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Quirky moniker Helps political novice in name recognition challenge

Victoria City council candidate Lisa Helps removes calendula plants and other species with volunteers at the Haultain Common, a public garden area in Victoria, BC.

Chad Hipolito/The Globe And Mail/Chad Hipolito/The Globe And Mail

The candidate gets quizzical looks on the doorstep when she introduces herself.

That can happen when your family name is also a verb.

"My name really is Lisa Helps," she assures voters.

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The felicitously named candidate is making her debut on the hustings this fall. She is among 20 candidates vying for eight seats on Victoria city council. Among the contenders are all eight incumbents.

For the challengers, it's like playing a game of musical chairs in which every chair is occupied.

The incumbents began the campaign favoured to return to their seats after the Nov. 19 civic election. Name recognition can be a trump card. Voter interest is low. Three years ago, only 27 per cent of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot.

For Ms. Helps, the challenge is not only to become known, but to encourage more voters to go to the polls.

"It requires a lot of interesting campaigning," she said. "I need to reach everybody."

Like most candidates, she is relying on social media to spread her message. A Twitter and Facebook presence allows her to canvass potential supporters for their views on the issues. It also helps her build a platform during the campaign.

"It's not just, 'I'm Lisa, vote for me.' It's 'Hey, I'm Lisa, what are your hopes, dreams, ideas, thoughts for the city?' "

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The modern approach is being backed by an old-fashioned letter-writing strategy her campaign calls the Judd Buchanan Project. Mr. Buchanan, 82, told Ms. Helps that he had launched his political career by winning election to the school board in London, Ont., by writing personal letters to potential supporters. The insurance agent went on to win five consecutive elections to the House of Commons, where he served as a cabinet minister under Pierre Trudeau before moving to Victoria.

To campaign in a civic election is to practise politics at the neighbourhood level with door-knocking, mainstreeting and kaffee-klatsches. Ms. Helps spends two nights a week at gatherings in private homes where she is introduced to neighbours over tea, chocolates, or wine and cheese. "They feel like job interviews," she said, laughing. Which, of course, they are.

The 12 non-incumbent candidates include homeless advocate Rose Henry and property owner Robin Kimpton, who has been in disputes with the city over the disrepair of his rental properties. Ben Isitt, a historian and author, who twice ran unsuccessfully for mayor, is also seeking a council seat. Three candidates – Aaron Hall, Linda McGrew and Sukhi Lalli – are running as a slate endorsed by Open Victoria, a group calling for greater transparency at city hall.

Ms. Helps, 35, is executive director of Community Micro Lending, which provides modest loans to budding entrepreneurs seeking to start a small business. The group also pairs the loan recipients with mentors from the business community.

Earlier, she chaired the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group when it bought a dilapidated century-old building on the area's main intersection. The building was renovated with apartments for low-income residents upstairs and a popular coffee shop on street level. (The building was purchased from Mr. Kimpton, against whom she now competes for a council seat.)

One feature of the Helps campaign is the holding of a weekly work party.

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"We're repairing fences, helping with gardens and building bookshelves," she said.

"That draws attention to 'Hey, Lisa actually gets stuff done,' which is one of my key messages."

On Saturday, she was joined by incumbent Philippe Lucas and candidate Shellie Gudgeon, a restaurateur, in harvesting and weeding Haultain Common, a vegetable garden planted with tomatoes, potatoes and squash along a narrow boulevard of city-owned land.

Lest campaigning be all work and no fun, she is inviting all 20 council and four mayoral candidates to a hootenanny at Logan's Pub.

"It's going to be interesting to see who shows up and what they sing," she said.

"It'll lighten things up and draw people together."

She plans to sing with her campaign team She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain. They've changed the lyrics to fit into the campaign: "She'll be making an infrastructure priority plan when she comes ..."

Good thing she's not running for Canadian Idol.

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