Whoever wins Kamloops, wins the election.
This old adage of B.C. politics has been the case since 1903, and Ray Pillar can't begin to understand for certain why. But the retired political science professor, who has been living in Kamloops for the last 20 years, has an inkling.
"There's not really any kind of research you can do to pin that down, but I suspect it's because we're kind of a middle-of-the-road city, being an urban and rural world," he said. "It's kind of an average-of-B.C. sitting here in Kamloops. . . People just seem to get the pulse of the province averaged out here."
Terry Lake, the B.C. Liberal candidate for Kamloops-North Thompson and a veteran politician, agrees.
"I'd like to think people in Kamloops are pretty smart and have a good sense of where the province is going," he said. "But they're very down-to-earth people, very friendly, very connected to what's going on, and understand both rural issues and urban issues. I think it's a very good agglomeration of British Columbia."
The Kamloops riding was split into two in 1991. While the boundaries of North-Thompson and South-Thompson have changed over the years, it appears the government always wins at least one of the two ridings. According to Lake, North-Thompson has the stronger bellwether-tendency of the two — an observation that may not bear well for him, as the mood of the province appears to be leaning towards the B.C. NDP on May 14.
Lake, who was the riding's Liberal MLA and the province's environment minister over the last four years, as well as mayor of Kamloops before that, says he expects the votes will be close. However, he's not concerned.
"I hope that they will give me credit for working very hard and being an elected representative in this area for the last 11 years," he said. "I think that will affect quite a number of people who say, 'Well, I don't like everything this government's done, but Terry's done a good job for us.'"
According to a survey conducted by a local newspaper earlier this month, Lake's B.C. NDP counterpart in North-Thompson, Kathy Kendall, is six points ahead of him. The legal-aid lawyer and political newcomer says she does not take the numbers nor the riding's reputation for granted, but she is confident.
"I think people are ready for a change for the better," she said. "We've had 12 years of the Liberals and their policies, and the things they've done have drastically affected people personally in Kamloops-North Thompson, and people want a change."
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Tom Friedman, Kendall's running mate in South-Thompson, echoes her sentiment. This will be the second time he is running for the seat, having lost to retiring Liberal MLA Kevin Krueger by over 4,000 votes four years ago.
"I do feel there's quite a difference from 2009," he said. "I think people are feeling part of that provincial mood."
In South-Thompson, the B.C. Liberals are resting their hopes on software company owner Todd Stone. According to the same local poll, Stone is 14 points ahead of Friedman — numbers that give the B.C. Conservatives candidate hope that the seat might be won by a centre-right party.
"The majority of the people of this area have leaned to the right, not to the left, so there's a good chance that the NDP might not make it in this riding anyway," said Peter Sharp, a retired RCMP officer and former city councillor. "I keep on getting accused of splitting the vote...but I don't know if that's the case at all."
Perhaps the most divisive issue in Kamloops is the Ajax project. The application for the proposed open-pit copper and gold mine, whose boundaries would be within the city's limits, is set to be completed by the fall and will be followed by an environmental assessment.
Health, environmental and economic concerns have the community fairly evenly split on the project, while a small percentage are undecided, said Terry Kading, a Thompson Rivers University political science professor. As a result, none of the candidates in either riding appear to be taking a strong stance on the project.
"They want to stand back and wait until the assessment process is completed," said Kading. "Because their ridings extend beyond the city and to smaller communities, I think it gets a little more tricky for them to be visibly opposed to the mine. . . For the outlying communities, there is a lot more support for mine initiatives going forward in terms of employment opportunities offered."
The NDP wants a joint federal-provincial review panel to assess the Ajax mine, but the party hasn't taken a firm stance against it.
"Probably the majority of people have strong concerns, but they're willing to, given a high level of scrutiny, let that process to continue," said Friedman. "We have a lot of people in the work force who have to take jobs up in northeast B.C., or they have to go to Alberta, and it would be wonderful for them to take jobs closer to home."
However, a joint review panel has been rejected by the federal government. Lake also maintains it is unnecessary.
"There's no evidence to suggest it's a better assessment of a project," he said. "People want a fair process, a rigorous process, and if I was still environment minister when that project comes to my desk, you can bet the bar will be set pretty high because I wouldn't want any negative impacts on our community."
Given Kamloops' middle-of-the-road tendencies, Pillar says he doesn't expect things in either riding to stray too far from what the polls suggested earlier this month. He predicts that whether Kamloops maintains its bellwether reputation will depend on the emergence of a "big, province-wide issue," such as a scandal or a policy that garners substantial support or resistance.
"People are not voting for something typically, they're voting against things," he said.
"If the Liberals manage to hold on to the lead they've got (in South-Thompson), again, it would take a major issue to change that."