Christy Clark: Nothing better than politics

Back in 2005, Christy Clark had just left politics and was hosting a radio show. BCBusiness asked her then about timing, ambition and what she thinks her future holds


Back in 2005, Christy Clark had just left politics and was hosting a radio show. BCBusiness asked her then about timing, ambition and what she thinks her future holds

The Clark family lives high enough on Port Moody’s Heritage Mountain that your ears pop repeatedly on the drive up. On these roads, curving around the remnants of recently cleared forest, Whistler-style homes tower over short, steep driveways. Fleets of Honda minivans and Suburu station wagons reflect the neighbourhood’s popularity with young families. Property values are in the half-million range and rising. And so when ex-politician Christy Clark, 39, answers the door with her cellphone in hand, dressed in a black velour track suit, her auburn hair neatly styled and hazel eyes carefully outlined and shaded, she seems the belle of this casual and composed street. There is nothing to suggest that anything ulterior lies behind these polished rows of uniform house

After exchanging pleasantries, she quickly relieves me of any preconceptions a visitor may have about Heritage Mountain. Sure, it’s upscale. But this very street, she says conspiratorially, has been the scene of some of the biggest marjiuana grow-op busts in the suburb.

Clark gets a kick out of revealing that her neighbourhood is a known marijuana hotbed. She likes an audience, and in the estimation of provincial Liberal party insiders, she was the most articulate and media-savvy minister in Premier Gordon Campbell’s previous government. Her star rose quickly and she was compared to Carole Taylor: smart, well-connected, photogenic and amiable.

As an MLA from 1996—when she won her seat in Port Moody-Burnaby Mountain—until this past spring when she chose not to run for re-election, she was also brash, even occasionally off-colour. She exhibited a candour that is refreshing in the political realm where most people are programmed to carefully self-censor. Christy Clark was a B.C. politician worth keeping an eye on.

But she’s been out of office for three months already and has yet to aim any of her well-honed barbs in Gordon Campbell’s direction. Even now, while she has no qualms discussing her street’s unsavory past, she remains remarkably on-message regarding the issue of grow-ops in general. She easily works her government’s record into the conversation by mentioning a bill the Liberals introduced to permit seizure of property used for grow-ops.

Five minutes into the conversation it’s clear that Christy Clark can take herself out of politics—but you can’t take the politics out of her.

Since she was first elected, Clark has seldom strayed far from the spotlight. She made her name as an aggressive opposition critic with her dogged pursuit and frequent cornering of cabinet minister Moe Sihota, then known as the NDP’s prize pit bull. She was a controversial education minister and served as Campbell’s deputy premier (a job she accepted when she was seven months pregnant). She briefly served as minister of children and families, but announced last fall that she wouldn’t run for re-election in 2005, saying she wanted to spend more time with her three-year-old son, Hamish. Just as her exit created a stir of speculation, with many wondering if there was a rift between Campbell and his talented young deputy, it’s likely that her time away will be anything but private. Even as a backbencher she managed to pack a press conference and inspire months of newspaper columns and letters to the editor for her suggestion that parents receive tax breaks on expenses for their kids’ extracurricular sports and arts programs.

So what does a young career politician do when she quits her job? Her skills could be useful in any number of professions: she knows how to convey the point of an official report overflowing with graphs and numbers; she can defend ideas in hostile environments; she is an expert in negotiating the minefields of personal and partisan ambitions. Many politicians develop these abilities, but few have the kind of personality that attracts attention after their departure from Victoria. Clark is one who does. Will she take those talents to a boardroom, the 2010 Olympic Games or a more powerful political position? Into which spotlight will Christy Clark jump next?

Former cabinet colleague Gary Collins says she needs to find something as stimulating as politics. “There are endless things she could do, but I think if she didn’t find something where she was challenged on a regular basis, she would get bored. That would not be good for Christy.”

Clark will not admit that she is planning a return to her former life. “It’s all about timing,” she says with a smile. Her son, almost four, is a demanding preschooler who was born in August 2001, soon after Clark began her job as education minister. She took a month off and then went back to work, juggling ministerial and motherly duties. Dividing her time between her apartment in Victoria and the family home in Port Moody was a challenge with an infant in hand. Her Monday mornings began at 5 a.m.; by 8 a.m. she was en route to the Helijet pad in downtown Vancouver to unload her suitcase, diaper bag, briefcase and baby. By 10 a.m. she was in her first meeting in Victoria after handing Hamish off to the nanny. “If he hadn’t barfed on me by the time I got to the legislature,” she says, “that was a bonus.”

