Barinder Rasode versus Linda Hepner is a case of Tweedledee versus Tweedledum in Surrey
Those hoping for truly progressive change in Surrey are quietly groaning over the prospects for the 2014 mayoral race.
At the moment, it seems to be pitting bubbly councillor Linda Hepner against the tough-minded Barinder Rasode.
Both were elected under the banner of Mayor Dianne Watts's Surrey First party.
It's a centrist coalition created to keep anyone to the left of Coun. Judy Villeneuve off city council.
Rasode, formerly associated with the now-defunct Surrey Civic Coalition, is being helped by two bare-knuckled political organizers, federal Liberal Mark Marissen and former B.C. NDP president Moe Sihota.
Marissen remains an ardent political supporter of his ex-wife, Premier Christy Clark. He was also a top B.C. organizer for former prime minister Paul Martin.
Sihota helped steer the provincial NDP on a more conservative course during his tenure as party president from 2009 to 2013.
It's easy to see how Surrey progressives might see the coming mayoral election as Tweedledee versus Tweedledum.
Surrey First remains conservative
It's worth noting that Surrey First isn't as backward as the old Surrey Electors Team, which Watts abandoned.
The Surrey Electors Team opposed books in schools about same-sex parents, going all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to try to retain the ban.
But Watts and her Surrey First colleagues still enraged many progressives by inviting former U.S. president George W. Bush to an economic summit. This occurred even as local activists were trying to have him arrested in connection with torture committed by American authorities.
In addition, Watts, Hepner, and Rasode never seriously encouraged the creation of a ward system in Surrey. Electing councillors in smaller constituencies would have diminished the influence of wealthy campaign contributors and enhanced local democracy in the sprawling suburb of 316 square kilometres.
Nor was there much consideration given to replacing the RCMP with a local police force.
The Mounties' conservative approach to policing stands in stark contrast to that of the Vancouver Police Department, which has adopted innovative approaches in dealing with sex workers and drug addiction. The lack of a supervised-injection site in Surrey, which the Mounties oppose, means parents with kids face more street disorder around the Newton Exchange bus loop.
Surrey won't even fly the rainbow flag over the new $97-million city-hall building to celebrate Surrey Pride Week. After some negative media coverage, the city allowed an LGBT display in the atrium.
The refusal to allow the flag on top of the building sends a dismal message across the region, particularly to young people considering moving near City Hall in new condos springing up along University Drive.
Finances could create problems
The biggest issue facing Surrey, however, is probably finances.
Council has spent a lot of money creating a vibrant city centre around the Surrey Central Station. There's no disputing that the new Bing Thom–designed library is spectacular and nearby Holland Park is a gem.
But the problem facing council is that it may take years to generate sufficient tax revenue to pay for the city-centre public amenities along with other municipal costs.
That's because it will take time for all those condos to be bought and occupied by taxpayers who will help foot the bill.
This could leave a hole in the budget that the next mayor and council will have to address.
I wouldn't be surprised if the financial storm clouds influenced Watts not to seek reelection.
That's why the 2014 mayoral contest could be the most important in Surrey's history.
If there's another global real-estate meltdown, Surrey could find itself in a serious financial pickle.
We've already seen U.S. cities like Stockton, California, and Detroit, Michigan, default on their debt.
Let's look at the numbers in Surrey.
In 2013, the city's debt rose from $245.6 million from $175.5 million in the previous year.
Meanwhile, the city-owned Surrey City Development Corporation has been investing millions of dollars on behalf of taxpayers in development projects on city-owned land.
That led National Post journalist Brian Hutchinson to question if the city is taking on more risk than it can handle, most notably in the 3 City Plaza mixed-use development. It will be home to a new Kwantlen Polytechnic University campus.
Surrey City Development Corporation's 2012 annual report lists a net debt of $57.7 million, up from $15.6 million the previous year.
Shades of North Van, circa 2005
The political situation in Surrey reminds me of the 2005 election for mayor of the City of North Vancouver.
A right-wing councillor, Rod Clark, ran against the incumbent mayor, Barbara Sharp, who had been linked to the federal Liberals.
Many in the labour movement across the region decided to back Sharp's candidacy, even though she had irritated progressive councillors in her city.
Out of nowhere, a young councillor named Darrell Mussatto decided to enter the mayoral race. He was perceived by some as a longshot, but analysts underestimated how popular he was in his community.
And despite not having the backing of some veteran New Democrats, Mussatto won with 40 percent of the vote.
This offers a lesson for progressives in Surrey.
There's more to Surrey than Surrey First
If residents are fed up with Surrey First, they don't necessarily have to get in line behind Rasode's candidacy just because she's a little less conservative than Hepner.
Both were part of the council that has put Surrey taxpayers at considerable risk in the event of a downturn in the housing market.
There are options.
I would suggest that progressives' best bet to defeat both Rasode and Hepner is Newton–North Delta NDP MP Jinny Sims.
Sims has been a firebrand in Parliament standing up for seniors, temporary foreign workers, immigrants, and other underdogs.
The former B.C. Teachers' Federation president is tough, principled, pragmatic, and exceptionally intelligent.
Meanwhile, her party doesn't seem to be going anywhere, given the rising popularity of Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals.
This means that even if she's reelected in 2015, Sims may find herself once again on the Opposition side of Parliament, where it's harder to bring about real change.
As Surrey's mayor, she would offer a steady hand through potentially troubling times.
And everyone knows that when the economy goes into decline, there's always a risk of a racial backlash. Sims, a true progressive, could be counted on to keep a cool head.
The true litmus test for federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair will come on Monday (June 30) in the Trinity-Spadina byelection.
His party already lost Toronto Centre even with star candidate Linda McQuaig.
If the Liberals take Trinity-Spadina back from the NDP, then Sims should seriously consider running for mayor of Surrey.
She would make history as the first person of South Asian descent to be elected mayor in the Lower Mainland.
And you can be sure that as mayor, she wouldn't keep quiet if city council decided to waste precious public funds inviting an alleged war criminal to a municipal economic summit.