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Bridge is not the only vote in town

But the Johnson Street span dominates voter discussion

Ask almost anyone who they're going to vote for in the upcoming Victoria byelection and you could well be met with a blank stare.

This is a race that's flying well under the radar.

"The bridge looms over everything else and somehow that's completely dwarfed the contest in the byelection," says retired political scientist Norman Ruff, professor emeritus at the University of Victoria. "And there are so many candidates running too that it lacks a focus. So the byelection itself just seems a sideshow."

Eleven candidates are in the running to replace councillor Sonya Chandler who retired to further her education in Europe.

The byelection, along with the referendum over whether to borrow $49.2 million toward the $77-million cost of replacing the Johnson Street Bridge, will be decided Saturday.

Most agree the bridge is the main issue in the campaign -- overshadowing just about everything else.

"The bridge is the primary focal point. Everything else is just political speak -- accountability and sustainability. Everybody's heard that so many times that nobody cares," says Green party candidate Steven Filipovic. "What they do care about is $100 million being spent on this bridge and they think it's the wrong way to go."

Candidate Susan Woods, a former journalist, says it's unfortunate the bridge is dominating the race, especially because whoever is elected is only one voice and won't be able to change council's position on the issue.

"The fix is in. If the city wants to go ahead with the bridge and they get a yes vote, it's over. If they get a no vote, within the next year, whatever they do you're going to be one person on an established council and in a slate-driven council," Woods said.

"As an independent it's going to be difficult to do much. So I don't feel I'm being asked enough questions about who I am and my position on common-sense questions."

There have been two front-runners from the outset: Victoria Harbour Ferries manager Barry Hobbis, whose well-financed campaign is being managed by Mat Wright, a director of johnsonstreetbridge.org -- the group that successfully petitioned for the referendum; and small-business owner Marianne Alto, who has been endorsed by the Victoria Labour Council, former mayor and New Democrat MLA Gretchen Brewin, and Victoria Swan Lake NDP MLA Rob Fleming, a former Victoria councillor.

"It's kind of like a David and Goliath race with two Goliaths and nine Davids. It's hard for anyone to reach above that," says Filipovic.

Hobbis, who has been hammering away for what he sees as the need for fiscal responsibility at city hall, agrees that the bridge is the dominant issue in the campaign.

"I think the outcome [of the byelection] should parallel the bridge referendum," Hobbis says. "Everything that we hear in terms of our door-to-door activity is that the no vote is still pretty strong and the no vote seems to parallel a candidate that's indicated they'll vote no."

Alto, for her part, has distinguished herself as the only candidate in support of borrowing for the bridge. That came as a bit of a surprise but has led to a healthy discussion at public forums, she says.

"On the one hand, it makes it interesting for folks because obviously anyone who's supporting the referendum really has only one option when it comes to the council race," he says. "Certainly, the byelection question is on everybody's top of mind but as soon as you can get them past that discussion then they're quite willing to talk about all the other important issues."

In her mind, those include homelessness and drug addiction and regional transportation.

Interestingly, both Alto and Hobbis are Saanich residents, something candidates Paul Brown and Hugh Kruzel point out at every opportunity.

"I think the issue is more around championing the issues of the city of Victoria as opposed to issues that are more important to other municipalities," says Brown, who lists fiscal prudence and regionalization among his priorities. For his part, Kruzel also advocates better financial management, as well as community pride.

Poverty activist Rose Henry, who counts herself and Filipovic among those in the running who have a good chance at success, agrees the byelection is flying under the radar. And she's finding it difficult to stir interest about either the byelection or the referendum among her constituency -- the city's First Nations and the poor.

"People are saying: 'What about the bridge? Why is that important to me? I don't use that bridge.' I'll explain why it's an important decision," Henry says. "I'm trying to stress to them that if we want to be a part of social change, then yes, get out and vote."

Filipovic agrees that getting out the vote will be key.

"That's what I'm hoping to achieve. My only hope is to get typical non-voters to vote so we can defeat these voter blocs," he says.

The race is being rounded out by George Sirk, a school/tour bus driver who says controlling spending is the top issue; Pedro Mora, who advocates direct democracy; Saul Anderson, a cab driver who lists harm reduction, food security and affordable housing as his top priorities; and Rimas Tumasonis, who refuses to be pigeonholed on any single issue.

While turnout at many referendum and byelection events has been sparse, the same can't be said for the first advance poll, which saw a 50 per cent increase in voters compared to the first advance poll in the 2008 general election.

With only a year left in the term before the next municipal election, whoever wins the byelection doesn't have time to accomplish much, but will have the built-in advantage of running as an incumbent in the next election.

"You're not going to have any impact on the major decisions over the next 12 months so essentially, of the serious candidates, they're running really for next time," Ruff said.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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