Her husband, Mark Marrissen, 38, a senior partner of lobbying firm Burrard Communications, also commuted back and forth. Complicating the family’s schedule was Marrissen’s other role as the chief organizer in B.C. for Paul Martin’s federal Liberal leadership and election campaigns. But despite their packed schedules, her closest staff say Clark went to great lengths to make sure one of them was available to retrieve Hamish from daycare (he was enrolled full-time at age two-and-a-half), and she still shudders remembering the day he spent there from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. “Our lives were manic,” she says. “I’m so glad I’m not doing that anymore.”

Hamish has dibs on Clark’s time at this juncture. But she has made it clear to others that she wants to be premier one day. Gary Collins, who considers himself a good friend, says he thinks a return to politics is somewhere in her future. “There are other levels of politics if she wants to do that, although I don’t know if that’s on her radar screen right now. But I expect at some point it will be.” Others close to her, when asked to describe her, trot out the same two or three adjectives (“charming, energetic”) and conclude with, “She has a great political mind.”

“It’s like she can see around corners,” says former MLA Lynn Stephens. “She can anticipate events and plan around them.”

Leaving what was seen as a staunchly ideological administration and stepping out on her own is one way of forging her own public identity. As a future candidate for the premier’s office (and one day, the prime minister’s? Imagine a leadership showdown between Clark and Belinda Stronach), she nevertheless must portray herself as someone with talents and ambitions that are not solely political. People loved or hated Christy Clark as a Liberal MLA. Now she can be herself.

Let’s examine her options:

OPTION 1: The Executive
In the private sector, Clark would have to rely on skills other than her silver tongue. People she has consulted about her future point to her sense of strategy and keen understanding of how things play out in public, which may be useful in corporate life.

Casey Forrest, of executive search firm Pinton, Forrest and Madden, says her ability to manage large groups of people, to think on her feet and to deal with very complex problems would serve her well in a big business environment. But Forrest wonders whether she has the financial acumen for the role. Gary Collins, now CEO of Harmony Airlines, was in high demand in the corporate world because he knew how to parse the numbers. “Most business people were really impressed with what a tremendous grasp of the financial pieces of the government he had.”

For his part, Collins insists, “[Christy is] very talented, very ambitious and very motivated, and I think she could choose any number of paths”, but he warns of the possible let downs of life after the Ledge. “I hope she finds something that is stimulating. Despite all of the time demands and scrutiny of politics and government, the work is incredibly stimulating. I think if she didn’t find something where she was challenged on a regular basis, she would get bored. That would be not good for Christy.”

No one doubts her willingness to tackle a difficult assignment, but that isn’t enough to guarantee that every door opens. “That’s both her main talent and Achilles heel,” says former UVic political scientist Norman Ruff. “She’s perhaps too articulate and too confident sometimes for her own good. It served her in good stead in the legislature, but I think sometimes it got her out on a limb in terms of implementation.”

As education minister she pushed certain initiatives that sounded great, like making phys. ed. mandatory, standardizing report cards and informing parents what portion of their school district’s education budget is allocated to each school. These ideas garnered equal amounts of attention and criticism, and were seen by many teachers and school boards as patronizing. To no one’s surprise, they were dropped by her successor, Tom Christensen.

OPTION 2: The Spokeswoman
Clark has talked to Marion Lay, CEO of Legacies Now, about getting involved with the not-for-profit society that promotes sports programs. “I think the Olympics is just a golden opportunity to get a whole generation of British Columbians off the couch and moving,” Clark says, using the rhetoric of an former education minister. “I think the Olympics should be in every single school; it should be part of the curriculum. I just think the opportunity to infuse society with that culture of achievement and get kids interested in physical activity is so huge.”

In her early days in politics, Clark made an impression with her own health kick, quitting a two-pack-a-day habit in 1996 and losing a significant amount of weight with a 25-kilometre-a-week running program.

She recently pursued a meeting with VANOC CEO John Furlong, perhaps to discuss options for employment. Working for VANOC would be more than promoting a “culture of achievement,” it would give Clark the chance to be associated with a winning team and a shot at national and international exposure. Learning fundraising skills could only help her in any future run at public office.

