Later this month former Nelson city councillor Donna Macdonald will release her memoir Surviving City Hall, which details her experiences in municipal politics, where she served under five different mayors: Gerald Rotering, Bill Ramsden, Gary Exner, Dave Elliott and John Dooley.
The Star sat down for breakfast at Vienna Cafe with Macdonald to hear more about her book, and to talk life post-politics.
I interviewed you on the night Deb Kozak was elected mayor in November 2014. I could tell it was an emotional experience for you, seeing Nelson elect its first female mayor. That was an outcome that surprised a lot of people. How do you feel, looking back on it now?
Well, it was an interesting night.
What surprised me was when the results started to come in and it became clear Deb was going to win, this huge wave of grief washed through me and lots of tears. I realized it was because I’d tried for that position twice before and hadn’t made it.
I felt badly, of course, but she was very gracious and reassured me I’d been an important colleague and someone who blazed the way with my years on council. I really appreciated that reaction from her.
I’m really happy Deb is our mayor. I’ve worked with her inside and outside politics for many years and she’s a good leader for Nelson. She’s warm and outgoing. I think we saw that in the campaign when the boys got into their boy fights — she would rise above it, be articulate and warm and level-headed.
It’s a difficult job. In some ways I’m really glad I didn’t get it. In Nelson there’s no slow times.
It’s 24-7, 364 days a year.
I imagine being a city councillor can be just as demanding. You’ve accomplished a lot over the years, but I understand it was often an uphill battle to be a left-leaning politician like yourself in this community. What did you derive from those experiences you most want to share?
You ask big questions!
Let me break it down: when I first ran for council in 1988, it marked a change. There had been a few left-leaning people before that, including Mayor Gerold Rotering, but there was a moment when all my activist friends were sitting around in a living room saying “here’s another election, who are we going to vote for?”
It was the same old business folks running and they didn’t represent us. They were like “someone should run!” So the finger started going around the room and everyone said no.
I didn’t say no fast enough, I guess.
What was your life situation at that point?
I was 39. I was with my husband, we had a nine-year-old daughter and we’d returned from a stint in Mozambique with CUSO. When we got back I really wanted to write about the whole experience because it’d been really deep and I took a writing course at Selkirk College.
I wrote a lot, children’s stories to sports stories to descriptive narratives. Through that I found a publisher and when I finished the program I got a job in Winlaw. So I was working there when I first ran and mostly doing that and having a family.
What was it like to first step into politics?
Well, Gerald Rotering is a very interesting person. He generated controversy easily and was quite outspoken.
When I decided to run he decided he would endorse three candidates. I was one of them, there was a well-known conservative businessman and a middle-of-the-road incumbent. He was trying to put out the message he wanted diversity on council.
It completely backfired, though, and everyone got angry and said they didn’t like being told how to vote. So I spent a lot of that campaign saying I wasn’t Gerald’s puppet, and wasn’t always going to agree with him.
The incumbent, who was very popular, topped the polls and I came second. It ended up being a quite diverse council. It was a perfect entrance for me because I was a very partisan person. I was very strict-minded and figured men in suits, I have nothing in common with them, but with Gerald’s non-partisan leadership we worked together quite well.
It was a model of how a local government should work.
Okay, so that’s when things were going well. But things didn’t always go well?
The next mayor was Bill Ramsden and he was a really gentle, middle-of-the road leader. It was after he resigned and Gary Exner was elected mayor that I met my nemesis.
We have a good relationship now and we joke about these things but he came from a very different place. He had, in my view, very old-fashioned views and a corporate approach to leadership. What he wanted and how he saw the world was how it was going to be. He was the mayor. It was very difficult for me. He marginalized me and this is when I started to question democracy and majority rules.
I was a councillor, I got lots of votes, but I had no voice or power.
He came in partway through a term, then there was an election in 1996 and that’s when I ran for mayor the first time. It was an intense time. We were getting negative press nationally for our dog bylaw and banning hacky sacking in the street. There was a lot of anger in the air.
A classic moment with Exner was when he was first elected and I talked to him about leadership and what I’d observed about Gerald. I told him when he was there, though he was a partisan person, he was there for the city.
I described how we sometimes reached compromises and had better discussions. I told Gary I would encourage him to do that. He said “how would I do that? I can’t call up every councillor and ask them their position on every item!”
I said “You need to listen and identify those possible compromises.”
He gave me this puzzled look and I realized it wasn’t going to work.
So what happened next?
Well, I ran against Gary in 1996 and lost but then there was a resignation so I came back as a councillor partway through that term.
In 1999 I ran against Gary again. It was pretty close but there were people who supported me who still said “maybe she’s not strong enough to be mayor, maybe that’s a man’s job.”
My mother said it to me bluntly: “Why are you running for mayor? That’s a man’s job!”
I obviously didn’t agree. I knew I could do a much better job than Gary. There were lawsuits against the city, there was dissension. It was a really rough time.
A lot of women would go through an experience like that and cave. Why didn’t you give in to the naysayers?
Well, the community was really getting ripped apart.
The political experience taught me to be open to other people’s needs and ideas and I just felt I had enough experience, I had people strongly supporting me and it was worth the try.
But running for mayor was hard. It really wore me out.
Yet you didn’t give up. After that you were on council for years.
I came back in 2002 and that was the Dave Elliott [era]. It was a hard term, a lot of hard work, and I got tired. I didn’t like the person I was becoming, being frustrated and angry.
I took some years off then came back for another six years.
With John Dooley.
Before I decided to run again, knowing John was running for mayor and was probably going to win, I decided to meet with him and lay my cards on the table.
I told him: I know we didn’t always agree when we were on council before and I asked him, I said “I want to know if there’s going to be a place for me at the table. Is it going to be like with Gary Exner, am I going to be marginalized?”
He said “No, of course there’s room for you at the table.” And for the most part he did honour that. I got to do some really great work in those six years.
His style wasn’t my favourite leadership style but for the most part I felt like I could accomplish what I wanted to accomplish on my portfolios.
I know affordable housing was a big thing for you. What else?
Arts and culture. Getting the Cultural Development Committee up and running. It had been in existence for a couple years but was really struggling. But with Stephanie Fischer’s amazing help we got it going.
Then climate change. Those were my three main focuses.
And what accomplishments are you most proud of?
Well, with arts and culture we see it in the streets on Baker every day. Obviously none of this I did myself, but getting the whole notion of beauty incorporated into public works. Making things beautiful. Trying to change that mindset with putting those wraps on the Nelson Hydro boxes and stuff like that.
I understand you had a lot of travel and activism experiences before entering politics. How much did that influence your later work?
I’m not sure why but ever since I was a little girl I had this sense I needed to do something meaningful. I wanted to make the world a better place.
I spent a lot of my younger years seeking and dabbling in different things trying to figure out how I could do that. I checked out various left wing organizations in Vancouver, I was a founding mother of the Nelson and District Women’s Centre.
Eventually when I landed in Nelson I got discouraged at one point decided “maybe I can’t save the world but maybe I can save the environment.” So I went to Selkirk for the forestry program. I was always engaged and trying to build a better community.
Then in 1983 we had the opportunity to go to Mozambique and work with CUSO on forestry projects and learn a lot about life, human resilience, pain. It was a very deep experience.
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