Diagnosis: Sandy Santori was sick of Gordon Campbell

Don't go into politics: it will break your heart.

-- Sam Jacobs, Liberal member of Parliament, 1937

Forget about his bad heart: B.C. Liberal cabinet minister Sandy Santori likely knew his political career was over back in 2002, when an Italian grandmother approached him in the streets of Trail.

With fire in her eyes, the woman dressed in black berated Santori over Liberal government cuts to health care and public services. She said he was a disgrace to both the Italian community and Trail, sources told the Georgia Straight.

Then the elderly woman allegedly spat on Santori and walked away, leaving him stunned.

Last week Santori, minister of state for resort development, surprised Premier Gordon Campbell and many observers by announcing he was quitting both his cabinet position and politics altogether to take a job as manager of the Rossland Trail Country Club.

Campbell, who was on one of his ill-fated winter vacations to Hawaii when he got the phone-call resignation from Santori, cannot have been happy at yet another cabinet minister bailing out. Finance Minister Gary Collins, Campbell's most trusted ally, pulled the plug in November 2004, following the lead of Deputy Premier Christy Clark, who quit in September.

Campbell has repeatedly been forced to rejig his cabinet despite having determined in January 2004 which members were not going to run for reelection and replacing them with MLAs who were committed to running in May 2005.

The resignation of Santori, a one-term MLA (West Kootenay-Boundary), again leaves the B.C. Liberals looking like they are running out of gas as they approach the election.

On the verge of tears, Santori told reporters in Victoria that his sudden departure was for reasons of health, the result of a stay in hospital in early December for tests on his heart after suffering nausea, chest pain, and numbness. The 50-year-old politician is a smoker whose parents both died of heart disease and whose brother survived two heart attacks, so those health concerns are well-founded.

But there are several reasons to question whether or not Santori's heart problems are the whole story about his resignation: sources told the Georgia Straight that Santori had been talking in 2004 with friends and associates in the Kootenays about his disillusionment with the direction of the Gordon Campbell government, saying it was not on the right track, in his view, and was alienating the public.

Unlike many urban Liberal MLAs who can largely avoid their angry constituents, in Trail, Santori directly paid the price for the Campbell government's slashing of public services.

The region saw the B.C. Liberals close Kimberley's 24-bed hospital in 2002 after large public protests, as well as its courthouse. Trail saw bed closures in its hospital and the closure of long-term care and extended-care facilities there and in nearby Rossland.

Santori could not help but get the message of community anger at Trail's annual Silver City Days parade in May 2002. Santori had been a popular man in Trail: a three-term mayor, a city councillor, and president of the Trail Smoke Eaters Hockey Club and the Cristoforo Colombo Lodge, an Italian benevolent society.

But sources said that when Santori's open convertible drove by the crowds, the MLA was met with complete silence: no booing or jeering, but no sign of recognition whatsoever for the now unpopular politician. The shunning of Santori strongly affected him, the sources told the Straight.

Another reason to doubt that Santori's suspect heart was the only cause of his departure is that he actually had accepted renomination as the B.C. Liberal candidate for West Kootenay?Boundary in 2005 seven days after he was released from Trail hospital and after heart-disease tests came back negative. It was only when he was offered the job at the Rossland Trail Country Club that Santori packed in his political career.

Lastly, Santori was clearly going nowhere in the Campbell cabinet. He was first appointed as management-services minister in 2001, but after a lacklustre performance Campbell demoted him to a minister-of-state position in 2004.

Campbell's decision meant that Santori took a sizable $14,000 pay cut, because full cabinet positions earn an extra $39,000 over the MLA salary but ministers of state get only $25,000 more. And the position of minister of state for resort development was regarded by many as more of a joke than a key portfolio, no doubt hurtful to a proud man.

Santori's political epitaph may have been written in October 2004. In a story in the Trail Times, social worker Terry Jones said Santori had failed to represent voters in the West Kootenay-Boundary area over government health-care cuts.

"He could have been a hero if he had stood behind the best interests of the people in this constituency," Jones said of Santori.

PREDICTION: Premier Gordon Campbell will soon cave in to demands from the film-and-television industry that he match increases in tax credits recently introduced by the Ontario and Quebec governments.

In 1998, I travelled to Hollywood as part of a government/labour delegation to examine increasing the tax credit on labour used in foreign productions from eight percent to 11 percent.

The writing was clearly on the wall when we went to one major producer's office and saw the sign on his desk: Free Is Too Much. Another producer told us that if he could save just $10,000 on a $2-million movie of the week by not shooting in B.C., he would. The credit was increased shortly afterward.

B.C.'s $1-billion-a-year film industry can easily move elsewhere, and it will unless the B.C. Liberals wake up before it's too late.

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio's Early Edition. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net.