OPTION 3: The Talking Head
As a cabinet minister, Clark was a frequent guest on CKNW’s talk shows and attracted the attention of the station’s executive producer, Ian Koenigsfest. He called her after her resignation, hoping to hire her as an political analyst and host. A high-energy, combative personality. Live radio. A perfect marriage.

During her first day as guest host on CKNW’s Jennifer Mather Show in June, Clark was forced to put BC Ferries CEO David Hahn on hold in order to deal with news of the Michael Jackson verdict. I arrived an hour into the show because Koenigsfest had asked me to give her time to “get comfortable.” I suspect Clark, who was calmly composing an email on her BlackBerry when I stepped into the studio, didn’t need this time. As the long list of verdicts is read out on the air, she ignored the CNN feed and chatted to program director Tom Plasteras about her recent trip to Hawaii. “You know how everyone goes to those beaches where there’s sweet F.A. to do?” she asked, tossing off one of her trademark expletives. “Well, we didn’t do that. We went to Waikiki and stayed on a strip with McDonald’s and Denny’s. It was awesome.”

Clark was known in government as an informal speaker with a distaste for bureaucratic language, so it’s no wonder that she already has some broadcasting experience on her resumé. She was sought after by several television stations to offer commentary during the May election and settled on Global as a travelling act with former NDP leader Joy McPhail. The pair made much of the strange-bedfellows partnership, also writing guest columns in the Vancouver Sun. While Clark’s writing often came off as stiff and premeditated as a Liberal party press release, she shone on television with breezy and intelligent analysis.

Later, she co-hosted the Early Edition with Rick Cluff on CBC Radio and sat in as guest host on Mather’s show, prompting many rumours that she would take over the position after Mather’s expected departure. She again showed her flair for the medium, chatting comfortably on any given topic. Did her party bent flatten her remarks? Apparently not. Commenting on Carole Taylor’s appointment as finance minister, she said she was glad a woman was named to the position, even though it was surprising for the premier to choose a rookie. “Mind you, she’s got a $2-billion surplus,” Clark commented on air. “How hard can it be?”

During the June guest host spot, Clark’s personability came across as she conversed with callers about Jackson’s child-molestation trial, deftly fielding all comments regardless of their inanity. Example: “If I had all that money, I’d probably build a ranch and have all the neighbourhood kids over too!” says Doug from Coquitlam. “All right then!” Clark laughs, then changes tack to comment on the tragedy of the former child star. She found a much better platform with Hahn, with whom she discussed pending fare increases due to fuel surcharges. She asked whether the corporation will “go local” for the purchase of new boats, alluding to the controversy caused when BC Ferries awarded a lucrative contract to a German company in 2003. Hahn answered that negotiations with three bidders, two of them local, are underway; he can’t comment, but he’s “hopeful.”

“George MacPherson, the president of the ferry workers union, will be delighted to hear that,” Clark quipped. “Maybe he’ll drop his lawsuit against you!”

There’s a bit of irony here since Clark’s Liberals restructured BC Ferries into an independent entity able to make its own decisions on issues like boat-building contracts. You can see that she might get a kick out of this job, playing with tensions that her government stirred up in the first place. The part she misses most about politics is question period. She used to challenge herself to go in to the Legislature without notes and face any criticism “naked.” The opportunity now to turn those questions on her former colleagues or rivals, whoever they are, must be cathartic.

Koenigsfest later said he was impressed with Clark’s on-air abilities, noting her commentaries on the new cabinet and the sensitivity she showed on the 20th anniversary of the Air India crash. She read an editorial in which she asked why Vancouver has no memorial for the victims who died in the crash and asked callers what they were doing to mourn. The feedback has been “outstanding,” he said, and she showed that she can be fair when interviewing former government colleagues. Very few people complained about her political bias, and when one caller got onto the air and growled an insult at her (“A fucking Liberal hack,” Clark recalls cheerfully), she handled it with ease. “I think she’s got a great future, and we hope it will be at this radio station,” he says.

But near the end of June, CKNW announced that it would be broadcasting the Charles Adler Show to replace Jennifer Mather, who is leaving because her husband, Brian Burke, accepted a job as general manager of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. The decision to bring in a syndicated program from Winnipeg in a time slot traditionally oriented toward local and provincial issues was clearly a budget-driven call by Corus, the station’s parent company in Toronto. However Koenigsfest insists Clark soon realized hosting a show was a full-time commitment, a role she wasn’t ready for. He adds that with just three weeks of radio under her belt, it was too soon to be talking about moving her into such high-profile position. There may also have been stumbling blocks in the negotiations; Clark was said to be unhappy with her relief host wages, expecting something closer to the reported three-year, $150,000-per-annum deal taken home by Mather. Those frustrations aside, she’s signed on to be a “permanent” relief host, primarily for Bill Good’s show, starting in September.

