ELECTION 2017: Surrey — a city divided

A distinct line has been drawn in our city between right and left — but what does it all mean?

Surrey’s voters have divided the city with a jagged crack.

The northwest portion of Surrey is NDP orange, and the southeast, Liberal red. While some ridings predictably go left or right in any given election in this politically polarized city and province, Tuesday’s election roughly split the city in half.

To clarify things, South Surrey and White Rock simply don’t elect NDP MLAs, at the very least not in the past several decades. Surrey-Cloverdale has been a Liberal outpost since its creation in 1991, with MLAs Ken Jones holding it from 1991-96, Bonnie McKinnon from 1996 to 2001, Kevin Falcon from 2001-13, Stephanie Cadieux from 2013-17 and Marvin Hunt winning it for the Liberals on Tuesday night.

Cadieux won Surrey South for the Liberals while Surrey-White Rock, held by Liberal MLA Gordon Hogg for 10 years and Liberal MLA Wilf Hurd before him, once again elected a Liberal, Tracy Redies, this week.

That’s three of 10 local ridings, counting Delta North among them. The seven ridings northeast of the freshly drawn political demarcation line local voters created Tuesday went NDP.

Some are swing ridings. Delta North, for example, has toggled between NDP and Liberal representation. Voters there elected the NDP’s Kahlon on Tuesday. He defeated Liberal Scott Hamilton. The NDP’s Guy Gentner held it before him before retiring from politics. Gentner had defeated Liberal Reni Masi, who had defeated NDP MLA Norm Lortie.

Of Surrey’s ridings, the Surrey-Whalley re-elected NDP MLA Bruce Ralston. That riding has been a solid NDP riding with the exception of Liberal MLA Elayne Brenzinger (2001-05).

Likewise, Surrey-Green Timbers, which is sending NDP-elect Rachna Singh to Victoria, has been held by the NDP with the exception of Liberal Brenda Locke (2001-05). Incumbent NDP Harry Bains handily won in Surrey Newton, again a traditional NDP riding with the exception of Social Credit premier Rita Johnston (1983-91) and Liberal Tony Bhullar (2001-05).

Surrey-Panorama, once called Surrey-Panorama Ridge, has had both NDP and Liberal MLAs. It elected Jinny Sims of the NDP on Tuesday. Surrey-Fleetwood has also had NDP and Liberal MLAs.

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On election night the NDP’s Jagrup Brar defeated Liberal cabinet minister Peter Fassbender in that riding, and the new riding of Surrey-Guildford saw the NDP’s Garry Begg defeat another Liberal cabinet minister, Amrik Virk.

But rarely have voters split the city in half like they did on Tuesday night, NDP on one side, Liberals on the other.

Is it a case of haves versus have-nots?

“I don’t think there’s any one reason,” Ralston said. “There’s a correlation between income and voter preference, for sure. I think there’s some validity there.

“The average family income is lower in the north and gradually increases as you head south. The overriding factor was just a very effective campaign and the fact the Liberals were out of touch. They were just out of touch. They didn’t value Surrey as the second biggest city and give it what it needs to thrive and prosper and people sensed that.”

For example, the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Task Force staged an all-candidates meeting on the topics of affordable housing, homelessness and poverty in Surrey. It was attended by NDP, Greens, and an independent. No Liberal candidate showed.

On election night, Fassbender has this to say about his personal defeat at the polls: “Having been the education minister, education was a big issue in Surrey. We need to build more schools. (Bridge) tolls were a polarizing issue and to remove them was a big step with the implications to our credit rating.”

Cadieux, who handily won in Surrey South, said the polarization begs review. “I really don’t know at this point (what led to it),” she said. “It’s too early to tell. We knew it was going to be close all the way along.”

Does she think it’s a case of haves versus have-nots?

“I wouldn’t want to simplify it that much,” Cadieux said. “We’re one city. The boundaries are really arbitrary, from that persective. I think we have to look though at what the issues were at the door steps.”

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, like everyone else, is trying to digest what happened Tuesday night.

“I hope whoever forms government – because ultimately it’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast right now, and we don’t know where it’s going to go – recognizes that we are in a period of tremendous growth and there needs to be particular attention paid to such a significant metropolitan city as Surrey and at the end of the day I would hope that’s the kind of advocacy that we would get from all of our representatives.”

READ ALSO: BC Libs win in South Surrey, BC NDP in North Surrey

So why did the south vote right and the north vote left? Hepner doesn’t think growth is the reason.

“South Surrey is experiencing tremendous growth,” she noted.

Other than the city core, with its high-rises, she added, South Surrey is where the significant growth is right now.

“I think there’s a bit of real serious concern around the Guildfords and the Newtons and the city centre on the transportation options that are available in the city and I truly believe it has to do with the schools. I really do believe it has to do with the underfunding of schools at a time of significant growth.”

There are, of course, schools in both the north and south of Surrey.

What will Tuesday’s election results mean for city council?

“It’s not a lot different than in the past,” Hepner said. “We work with whoever forms government, obviously. And my own party of council, we share a vision for the city of Surrey but we don’t necessarily share the same political leanings, and in my mind that’s what makes, at least at the local level, what makes it work so well.”

Hepner sees no concerns with the divide between north and south.

“Is there a specific divide? I don’t think it’s any more or less than what you’re seeing in other cities. You see the same thing in Vancouver in various ridings where traditionally you would expect to see this go in a particular direction. And you see the same thing in a Burnaby, or a Coquitlam, there are always areas in a city I think that are defined by a more traditional understanding of who’s going to go where. What I see as being significant is that the shift of seats tells me that the message around paying attention to the City of Surrey is forefront in the minds of the electorate.”

Does Surrey’s mayor think the provincial election results in her city suggest a gulf between haves and have-nots?

“I don’t see that,” she said. “We have tremendous haves in the arenas, of the areas of Fleetwood and Fraser Heights. Do I see it as being a have versus have not? No, I think I have pockets of wealth and pockets of poverty throughout the city.

“I knew there were going to be some hard-fought battles, and I knew from talking to residents myself that there was an angst around schooling and around LRT and how long that sort of funding was taking and getting on with the job of connecting our community, and I knew there was big concerns on hospitals. Certainly the messages were all there.”

Mike Nielsen, of the Whalley Community Improvement Association, said there are more social issues at play in North Surrey than South Surrey.

“I think a lot of folks have the mindset that the NPD is more focused on change and improvement,” Nielsen said. “People felt that four terms was enough, and they sought a change to keep the Liberals honest.”

Michael Musgrove, executive director of Surrey Urban Mission Society, said “perhaps people thought the NDP would be more favourable toward building a social support system that is more effective.”

Jonquil Hallgate, a long-time advocate for Surrey’s homeless, suggested boundary changes in Guildford and Fleetwood could have been a factor in why the north part of the city went NDP orange.

“Prior to the last four years those neighbourhoods may have been more Liberal but with the changes, it added some NDP votes into the mix that weren’t maybe part of the equation previously.

“It just has to do with peoples’ appetite to see things done differently and the government being accountable and responsive.” The spectre of homelessness, Hallgate added, is now having an impact on the middle class and young people.

“It’s making people think differently.”

With files from Amy Reid and Rick Kupchuk