As you’ve likely heard, my days as a local journalist are numbered. Nineteen years pounding out stories and watching the history of this community unfold before my eyes will end next Friday.
It’s an emotional time for me and I’m extremely grateful for all the kind words I’ve been getting via email, on the street and on Facebook. It’s that outpouring that will make these next few days even more difficult as I once again realize what an awesome privilege it has been to be part of it for so long.
As I get set to take my exit, I figured it’s time to take some parting shots. Just kidding, not my style. But over the years I’ve witnessed many political personalities and it would be silly to leave without at least mentioning some of them.
Jay taught me one of my first important lessons in small town politics… keep politicians at a distance.
When I moved to Nelson I was just out of university, no kids and in my mid-20s. As I’ve learned over the years, Nelson is a tough place to carve out a living if you are just starting out in life. Because most kids who graduate from high school leave to pursue life in larger centres and jobs, meeting people your own age is tough (especially in the mid-1990s).
Jay and I are about the same age. Because of that — and our shared love of golf — we became friends in my early days of covering council. It was actually enjoyable for me because as a journalist, I like to push buttons and debate. With a passion for politics and the community he grew up in, Jay was always willing to engage.
It all came crashing down when Jay’s political career started to go sideways and he ended up suing the Nelson Daily News and myself for libel. Our conversations as friends were used against me in court and even though Jay was decisively defeated in his claim, it was a jolting lesson for a young reporter.
I have had the opportunity to watch Mungall progress through local politics and it’s been an interesting journey.
She arrived on scene back in 2002 during a period when local politics were rather intense. She was a fresh face, a wee bit cocky and full of energy.
Though it was exciting to have her as part of the council of the day, as a reporter I was generally critical of her approach. Perhaps it’s because like Mungall, I moved to Nelson from a larger city. Unlike Mungall, for the first six years after arriving I was reluctant to offer my opinion on how the city should be run. I preferred to listen rather than opine. She dived in with both feet and was never afraid to offer an opinion to those who had much more depth on local issues.
As we have both grown in our roles in the community, I’ve continued to be a critic of Mungall. Over the years I’ve received emails and calls from Mungall supporters accusing me of some sort of personal agenda. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Mungall is a charming and competent politician. You don’t have to agree with someone to have respect for them.
There are few city councillors who could match the passion of Gayton. In the late-1990s she was former Gary Exner’s main foil at City Hall.
During the most raucous periods of my time covering local politics, the Gayton-Exner battles were at times uncomfortable.
There was a point where Gayton refused to be interviewed by me because she felt the stories we wrote about her were unfair. Despite her professional battles with me, there was never mistaking her big heart. When my son was born in 1998, she was one of the first people to burst through the door of the Daily News — teddy bear in hands — to congratulate me.
There was no denying Gayton’s heart, even though sometimes her divisive ways made it difficult to fully appreciate it.
I remember my first meeting with Atamanenko. He strolled into the offices of the Daily News and introduced himself as the candidate for the federal NDP in this riding.
The former Castlegar school teacher looked just like, well, a former Castlegar school teacher. He asked me to go for coffee with him. I obliged and as we walked down the street, I remember thinking: there is no way this guy has a chance against powerhouse incumbent Jim Gouk.
I spent an interesting half hour with Atamanenko. He talked, but more importantly he listened.
When I returned to the office, my similarly cynical colleagues said with a chuckle: “How was that?” To which I responded: “That guy is going to be our MP one day.”
In that election he was narrowly defeated by Gouk. Since that time, Atamanenko’s charm has won over a great many people and he has become a fine representative of this riding.
Elliott’s stint as mayor lasted only one term, but his impact on the community is much more significant.
Likely one of the most pragmatic politicians I’ve dealt with, Elliott was in the big chair during a huge time of transition for this community.
The City of Nelson employee’s lockout and Our Way Home statue controversy may be two of the biggest issues he will be remembered for, but Elliott subtly helped carve Nelson into what it is today.
His work as a councillor on the former KFP site was vital, his vision for the former highway’s maintenance yard ahead of its time and his approach always open-minded.
Elliott may not have had the big personality of some of the other recent mayors, but his long-term impact is arguably just as important.
Gouk is a very likable guy and the fact he was elected as our MP four times is proof.
After covering his moves as our MP for a couple of years, Gouk attempted to recruit me as his assistant.
