues, but your language varies.”
“We’re trying to appeal to the centre of the spectrum,” he acknowledges.
Part of that is the jacket and tie. “Voters have a right to expect that I’ll conduct myself in a responsible and professional manner.” He has to persuade voters that he’s ready to make the leap from university-based activist to mayor of the capital city. He’s not just the protest vote any more.
Three years ago, Isitt ran as an independent — the VCE had decided Lowe was unbeatable — and got a third of the vote by campaigning not against the mayor, but against the Campbell Liberals.
This time Isitt has the advantage of running under the VCE banner — albeit with lukewarm support from the party brass and out of a different office than that of the VCE’s councillor candidates — but is challenging Lowe, notCampbell. The latter shift brings its own challenge, it being easier to paint Campbell as a right-wing bogeyman than Lowe. Isitt claims credit for moving the latter to the left, but that still leaves them fishing in the same pond.