When Cornflakes hit the fan

By Ellen Lloyd

In late July, Barb Higgins was the talk of the town. The former CTV news anchor announced her mayoral bid on July 28 and her initial support was staggering. Hundreds of volunteers and donations were pouring in and in an NRG poll conducted over the next 24 hours, 44 per cent of decided voters were already saying they would vote for her.

This was all before Higgins had released any platform or policy whatsoever. By mid-August, she still refrained from commitment on issues like the airport tunnel, stating she wasn’t ready to get into specific policies.

The recognition and respect Higgins commanded from the public was phenomenal, but her shocking initial support was based on character alone. Barb Higgins was a household name. The public viewed her as trusted, good-natured, honest and compassionate — almost a “can-do-no-wrong” figure. So instead of building a solid political platform, Higgins staked her bet on the way people perceived her . . . and lost.

Only days before the election, October 14 first saw Higgins lose her cool in a tense hotseat interview on Breakfast Television with Mike McCourt. Next we heard how, off-camera, she took out her frustration on ArtsVote volunteers who were there asking her questions, reportedly asking, “Who crapped in everybody’s cornflakes this morning?” Accelerated by Twitter, the episode soon hit the “fan” of traditional media, making headlines. Higgins later issued a public apology to the volunteers.

I and others can easily forgive Higgins for her outburst. Everyone has bad days and Higgins is as human as any of us. The shock of these incidents came from the way they clashed so badly with the composed image known to TV viewers. For twenty years, Barb’s presence on TV was always scripted, always controlled. In a campaign where success was largely based on Higgins’s personality and character, the consequent change in her public perception was a blow.

The day’s events also highlighted Higgins’s political inexperience. McCourt’s questions were, in all fairness, completely out of line and the way Higgins responded was admirable. It remains, however, that her responses served only to escalate the situation rather than diffuse it. McCourt did not ask a single question about policy, but neither did Higgins steer the discussion towards it.

Higgins commanded the name recognition lacked by Naheed Nenshi and the momentum lacked by Ric McIver. She had been a favourite to win the election. If she had planned her campaign well, focusing on substance over style, she would have not left an abandoned wake of voters who wanted promise and evidence of true, positive change. That gap was left open for Naheed Nenshi to fill with exponential support in the final weeks. In the end, a turbulent final week for Barb had political pundits predicting her loss and newspapers delivering endorsements to the other candidates. She finished the election with a mere 26 per cent of the vote.

“I know you could probably recite with me the seven priorities,” said Higgins as she conceded to mayor-elect Nenshi Monday night. Yet I wonder how many of her supporters actually could? Higgins’s campaign was rightfully criticized as lacking in real substance. Her “seven priorities” were chiefly discussion topics, with headings like “Financial Responsibility” and “Public Safety.” By contrast, Nenshi’s 12 “Better Ideas” were vision statements with plans behind each of them. “Political campaigns should be about the best ideas, not the most money,” and “Calgary transit will be a preferred choice, not the last choice” became quotable campaign catchphrases as Nenshi’s support grew and Higgins’s faltered.

Calgary needed a leader who was action-oriented and could solve issues, not just discuss them. Barb Higgins is a great and admirable woman who cares deeply about Calgarians, but I will remain grateful that she is not our Mayor.

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