He came to my house one day in an effort to win me over. I finally had to say: “Look, I’m not sure my core beliefs fit in well with the Reform Party. The party’s stances on gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana — to name just a couple — are troubling. I don’t think I can do it.”
Gouk responded: “I don’t believe in every part of the platform either, this is just the closest vehicle I have to represent the people of this riding.”
The politicians I respect most are the ones willing to listen, adjust their views and truly represent the people. Gouk wasn’t afraid to cross his own party and it sometimes landed him trouble.
Though I passed on the job, it had nothing to do with the respect I had for Gouk as a representative.
Absolutely the most divisive individual on this list. Exner was the kind of guy who would drop the gloves first and then ask questions later. I know that well because I played hockey with him for many years.
During a tremendously tumultous period of his tremendously tumultous stint as mayor, Exner called me over to his office for some advice.
I don’t recall the details, but I do know in the end I told him “take the high ground.” It was advice he naturally ignored, but I was flattered that he even cared enough to ask me for it.
Exner was a great guy and great teammate. I’m not sure if his reign as mayor will get as glowing a review, but there never seemed to be a dull moment in those early years of my reporting on City Hall.
This list includes some pretty big and important personalities, but Evans eclipses them all. His style and approach fit in so well in the Kootenays, his political legend will live on for a very long time.
Evans’ accomplishments were significant, on a smaller local scale and taking a shot at becoming premier of this province. By the end of the NDP reign, he was one of the most powerful and respected individuals in his caucus. It was well earned.
It’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of the provincial NDP. I sparred with Evans both in person and on the pages of the Daily News many times. All the while, the respect I had for him constantly grew.
Even when he was minister of health, Evans would stop by the office with his dirt-covered overalls and baseball cap pulled down low. He would just stop by to say hello, but it always ended up in a spirited debate of some sort. Evans always made you feel at ease and that’s when true political dialogue is best. Never personal, just an exchange of ideas.
The best trait Dooley has is that he’s an everyman. Comfortable in almost every situation and with almost any type of person, Dooley is easy company.
The most effective politicians are those who have lived a life that’s relatable. Dooley is an immigrant with a deep appreciation for his new country. He’s a drywaller by trade, a family man at heart and, unfortunately for him, a die-hard Vancouver Canucks fan.
Dooley is also a scrapper. Though his approach is thankfully less combative than Exner, Dooley likes to get his way. It has made him some enemies along the way, but his overall approach gains him many more allies.
When he ran for mayor against a very likable Dave Elliott, many didn’t give him a chance. Though a solid councillor, when the campaign started Dooley didn’t have much in the way of support. Undeterred, he kept delivering his message and knocking on doors. Early on in the campaign he was putting up his own money to buy ads in the newspaper. By the end, Dooley had won over so many people that he had more money than he knew what do with.
More than anything, Dooley has become a true statesman. He is an excellent representative of this community outside the borders of Nelson. Dooley is enthusiastic and wears his love for this community on his sleeve. He will go down as one of the greatest mayors this community has ever had.
When I arrived at the Daily News way back in the mid-’90s, I was a frightened cub reporter. Unsure of myself and intimidated by covering politics (I was trained in newspapers as a sports reporter), my first council meeting was unnerving.
My biggest welcome that first night came from Donna Macdonald. She greeted me with a handshake, a smile and welcomed me to City Hall. To a young reporter and newcomer to the community, that simple gesture was massive. Without her warmth that day, I may not have made it this far.
Over the last 19 years she has been the one political constant for me. Even though she took a couple of brief exits, she has been there helping guide the community with her inclusive approach and wise ways.
Like several others on this list, I have not always agreed with Macdonald. Our views clash on several issues. It wasn’t always easy, but never was it personal
Macdonald has taught me more about community than any other local leader. Politics is a constant battle between the heart and the head. When I arrived to Nelson from a conservative upbringing in Alberta, I was very much powered by the head. By observing her over the years, Macdonald has taught me it’s the heart that matters most.
We’re told it’s vital for journalists to keep their distance from those they report on. Getting too close is dangerous for a great number of reasons. In a small community like Nelson, that lesson is often too difficult to follow.
In my case, I’ve managed to forge very meaningful personal relationships with many of those I have questioned and debated with over the years. It was always a delicate balance, but for the most part I pulled it off.
Every person on this list has left a scar I’m proud to have earned. Their trust in me to help document their leadership will be forever appreciated and the lessons they’ve taught me along the way will never be forgotten.
Bob Hall is the editor at the Nelson Star. he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org