Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

He didn't just win their votes, he won their hearts

Army of volunteers put Kevin Chief into legislature and Point Douglas on map

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The photos spread out on the table in NDP MLA Kevin Chief's constituency office on Selkirk Avenue tell the story.

Each one shows a smiling face. Men and women, old and young, white people and people of colour, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, all volunteers who helped Chief win the provincial seat in Point Douglas, one of the poorest and least politically active ridings in the province.

Chief knows each and every one of them.

 

"Every time someone came into our campaign office, we'd greet them, give them something to eat and then take their picture," he said.

"We got to know them. They got to know us. We had a relationship with them that made them want to be part of what we were doing."

When it was all said and done, Chief and his team pulled off several remarkable achievements. They recruited 350 volunteers to work on the campaign and raised more than $40,000 in campaign donations, an unheard-of amount in such a poor riding. To put the volunteer recruitment into perspective, most candidates are lucky if they can pull two or three dozen volunteers.

And for the first time in decades, the voter turnout went up in Point Douglas.

A total of 1,177 more people voted in the riding, an increase of more than 25 per cent over the votes cast in 2007. The percentage of eligible voters who participated also went up four points to 44 per cent, the single biggest jump in voter turnout in the province. Of course, 44 per cent is still well below the provincial average but significant when you consider that overall voter turnout went down this election.

It is very difficult to make direct, riding-by-riding comparisons with the 2007 general election because the electoral district boundaries were changed prior to this most recent vote. However, Point Douglas was one of only seven ridings that saw increases in both total votes and turnout. Only three other ridings saw a larger increase in turnout.

How did this happen? Opinions vary of course but Chief's campaign rejected wholesale political tactics and tools -- the phone bank, recorded voice-mail blasts -- and focused on direct contact with people. Rather than just identifying possible voters, he and his team focused on recruiting volunteers on the theory that it was more important initially to get people involved in the process, rather than just handing them a pamphlet, telling them to vote and hoping for the best.

Based on his experience in the 2010 federal byelection in Winnipeg North, in which he lost to Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux, Chief said he believes every time you bring in a volunteer, you have a chance to reach a new network of prospective voters. So he and his team set a goal of 350 volunteers.

"When I looked at my riding, I realized the big challenge wasn't going to be getting people to vote for me," Chief said as he scanned the volunteer photos.

"It was getting them to vote at all."

 

In mid-September, as the provincial election campaign picked up speed, Chief organized a fundraising social at a North End community hall featuring the two things he knew would draw a crowd: good food and good music.

Many of Chief's supporters were accomplished square dancers, and he had convinced JJ Lavallee, a well-known musician in the Métis and aboriginal communities, to provide the music. That alone would have ensured a good crowd. But when supporters showed up for the big party, Chief had arranged a special surprise: a skinny bespectacled guy in dress slacks and a fashionable pale blue dress shirt sitting in on the drums: Mark Chipman.

The principal owner and chairman of the Winnipeg Jets of the NHL was jamming with Lavallee and his band. A self-confessed "garage-band" drum enthusiast, Chipman got to know Chief through the Manitoba Moose Yearling Foundation and its work with the Winnipeg Aboriginal Sport Achievement Centre, an outreach program that Chief headed up. "Mark called me when I decided to run and he said, 'OK, what do you want me to do? Write a cheque, an endorsement?' I told him I needed him. I wanted him to play drums at our fundraiser. He said, 'Are you kidding me?' But when I explained, he immediately got on board with it."

Chipman said he initially thought Chief was joking about the drums. But when he arrived at the fundraiser, Chief pointed towards the stage and told him to sit in.

"I told Kevin, 'If you want me to play some Springsteen or some basic rock 'n' roll, I'll jump in for a couple of songs.' "

Chipman said his support of Chief is not a partisan gesture; the two have become good friends through work trying to get North End kids playing hockey.

"I wasn't trying to do anything in any overt way. My support for Kevin has been as a friend, and out of respect for him and the good things he has done, I think he has a very bright future, whether it's in politics or elsewhere."