On the day I visited, I wondered whether Clark was almost too comfortable in the host seat. She hinted at this as we left the studio. “I’m going to see someone about a job,” she confided, but “I can’t tell you what!” This is the elusive thing about Clark. Yes, she’s charming, but it’s always clear there’s something else on her horizon. Perhaps she’s looking for a bigger audience, one provided by a national stage.

OPTION 4: The Federal Politician
Clark’s political career began as a toddler. Her father, Jim, ran twice unsuccessfully for the provincial Liberals in 1971 and 1975, and he took his kids along to knock on doors and observe all-candidates meetings. Her first speeches at age five were simple—“Will you vote for my daddy?”—and the experience left her with the sense that politics was an ordinary, accessible career choice. She became involved in student government at Simon Fraser University, winning the student council presidency but losing the bid after the opposition launched an appeal based on a technicality. They charged that she had left posters up on election day and then failed to pay the resulting fine on time. That aside, she was named president of the SFU Young Liberals in 1987.

In 1993 Clark landed a position in Ottawa as assistant to then-transport minister Doug Young. She saw the difficulty federal politicians faced in dealing with the large bureaucratic maze. Three years later, when Gordon Campbell invited her to run provincially in 1996, she happily returned home.

Those who have watched her career have trouble believing that she’ll stay out of public life for long. “I don’t think she’ll be able to handle it,” says Jeff Rudd, legislative reporter for the Times-Colonist. Clark laughs when she hears that. She says leaving politics is like breaking up with a boyfriend. “In the first six months after you leave, you still remember all the reasons why you left,” she says. “And then a couple years down the road, you’re sitting alone at night by yourself in your living room, maybe into a glass of wine, and you’re thinking, ‘God, that guy was great! I miss him so much!’ And you pick up the phone and dial.”

So who would she call? Some speculate that Clark’s return would be federal. Globe and Mail pundit Jane Taber gave Clark a “hot” rating in her column after seeing her at the Liberal Party of Canada’s biennial convention in April, and speculated that she may one day challenge for the party leadership. Although Clark didn’t have an official role, she struck Taber with her wide-ranging network and a comfort level in Ottawa. “She’s somebody to watch,” Taber explains. “In a world where it’s still very much an old boys’ network, there’s very few women who stand out or are allowed to stand out, and Christy seems to have broken through. And once you’ve mastered B.C. politics, I think federal politics would be a piece of cake.”

But when she’s asked about her federal ambitions, Clark firmly says no. First of all, she wouldn’t want to be separated from her family, and she’s not enthusiastic about moving to the capital. “Anyone who would choose Ottawa over Vancouver needs to be medicated,” she says.

OPTION 5: The Premier of B.C.
Clark’s work with the provincial Liberal party included a bizarre recruiting drive across B.C. in 1991, with a crucial election looming for the Liberals, a party with no seats and no money. She and fellow SFU student Mike MacDonald travelled all over the B.C. Interior in a borrowed van with the goal of finding enough local candidates to convince the organizers of the televised leaders’ debate that the Liberals were a real party and that then-leader Gordon Wilson deserved to be included.

“I made the connections, but Christy closed the deals,” recalls MacDonald, who marvelled at Clark’s persuasive powers. The line-up of candidates they recruited sounds like a movie script, especially the way she tells it. She remembers one in particular, Darwin Netzel, a coroner, mustard-manufacturer, lawyer and, most importantly, the only Liberal in Quesnel. He said he would run if they invested in his mustard factory. “So we tentatively agreed and then of course bailed after he signed the nomination papers. We had no money. We couldn’t even pay our speeding ticket.” In the end the Liberals fielded 74 candidates, missing only one riding, and Wilson earned his spot on the broadcast.

If it’s true that her heart is in B.C., many think it’s also set on the top job. She avoids the question whether she wants to be premier: “At the moment I want to be on the radio. You know what? My number one priority right now is to be a great mother.” But in private conversations, she has made it clear that she has her eye on the job.

