Deb Kozak (centre) learns preliminary results from scrutineer John Alton.

COLUMN: Impressions from Nelson’s historic mayor’s race

City of Nelson: Greg Nesteroff looks at Deb Kozak’s victory, including what role Sensible BC may have played.

Stunning. Impressive. Historic.

Those are just a few adjectives to describe Deb Kozak’s upset win Saturday in knocking off three-time incumbent Nelson mayor John Dooley. I was among those guessing Dooley would be unstoppable, given a lack of polarizing issues in the campaign.

The mayoral race was instead about “leadership style.” While some on council were clearly dissatisfied with Dooley at the helm, I never got the same sense from the community at large.

Early on, I speculated Pat Severyn’s candidacy would benefit Kozak by drawing away votes that would otherwise go to Dooley, but as the campaign progressed I began to think the opposite would be true, as Severyn and Kozak seemed to be singing from the same song sheet.

Severyn was asked many times why, given his lack of political experience, he didn’t seek a council seat. He spelled it out a little more clearly for us on election night: he ran for mayor in part because he couldn’t stomach the idea of serving on council under Dooley.

Having knocked off six other contenders in three previous elections, I figured Dooley would brush off his challengers yet again, even if the race was much closer. Wrong!

Oddly, Severyn and Dooley both took consolation from Kozak’s victory: Severyn was happy Dooley didn’t win and Dooley was happy Severyn didn’t win.

On election night, Dooley also spoke of a personal tragedy that some in the community were aware of, but others weren’t: he was grieving the loss of his only brother, Frank, who died in Lethbridge on November 6 after a serious fall.

Dooley deserves much credit and gratitude for his years of service — nine as mayor and six as a councillor. Congratulations to mayor-elect Kozak, and thanks to outgoing mayor Dooley.

ENDORSEMENT CHECK: Dooley amassed an impressive number of endorsements from all walks of life — 19 were included in his four-page campaign flyer.

The most eye-opening, perhaps, were those of retired Nelson police chief Dan Maluta and retired Sgt. Howie Grant, who might otherwise have been expected to support their ex-colleague Severyn.

(Severyn said some of his former co-workers were prepared to endorse him, but they lived outside city limits and he figured testimonials should only come from residents of Nelson proper.)

Severyn did have the backing of CUPE BC, however.

Kozak, meanwhile, had on-the-record support from Golden mayor Christina Benty, singer/actress Pat Henman, climate change scientist Dr. Mel Reasoner, outgoing Nelson councillor Paula Kiss, Elkford councillor Ken Wildeman, rural Kaslo regional director Andy Shadrack, ALP-S CEO Eric Veilleut — and Sensible BC, a group pushing for marijuana law reform.

Nelson was one of seven cities where the latter endorsed candidates, but the only one outside the Lower Mainland. (They also gave their seal of approval to council hopefuls Robin Cherbo, Michael Dailly, Charles Jeanes, Jason Peil, Brian Shields, and Valerie Warmington.)

While some might say municipalities have little control over marijuana laws, Sensible BC’s Dana Larsen suggests the mayor and council can have a “huge impact” on local law enforcement priorities, and pointed to the number of pot possession charges laid in Nelson before and after Dooley became mayor. (The trend has been upward since 2007, although whether that’s really his influence, I can’t say.)

The infamous 2012 council meeting where Dooley let out a surprising tirade against the Stop the Violence BC campaign, which has similar goals to Sensible BC, was clearly a low point of the last term. It was tempered somewhat by the fact Dooley later supported the Union of BC Municipalities’ call for decriminalization.

But Sensible BC remained wary of him. When Kozak and Severyn both said they supported a different approach to cannabis, the group did a phone poll.

“We called every land line in Nelson with a recorded message asking who they planned on voting for,” Larsen said. While the results weren’t scientific, they received 377 responses and found 30.5 per cent supported Dooley, 24 per cent supported Kozak, and 16 per cent were behind Severyn. That left about 30 per cent undecided.

Figuring Kozak stood the best chance at defeating Dooley, Larsen pledged that “our team will be working the phone bank all week, pushing our people to vote for Deb Kozak.”