Chief's relationship with Chipman is just one example of how incredibly well-connected and regarded he has become among Manitoba's opinion leaders. Young, educated, charismatic and aboriginal, Chief is in many ways a natural politician. Prior to his decision to run for the NDP in the November 2010 federal byelection in Winnipeg North, all three major political parties actually courted Chief.

There were some observers who suggested that, having lost to Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux in the byelection, Chief may have lost some of his lustre. Undaunted, he handily won the provincial NDP nomination in Point Douglas, following veteran MLA and legislative speaker George Hickes' retirement.

Lloyd Axworthy, former federal cabinet minister and Liberal MP who is now president of the University of Winnipeg, said Chief has always shown great talent for mobilizing large groups of people through his work at the university and WASAC. Even so, Axworthy said he was stunned to see how the vote had gone up in Point Douglas.

"I think he's bringing fundamental change to the way we do politics in this community," he said. "In a way, it's a throwback to earlier days when you couldn't get elected without a couple of hundred volunteers in your camp. What Kevin is proving is that you cannot replace those volunteers with phone banks and recorded messages."

Robert Ermel, a former top-level political organizer who now teaches at the University of Manitoba's Institute for Policy Research, said Chief's campaign pulled off a remarkable feat in Point Douglas. In a riding where people are often given very little reason to vote, Chief managed to connect with hundreds of new voters, many of whom had never cast a vote before. In an era when voter turnout is plummeting, Chief has proven old-fashioned, street-level campaigning is still more effective at driving engagement than the "wholesale" politics of phone banks, mass advertising and phone blasts.

"My advice has always been to... rent a church basement, drop invitations to 100 houses in the neighbourhood and have coffee with them," said Ermel. "Say you have 20 people show up and only three of those people volunteer to help run your campaign. That is still an important connection to the community. And you can build on that."

 

Lindsay CAMPBELL doesn't mind telling you it was a magnificent victory. Not the election-night win, but her team's victory in the advance poll race. Volunteers at Chief's campaign office were divided into eight different groups, each focusing on a different strata of the Point Douglas electorate. The goal was simple: Each team was to try and get at least 90 advance voters to the polls during the eight-day advance-polling period.

Campbell co-ordinated a team going after constituents who originated from, and still had family in, the Duck Bay-Pine Creek area. Campbell's family has strong connections to Duck Bay and believed if prospective voters were approached by someone with a strong cultural connection, chances were better they would actually show up to vote.

"Our target was 90, but we actually got close to 160 people to vote," said Campbell. "And I'm proud to say we won the eight-day challenge."

Similar efforts were made with seniors, young people and those living in Manitoba Housing projects. Each constituency had its own advance-poll SWAT team. As the votes grew, the volunteer base also swelled, incorporating more and more people who had not only never worked on a campaign, but had never actually cast a vote.

"I never thought there was anybody worth voting for before," said Scott Ballentyne, 38, who had never voted before this election.

"Nobody made a connection with me until I met Kevin."

Elaine Ranville, 63, said she became a first-time volunteer after meeting Chief during his byelection campaign. "I learned everything he's done for the community and how he told everyone it was important to vote. I started to realize that I had to get involved."

Ranville, who worked organizing seniors in the riding, said her big challenge was many of the older voters did not have the proper identification to register to vote. "That was a big challenge. But once we got their ID, many of them were very excited to vote."

Chief said his challenge now is to continue building the volunteer base as a way of boosting voter turnout. That will require a constant effort to keep people involved in programs and initiatives run out of his constituency office.

The enthusiasm that built during his campaign has not waned. When Chief rose last week to give his first speech in the Manitoba legislature, nearly 60 of his volunteers were in the gallery bursting with pride.

"Can you imagine that?" Chief said. "Sixty people at my first speech.

"They were there because they earned it. They worked for that privilege. This is just as much their victory as mine."

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 5, 2011 0

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