In spite of (or because of) Whistler’s ever-changing nature—a transient tourist town that seems to make and remake itself with each passing season—local voters have, for years now, tended to favour consistency and experience at the ballot box.
In 2022, after a four-year term marked by its sheer unpredictability, history repeats itself once more, with the electorate returning all five incumbents to office—Mayor Jack Crompton, and councillors Cathy Jewett, Jen Ford, Arthur De Jong and Ralph Forsyth—along with two new faces that should be readily familiar to local politicos: Jessie Morden and Jeff Murl.
“I think the final vote tally really demonstrates the community’s confidence in these six people. They are thoughtful, hardworking and extremely connected to the community,” said Crompton after the results were announced on Oct. 15.
Whistler’s mayor gains a second term in office after running unopposed in 2018. He earned 2,153 votes, roughly 67 per cent of votes cast for mayor, compared to 712 votes for mayoral hopeful Marcus Culver and 259 for Brian Walker.
A resounding vote
Whistlerites left little doubt of their confidence in the returning incumbents, with all five topping the list of vote-getters.
Leading all candidates for the second election in a row was Councillor Cathy Jewett, with 2,262 votes, roughly 70 per cent of votes cast, followed closely by fellow incumbents Jen Ford (2,198 votes) and Arthur De Jong (2,179 votes). Ralph Forsyth returns to council with 1,639 votes, while first-time candidate Jessie Morden, the daughter of former Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, wasn’t far behind him at 1,612 votes.
Earning the final seat on council, with 1,589 votes, was Jeff Murl, who missed out on a council seat in 2018, placing eighth. Murl brought a renewed confidence to his second campaign, bolstered by a wealth of experience he gained in the intervening four years, including serving on the board of Arts Whistler, working on the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s board of variance, becoming a library trustee, and joining the Whistler Community Foundation’s finance committee. Even still, the 42-year-old accountant recognizes there will be some learning on the job once he assumes office.
“I think there’s definitely a learning curve no matter how much you prepare for this,” Murl said on election night. “I’ve always wanted to know what’s going on [at municipal hall] and now I get to finally see it first-hand. So I’d like to take it slow in the beginning and just try to listen and absorb as much as I can, and find my voice when the time comes.”
Notably, unlike last election when just a few dozen votes separated the sixth and final council seat from the next highest vote-getter, this year, there was a difference of nearly 600 votes.
Brendan Ladner and his climate-focused campaign topped the candidates who missed out on a seat at council, with 1,004 votes, followed by Dawn Titus (918 votes); Melinda Lopez (663 votes); Rhonda Millikin (628 votes); Curtis Lapadat (562 votes); Sarah Rush (465 votes); Tina Pashumati James (426 votes); Gordon Jeffrey (412 votes); and Gabriel Pliska (363 votes).
Compatibility vs. combativeness
In a campaign that was at times light on actual policy solutions, it may have been candidates’ perceived demeanour and willingness to work with others that ultimately made the difference in voters’ minds.
“There was quite a gap between the people that were successful and those that weren’t. I feel, to a certain extent, it was the way they presented their idea of change, which was basically ‘burn the barn,’” said Jewett. “There was no conciliation or interest in working with the incumbents.”
An otherwise tame campaign took an 11th-hour turn just days before election day, when an informal candidates meet-and-greet at outgoing Councillor Duane Jackson’s house with members of the local building industry raised concern for a handful of candidates, initially because they weren’t invited to the private event. That eventually led to allegations of possible vote buying from candidates Lapadat and Titus, who lodged complaints with election officials, contending that “light refreshments” promised in the invitation sent from Jackson’s email, along with written statements to the construction sector from Murl and Morden contained in the invite, constituted potential “inducement” to electors to vote a certain way.
“The key consideration will be whether or not someone who was in attendance at the event was actually induced to vote in a particular way as a result of attending the event and having a refreshment or other benefit (gift, money etc.). What happens at the event will be important to understand whether or not there was either implied or overt inducement,” said Whistler’s Chief Election Officer Pauline Lysaght in an email the day of the meeting, Oct. 7. “The public perception of the event would not necessarily impact the analysis, as this requirement is specific to a person.”
The last-minute furor spoke to a recurring theme this election season, with some candidates taking up the mantle of Whistler’s “unheard”—the young, front-line workers that are commonly not eligible or inclined to vote—believing Whistler’s incumbents and contender candidates to not represent their interests.
In some ways, Morden is symbolic of this apparent dichotomy. A 34-year-old mother who is the first-ever Whistler-born resident elected to office, Morden has volunteer experience at several local non-profits and has positioned herself as a voice for the resort’s young demographic, a role she said she is proud to fill.
“I am just so overjoyed I made it. I’m at a loss for words and I can’t wait to just do good for this community,” she said on election night. “People need a voice right now and I really do feel like I can connect with the younger generation. And I hope that people will receive me.”
As the daughter of two-term Mayor Wilhelm-Morden, however, there is sure to be those who see her as another inside member of the so-called Whistler establishment—including several of the council hopefuls themselves, whose barbs were mostly relegated to social media in the lead-up to voting day.
It’s the kind of criticism Wilhelm-Morden heard first-hand herself, both as a multi-term councillor and two-term mayor. Flanking her daughter on election night at the Whistler Racket Club, where several candidates had gathered Oct. 15 to hear the results, Wilhelm-Morden said she had moments of trepidation as she watched Jessie on the campaign trail.
“I did, especially when it started to get quasi-nasty on social media,” she said. “One of the reasons I didn’t run again for mayor back in the day was social media. It was just a whole new dimension, which isn’t really pleasant, for the most part. And when I saw what was happening to Jessie on social media, all those feelings came flooding back.”
The tense tenor of the campaign, particularly online, was something several of the candidates noted. Asked if social media was ultimately a boon or a barrier to Whistler’s political culture, Jewett said she tried to use the platform to dispel misinformation.
“What concerned me is that people didn’t have the specifics and the correct information—and it’s all there. But there didn’t seem to be a depth of knowledge,” she said, highlighting the housing file in particular.
Housing remains No. 1 issue
At a time when the resort is seeing several pressures bearing down on it, it was housing that dominated much of the talk on the campaign trail. While acknowledging that more work still needs to be done on that front, Crompton believes Whistlerites’ vote for consistency and experience at the polls was ultimately a validation of the work council has done over the past four years.
“It demonstrates that our community understands that our housing challenge is enormous, and we need people with experience to take it on,” he said.
While it manifested in various ways, there was no denying the level of passion amongst all of the political hopefuls who threw their hat in the ring this election. Jewett urged them to stay the course if they want to continue advocating for change in the community.
“I hope that we can move on from the campaign, and that the people who were so keen to be involved, stay involved—that we see them at council meetings, that we see them at open houses, that we see them joining committees and boards, so it’s not just the Whistler ‘elite,’” she said.
Voter turnout on an unseasonably warm Saturday was 34.98 per cent, up from 32 per cent in 2018 and 27 per cent in 2014, but still below Whistler’s record high of 55 per cent in the resort’s landmark 2011 election, still the only time Whistlerites cleaned slate with an entirely new mayor and council.
On the school trustee front, incumbents Cynthia Higgins and Rachael Lythe were both re-elected, with 1,527 and 1,188 votes, respectively. Deb Bordignon finished just behind Lythe with 1,118 votes.