Larsen said he was “very pleased” with the election’s outcome. “Sensible BC put quite a bit of effort into supporting Deb Kozak’s campaign. We’re thrilled to see her replace John Dooley as mayor.”

How much influence the group actually had we’ll never know, although Dooley believes it was a factor. Was it enough to account for the 281-vote difference?

HIGHER CALLING: If she hadn’t run for mayor, Kozak might have sought to represent us in Ottawa. She revealed during the mayor’s forum last week that she considered running federally for the NDP or Liberals. Either party would have been lucky to have her, as it will be an uphill fight against David Wilks in the Conservative stronghold of Kootenay-Columbia.

FAMOUS FIRST: As a measure of what Kozak accomplished Saturday: Nelson incorporated in 1897. Women were allowed to run and vote in municipal elections in BC beginning in 1918. Annie Garland Foster was the first woman elected to Nelson council in 1920. She ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1922.

Other women who have since run for mayor include Edith Van Maarion, Sharon Heflin, Sandra Laine, Susanne Raschdorf, Donna Macdonald, Nicole Marek, Judy Harris, and Marianne Bond. (My list may be incomplete.) While Macdonald came closest, none pulled it off until Kozak.

After 117 years — or 96, depending on how you look at it — Nelson finally removes itself from a dwindling and somewhat embarrassing list of West Kootenay communities that have never elected a woman as mayor. Only Trail and Warfield are left, although there was encouraging news on both fronts this election: for the first time, three women have been elected to Trail council at once, and for the second time, a woman topped the polls.

Only one woman ran for Warfield council, but she also led the pack.

FULL COUNT: Three years ago, when Nelson first used vote counting machines, results were in within half an hour of polls closing. This time it took over two hours.

Word of Kozak’s win came much sooner, though, thanks to her scrutineer. Her celebration was well underway and Dooley and Severyn had long since congratulated her by the time tallies were actually posted online.

Kaslo, where the count is still done by hand, was a bit of a straggler compared to most. Its results weren’t available until around 1 a.m. But that was nothing on Salmo, which didn’t produce semi-official numbers until about 10 a.m. Sunday, the last place in BC to do so.

TURNOUT TALES: Nelson’s election turnout appears to have been about 51 per cent. (I say “appears” because the final tally isn’t in.) That’s better than the 33 per cent in 2011, but still not particularly impressive.

Kaslo’s turnout was 61.7 per cent, Salmo’s was 57.6, and Slocan’s was 44.6.

In the Regional District of Central Kootenay, the highest turnout was in Area D (Rural Kaslo) at 60 per cent, not counting the Riondel referendum in which 66 per cent cast ballots.

In descending order from there: Area E (Rural Nelson) 40 per cent; Area F (Rural Nelson) 29.5 per cent; Area J (Lower Arrow-Columbia) 25 per cent; Area G (Rural Salmo) 23 per cent; and Area B (Rural Creston) 22 per cent.

Highest turnout in West Kootenay/Boundary for the second straight election was Greenwood: 70 per cent this time and last. Rossland, where outraged citizens flocked to the polls, was at 62.4 per cent, up from 37 per cent in 2011.

Lowest turnout was Fruitvale: 22.6 per cent, where there was no mayor’s race and only five candidates for four council seats.

NECK-AND-NECK: Closest races in West Kootenay/Boundary: Rossland and Greenwood.

In Rossland, there was a tie for the sixth and final council seat, necessitating a recount to break the deadlock.

In Greenwood, four votes separated third from fifth place in the council race (only the top four are elected) while the mayor’s race was decided by 17 votes — a landslide compared to 2011, when the margin was four.

Highest vote total: Anna Purcell in Nelson, with 2,424. Although she was “completely shocked” at that outcome, I wasn’t. My impression was that she campaigned the hardest, both online and on the street.

Lowest vote total: well, you can find it for yourself online. Let’s just say it’s in the single digits.

THE JP VOTE: Star reporter Will Johnson notes three Nelson council candidates had the same initials: Justin Pelant, John Paolozzi, and Jason Peil. They finished seventh, eighth, and ninth respectively. Did anyone intend to vote for one (or two) of them but fill in the wrong oval?

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