The mayor of Surrey, and saviour Dianne Watts, doesn’t consider herself a natural-born politician.
“I came kicking and screaming into politics,” says Dianne Watts with a laugh, referring to leaving her career as an architectural consultant to join city council in 1996. “Going from the business world to politics is a quantum leap, and it can be frustrating.” But it is her business sense and can-do attitude that have won her plaudits from average citizens and business leaders alike. “She has been a breath of fresh air to this city,” reports Gary Hollick, president of the Surrey Board of Trade. He credits the mayor’s natural business skills with shaking up the status quo in the suburb Vancouverites love to hate. “She’s a true leader,” Hollick observes. “When she recognizes that there are some issues somewhere, rather than sit around waiting for a whole bunch of people to do something about it, she goes for it and she gets it done.” Watts’s fearlessness in taking on such seemingly intractable social issues as homelessness and crime are well documented. Perhaps less well known is her willingness to take on the developers who are changing the shape of what has been touted as Canada’s fastest-growing city. While other suburbs may salivate at the prospect of new industrial parks and condo high-rises, Watts has been known to put the brakes on the development-at-any-cost mindset by sending blueprints back and telling developers they can do better. “It’s about raising the bar,” Watts explains. “We have a lot of good developers that understand where we want to get, and it’s in their best interest to build good buildings.” Watts points to the city’s concerted effort to deflect the suburban-sprawl syndrome by developing a downtown core, centred around SFU’s Surrey Central City campus. “We’ve paid attention to developing a city centre, and we do have a downtown,” she says defensively, adding that comparisons to Vancouver are unfair. “Vancouver has a vibrant downtown, and it’s a tourist destination. We can’t compete with Vancouver, but we can complement it.” Although she was reluctant to leave business when she was first elected to council in 1996, Watts seized the role with enthusiasm and was spurred to run for mayor in the 2005 election after an acrimonious split with the Surrey Electors Team and former mayor Doug McCallum. “Things were not being focused on,” she recalls of the former administration. “The focal point was development at any cost, and it was eroding the quality of life.” The 47-year-old mother of two daughters, aged 12 and 13, puts in long days, typically starting at 5 a.m. and often extending long into the evening, and she appreciates the moral support of her husband, Brian Watts, a VP at Dianne’s family’s manufacturing business in the Newton area of Surrey. Despite the approval she’s earned from all corners, Watts doesn’t plan on making a lifetime career of reversing the stereotypes that used to make Surrey the butt of jokes. “I look at life as a book and politics as one chapter, not the entire book,” she says, adding that it would be nice to stay in office through the 2010 Games, and that would mean one more term. Which means Vancouver wouldn’t have Surrey to kick around anymore, at least for another six years.