What’s the secret to a successful campaign? Former mayor, councillors weigh in

by Brendan Burke - May 17, 2018

For civic-minded Yellowknifers wishing to wade into the world of municipal politics, navigating the waters can be daunting and even dizzying. From nomination requirements and deadlines to eligibility caveats and strict signage regulations, there’s a lot of ground to cover on the road to city hall.

To get there, a candidate needs a road map. So, how does a would-be councillor or a mayoral hopeful turn their impassioned plans to shake up the status-quo into a tangible strategy – and a formidable campaign? And what type of campaign, from grassroots-grounded to social media-driven, are Yellowknifers most receptive to?

With two early mayoral candidates Coun. Adrian Bell and Coun. Rebecca Alty – who are jockeying to fill the seat of outgoing Mayor Mark Heyck – undoubtedly asking the same questions as they craft their campaigns, Yellowknifer posed the query to a former mayor and two past city councillors.

What’s the secret to a successful campaign?

“In Yellowknife I have found that the more doors you knock on the more likely you are to get elected,” said former mayor Gordon Van Tighem.

Van Tighem, who served four terms as mayor of Yellowknife from 2000 to 2012, said successful candidates must increase their visibility and make their presence in the community known – a strategy he took to heart when running.

“We basically tapped into everything. Knocking on doors; brochures that were delivered to every residence in the city at least twice,” said Van Tighem, adding his ground-level approach led to some attention-grabbing tactics, including standing roadside and waving at passersby in an effort to rouse support.

NNSL file photo. Gordon Van Tighem, who served as mayor of Yellowknife for 12 years, says the tried and true approach of delivering brochures and knocking on doors has proved to be the most effective campaign approach when appealing to voters in the city. Viability, through signs and public events, is also integral in running a successful campaign, he said.

During Van Tighem’s first foray into a mayoral race in 2000, the then political-newcomer didn’t have the breadth of his accomplished portfolio – accumulated in his later terms – to lean on when campaigning.

“The first thing was to differentiate yourself from the others. Are we getting more of the same or are we getting something new? And if we’re getting something new, how can we be sure it’s good?

With no political experience to pull from, Van Tighem said he worked to prove that what he was bringing to the table was “good,” by “demonstrating a track record of effective involvement” in the city.

And then, of course, were the signs. Staked on lawns or scrawled across storefronts, the political showings of support have long been a staple in campaign turf wars – a mainstay Van Tighem said he employed to, again, increase his visibility as a candidate.

“Large signs to demonstrate you were in the race and smaller signs strategically placed to show there was widespread support because you have to have permission to put a sign up,” said Van Tighem.

Under the Local Authorities Elections Act, signage and campaign materials including pamphlets, posters, placards and banners, are prohibited from being placed on road medians, road shoulders, municipal buildings and on private property unless permission has been granted.

Candidates are also barred from placing signs within 25 metres of polling stations.

When Van Tighem hung his hat up in 2012 after throwing it into the race four consequence times, he left public life as political actors began doubling down on efforts to harness social media in a bid to turn virtual likes into real votes.

Today, Van Tighem acknowledges social media’s far reach and its ability to tap into voter sentiments, but he wouldn’t replace clicks for handshakes and door-to-door knocks if he were to run again.

“You can (contact the most people) with social media, but you have to also be targeting the people who actually go out and vote,” he said. “Everybody has a political opinion but not everybody votes.”

Former deputy mayor and two-term councillor Wendy Bisaro – who began her political ascent as a school board trustee in 1988 – echoed Van Tighem’s sentiments toward social media, saying there’s “still people like me who like paper or like to talk to the (candidate) in person, face-to-face.” Still, Bisaro advised potential candidates not to focus all their attention on traditional, door-to-door campaigning.

“Today, I think you have to do both. Social media is a great opportunity to reach a lot of people quickly. I wouldn’t ignore it if I were running now,” said Bisaro.

Along with money, either from backers or from one’s own pocket, to cover expensive campaigns, Bisaro said name recognition and a devotion to “dogs, ditches and dumps,” – “what municipal campaigns are all about” – are key in running a successful bid.

Brendan Burke/NNSL photo.
Former deputy mayor and two-term city councillor Wendy Bisaro says money, name recognition, and a devotion to issues that matter to municipalities – like “dogs, ditches and dumps” – are integral is making a successful run for City Hall. While she employed a more traditional, door-to-door approach during her own bids, she says today’s hopefuls will need to embrace the benefits of far-reaching social media platforms.

Bisaro said Yellowknife’s next mayor will have to be relatable to all of the community members he or she serves.
“The position is going to require someone who can tap into the business interests in town, the environmental interests, the social aspects,” she said.

As for what Yellowknifers respond to in election campaigns, former city councillor Paul Falvo told Yellowknifer it comes down to the individual.
“Some voters are thoughtful. Many have short attention spans and respond to flash,” Falvo wrote in an email.
Bisaro said many factors contribute to voter attitudes and habits.

“People’s age, philosophy, personality. Being Northerners, I’m not so sure flashy campaigns work well. We have a different way of looking at life in general,” she laughed, adding over-the-top campaigns can sometimes come off as being “imported from the south,” and disregarded as a result.

Asked to offer tips on what to avoid when campaigning, Gordon Van Tighem had a short and simple answer: “No robocalls.”