“I always had the feeling she would be the first woman elected as premier,” says Norman Ruff. “Up until her stepping down, I would say, yeah, she would be a major contender. Now I think there’s a question mark, whether she’ll maintain the status she’s always enjoyed within the party but also in the public. And we also could be seeing the rise of another major female contender in the form of Carole Taylor.” If she’s out of the public eye, he notes, there’s no telling how long her celebrity aura will last. But one key to her longevity is her overwhelming popularity among young Liberals, whose support may pay off well into the future.

A successful leadership bid would, of course, involve husband Mark Marissen, Prime Minister Paul Martin’s most powerful organizer in B.C. Even Clark acknowledges that her husband is the federal Liberal “Godfather” in the west, having orchestrated takeovers of several riding associations to bring in candidates who are Martin sympathizers. Spousal support aside, she has her own flair for gathering support and thrives on the legwork of campaigning.

Global legislative reporter Keith Baldrey thinks Clark is better positioned to realize leadership ambitions now that she’s “out of the tent” and doesn’t have to carry responsibility for unpopular party decisions. The time spent away, especially if she gets known as a radio host, may help ease the anger caused by her battles with the teacher’s union, instigated by the government’s limitation of their right to strike, the imposition of a wage settlement and her introduction of an act which gave districts the responsibility of determining class size, which had previously been protected in teachers’ contracts. One teacher emailed CKNW to tell her that he hated her as education minister but enjoyed listening to her now. “I had no idea you were so reasonable,” he wrote.

In some quarters, Clark was certainly not considered reasonable, especially while she waged the power struggle with the union over the B.C. College of Teachers, begun when she fired the board which included 15 elected members and replaced them with appointees. It was dubbed “Christy’s college” by furious union members who refused to pay their annual dues. The issue, says Baldrey, became a “quagmire.”

“She fell into the trap that I think young politicians fall into, which is to think that if you’re tough and aggressive and pick a fight, you can win the fight and therefore look better. She’s brash and that brashness didn’t always work.”

Clark served as a loyal soldier under Premier Gordon Campbell, and a mark of how skilled she was is how her old sparring partners respect her. When asked about Clark’s weaknesses, Joy McPhail answers that it was her constant defense of Campbell’s agenda. “I know that sounds funny to say that’s a weakness, but when the leader required a good talking-to rather than blind loyalty I suspect Christy leans more toward the loyal side. But being a strong party person myself, I understand that. And mind you, she did choose her family in the end.”

When Clark was shifted to the children and families portfolio in January 2004, some speculated that it was Campbell’s attempt to ease the mounting tensions with the union. The premier maintains that he chose Clark to head the ministry because he knew she was capable of handling the difficult job. That’s an optimistic way of putting it. Another way might be that it’s an impossible task. Previous governments and a succession of ministers in the position have found the patchwork of social service agencies baffling. One former executive director describes it like trying to separate scrambled eggs: the agencies often battle each other, work at cross-purposes and can’t reach consensus on the best approach to certain problems. The ministry, under different governments, has also struggled with chronic fiscal mismanagement. Although it’s an important job, it does not carry the same prestige as economic portfolios like finance or forestry.

Several of her former colleagues say that Clark’s role as deputy premier, under Campbell, was a token appointment without any real power. Regardless of the speculations on her exit, the gossip from Victoria adds up to one perception; Clark held the party line as a backbencher, but her next appearance in the legislature will be on her own terms.

At the end of three weeks as host of the Jennifer Mather Show, Clark is smitten. She loves the work and it seems she is far more challenged than she expected. It’s just like politics, she says: when you screw up, everybody hears it. One day she did an interview about skateboard parks at vacation spots and the phones didn’t ring. “When nobody calls, you know you’ve been boring people to tears.” But she’s learning. Her interview skills are improving, and her questions are more pointed.

She’s been so wrapped up in the radio work that she hasn’t had time for other things she was considering two months ago when we first talked. She hasn’t worked on her garden, taken up volunteering or pursued a role with Legacies Now. Has she perhaps found herself alone in the evening with a glass of wine, wondering why she ever left that political career? Wondering if she should pick up the phone? Not once, she says.

“In the last three weeks I have found another thing that I love to do—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—as much as politics,” she raves. “And I really do love it that much.” An hour later, however, I get an email from her and she is back to form, carefully measuring the impact of every word. “I hereby revoke that comment about liking radio better. I am loving the radio work but there’s nothing better than politics.”