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Port Moody-Coquitlam flirts with 'Trasolini effect'

NDP candidate Joe Trasolini for Port Moody March 22, 2012 at his campaign office.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

As in most city halls, this community honours present and past mayors and city councillors with portraits on a prominent wall. If you start with the latest, you have to look back across a few to find one without Joe Trasolini.

There he is, starting in 1996: city councillor. And he's there in quite a few as mayor, a job he held from 1999 until last fall, making him Port Moody's longest-serving mayor. That's when he took a break from politics. It didn't last long. "Once you have been a politician for 15 years, it's hard to say, 'I am going to hang it up," he said.

So Mr. Trasolini came back.

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Once he was a B.C. Liberal so supportive of Christy Clark he co-chaired her first campaign to become MLA in a previous incarnation of the Port Moody-Coquitlam provincial riding. When Mr. Trasolini returned to politics, he was the B.C. NDP's candidate in Port Moody-Coquitlam, a riding of about 45,000 people that includes the communities of Anmore, Belcarra and part of southern Coquitlam.

Voting day is next Thursday.

It's one of two by-elections. The other is in Chilliwack-Hope. Together they are seen as a crucial test for the embattled B.C. Liberals, shaken by polls that indicate their support is withering. Some – 14 per cent in a recent Angus Reid poll – is drifting to the NDP. Also, the B.C. Conservatives are drawing away voters from the centre-right coalition that has been the B.C. Liberal Party.

Earlier this week, Premier Clark sounded gloomy about Liberal prospects in both races. "History is not on the government's side when it comes to by-elections," she said, pointing out that her win last year in Vancouver-Point Grey was a rare by-election win for a governing party.

In some respects, Port Moody-Coquitlam seems an idyll from ongoing political trends. True, the Liberals are fending off a Conservative challenge while dealing with their traditional NDP rivals. However, there seems to be a Trasolini effect in play like some kind of astronomical anomaly that defines the race in riding-specific ways, confounding efforts to draw larger conclusions.

"Because he has been a long-time mayor, I think people are going to vote for him and not realize they are voting for his party," said Trish Thompson, a 59-year-old Port Moody resident and no Joe Trasolini fan. She made the point after voting in an advance poll this week.

Soren Larsen, a 61-year-old B.C. Liberal supporter, agrees.

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"Name recognition has a lot to do with an election," Mr. Larsen said following an all-candidates meeting at the civic centre. "People will go out and vote and have no ideas of what the issues are or anything.

"[It's]'Oh. I remember Joe. He was a good mayor. I'll vote for him.'"

For all of this, it's ironic that both Mr. Trasolini and his B.C. Liberal rival label themselves underdogs in the race.

"I am clearly the underdog," said Liberal Dennis Marsden, a credit-union branch manager who moved into the area in 1978, and counts his community roots as key assets in the competition for voter support.

Mr. Marsden said he is working hard to hold a riding that has been Liberal since it was created in 2008, largely from the Port Moody-Westwood riding Ms. Clark held as an opposition MLA and then Liberal cabinet minister.

Asked about the his hard work, Mr. Marsden holds out a hand, displaying it to make a point.

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"My knuckles are a little raw, a little calloused," he insists.

Indeed, they are. He called it the result of knocking on 10,000 doors since he kicked off his campaign a day after winning the Liberal nomination in February.

"I have dropped 17 pounds by knocking on doors," he said. "My wife wants the campaign to go another two weeks."

Iain Black won the riding with 52 per cent of the vote in 2009 compared to 39.7 per cent scored by his NDP rival. Mr. Black quit last year to take an executive job with the Vancouver Board of Trade.

On the evidence of the all-candidates meeting, Mr. Marsden's obstacle is trying to finesse such unpopular Liberal measures as the HST, escalating MSP premiums, problems at TransLink, and $6-million in legal aid for defendants in the BC Rail case and other liabilities accumulated in 11 years of government.

Mr. Trasolini also said he's feeling like a political canine.

"I started as the underdog and I will be the underdog until I prove that I can win," he said.

Mr. Trasolini acknowledges he entered the campaign as a well-known political commodity, but noted he is trying to win a riding the Liberals have effectively held since the mid-1990s and won by more than 2,000 votes in 2009.

"I am the challenger in a riding that hasn't gone NDP for a long, long time," he said. "A lot of people say, 'Well Joe Trasolini is popular and he's going to win.' That is exactly the sentiment that doesn't win elections."

Christine Clarke, the B.C. Conservative candidate, said Mr. Trasolini's local prominence cuts both ways, with some residents disappointed with aspects of his record. "I don't think you can be in public office and have everyone agree with you," she said. (In an interesting reflection of the fracturing of the Liberals, Ms. Clarke worked on campaigns for Mr. Black and a previous effort by none other than Mr. Marsden. "Previously there was no alternative to the Liberals. Now there is," she said.)

Although once a Liberal, Mr. Trasolini said he was not a member of any party while mayor so he could work across partisan barriers in Port Moody's interests. When he left municipal politics, he said, he was courted by the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives, but decided he liked NDP values on the environment, small business, families, seniors, youth, and education.

But did he decide to run for the NDP because he thought the Liberals were on a downward spiral after more than a decade in power? He said he might have more easily won as a Liberal given the party's previous hold on the area.

"I took the more difficult route," he said.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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