Elizabeth May’s campaign headquarters are located on what could be called Sidney, B.C.’s main drag, Beacon Street. That description, truth be told, suggests a degree of excitement absent from the sleepy Vancouver Island town. Nearby speed limits top out at 30 km/h; and odd is the business that doesn’t keep a dish of water for thirsty dogs. Fittingly, the scene inside the HQ feels more like a United Church basement after Sunday services than the campaign war room of a federal party leader. Green party volunteers scoop sunflower seeds into campaign door-hangers, which May will take with her when she knocks on doors on the even sleepier Pender Island the next day. Politicos in the backroom sip herbal tea. May, an “empty nester with dog,” as she describes herself, sits on a comfy couch facing the front door, presiding over the room. “Hi Jean!” she suddenly shouts, flashing a huge smile at a fiftysomething former Tory, interrupting the interview for the umpteenth time for a friendly chat. Dozens more supporters, and their dogs, stroll in on this sunny Saturday, one week into the campaign.
Sidney locals will see a lot more of May in the next month. The party’s strategy, this time, is simple: get May a seat, or bust. The Green party leader is planning to spend all but 10 days in the riding, in stark contrast to the last campaign, which she launched in Guelph, Ont., before flying to Vancouver to catch a cross-Canada election train that deposited her, eventually, in Central Nova, N.S., her home riding; there, she took on Peter MacKay. Although May sees the last campaign as a “watershed” for the party—the former activist muscled into the leaders’ debates, established the Greens as Canada’s fourth party, and upped electoral support by 41 per cent—analysts largely saw it as a fail, because she wasn’t able to unseat MacKay, the defence minister. “I remember an interesting meeting right after the 2008 election,” she explains. “A council member said: ‘I get so sick of hearing, “You didn’t even elect your leader.” ‘ Well, we weren’t even trying to elect the leader. But it kind of hung in mid-air, like a thought bubble: ‘We didn’t even try to elect the leader…’ Then, we started thinking: maybe we should have.”
The party, after commissioning pollster Nik Nanos to crunch numbers, zeroed in on Saanich-Gulf Islands, which May, who moved there in 2009, calls the “Greenest riding in Canada.” Polling, at the end of last summer, put May at 32 per cent among decided voters, compared with 34 per cent for Conservative minister Gary Lunn, who’s represented the riding since 1997, when he was a rookie Reformer. Indeed, Lunn’s only real challenge came in 2008, when Liberal Briony Penn, an environmental activist and Green defector, came within 2,500 votes.
But May’s island play is hardly universally popular, even among Greens—a party uncommonly willing, it seems, to slag their leader and call out campaign strategy. “She cannot, and should not, be running a campaign merely focused on getting her elected,” says former B.C. Green party leader Christopher Bennett, who served as May’s campaign strategist in 2008. “It’s the wrong strategy, and I’m not optimistic.” His counsel? “Get out in the public eye. Be the annoying shadow on Jack Layton’s shoulder. Pull in Green Tories. Chase the undecideds. But she’s unfocused and undisciplined.”
The riding choice, one former Green executive told Maclean’s, was “completely, utterly stupid. To run in a riding on an island, a boat or plane ride away from media, and three time zones from Toronto, is lunacy. Why expect to be in the debates when you’re not accessible, or involved in daily dialogue?” May is a fantastic lobbyist with an impressive intellect, he insists, but her campaign has “glaring strategic flaws”—frustrating anyone who wants to build the Greens into a viable political machine. He recalls once trying to prep May for debates. She “refused to be squeezed out like toothpaste,” she told him, and insisted on going in cold, which is either deeply admirable, or political folly.
Prep work, of course, is moot this time: May was barred from debates, then this week lost a court challenge that might have let her elbow her way in. She says she was “absolutely shocked” by the decision of the TV consortium. “Everyone I know who had any knowledge of the news media, people close to CTV, CBC, said: ‘They can’t keep you out, you were in last time—it won’t even be an issue.’ Attempts to reach the consortium went unanswered. They told us: ‘We’ll talk to you when the writ drops. We don’t make any decision until then.’ But they never spoke to us at all. We found out from CP.”
May wants to become a “voice of conscience” for the many issues being ignored in this electoral cycle. Among them are several that ought to play well with her constituency: climate change, a ban on oil tankers in West Coast waters, the protection of wild salmon. But this, analysts agree, is more a local election for May. If May comes behind Lunn, insiders feel this could be Liz’s last hurrah, particularly if she fails to recapture the million-odd votes she won in 2008. That was the party’s high-water mark, when May—a founding member of the Sierra Club of Canada and a friend of Bill Clinton’s, who helped create five national parks and negotiated the cleanup of the Great Lakes—ran a full-fledged national campaign that put both her and the party on the map. “If she goes 0 for 3, and fails, again, to take a seat in the House—if, at the end of the day, she’s unable to deliver the win,” says Bennett, “the Greens are going to have to take a long, hard look, and ask themselves some hard questions.”
May herself professes to have “no idea” what would come next if she loses Saanich-Gulf Islands. Understandably, she doesn’t much like the question. But she won’t be leaving B.C., she says. Her best friend, noted environmentalist Vicki Husband, lives down the street. There are old friends on Salt Spring Island, in nearby Victoria, and right across the Lower Mainland. Whatever comes next, she says, she’s here to stay.