Insights For Women Looking to Run For Office From Mayor Tara Veer
We sat down with Red Deer’s Mayor, Tara Veer, to talk about her journey into elected office, what she has learned, what she loves about being Mayor and advice she’d give other women who are considering a run.
Let’s start by talking about your own journey. What led you into politics and running for elected office?
From a very young age, as early as five years old, I recall having a very strong interest in government and public policy. I attribute my love of politics to my dad. Even when I was very young, we talked about politics at home all the time. Also, my mom was a very strong and supportive influence. Her attitude was “go for it” and “you can be whoever you choose to be."
I knew at a young age I wanted to serve in an elected capacity. I recall visiting our City Hall in Grade Six, learning about local government. I sat in a Councillor’s chair in Council Chambers and I remember thinking, “maybe one day I’ll run for City Council." I also remember looking at the Mayor’s chair and thinking, “maybe I’ll run for Mayor."
When I was in high school, Red Deer had its first female Mayor, Gail Surkan. She has been an inspiration to me since that time.
Out of university, I began working in a support position for a federal Member of Parliament. That was my first formal entry into politics. I am very grateful to that MP. I was twenty-one and up against a lot of candidates with more experience. He certainly took a chance on me even though I was young and inexperienced.
When I was twenty-six, I remember feeling a shift. I felt ready to represent the public as myself, instead of representing a viewpoint of another elected official. So I did. Even though I ran for elected office much earlier in life then I would have anticipated, it was something I always intended to do.
Tell Us about the nuts and bolts of your first campaign. What steps did you take?
My first campaign running for office myself was not my first campaign. I think that’s why I was able to run a successful one. I did have experience. I got that experience while working for the federal MP, and I had also volunteered on federal and provincial campaigns as well. By the time I came to my own official campaign I wasn’t starting at zero. I already had a skill set developed around the strategy and the mechanics of what a campaign should look like and how to tailor it.
There’s a financial reality to campaigns. To run a professional campaign, financial resources are very important. Although, now, arguably less important than they have been historically, because social media is a powerful campaign tool. Certainly for that first election, financial accessibility was an issue. I had to run more of a strategic campaign, as opposed to a blitz campaign, because of financial constraints.
You were dealing with both youth and gender as potential barriers. how did you overcome these issues?
Everyone who knew me knew my passion for politics and community-building. People who knew me were not surprised. It wasn’t until the election race, with people who didn’t know me, where I faced these kinds of questions.
I quickly learned, though, that I am not defined by who or what other people necessarily presume me to be. I am very grounded in my own identity, principles, what I can offer, and my vision for our community - it gave me great staying power to navigate through those challenges that otherwise could have pulled focus. In fact, instead of allowing those who questioned my youth and gender to govern me, I actually used them as a catalyst to strengthen my resolve.
There will always be people who encourage you to go for it. Just as there are always naysayers who say it can’t be done or it shouldn’t be done.
People don’t often focus on the good things about being an elected official, so tell me what are the awesome things about public life?
That’s a great question. One of my favourite things about being Mayor is engaging with our community in a very real way. Being able to affect positive change through the formal requests, but also the day-to-day informal encounters on the street. For example, walking to this interview a lady stopped me on the street and asked me to wish her mom a happy 80th birthday. I was able to, on behalf of the community, wish that citizen a happy birthday. Taking time to recognize that the little things matter because in many respects, those translate to big things.
I’ll be in the grocery store and I’ll overhear someone say “I can’t believe she buys her own groceries.” I find that amusing because there’s an assumption that the mayor’s position is one of right and privilege. In some respects, it is; but ultimately my job is to be chief public servant and to serve the public. In order to do that, you don’t just need a team, you need an absolute army of a team.
I have the privilege of working with eight other elected officials, but the reach is far beyond our Council team. It’s working with our 1600 City employees and recognizing that their front-line service allows us to deliver on our commitments to our community. Additionally, working with community partners, plus other provincial and federal orders of government, is really important. City-building is also province-building, and ultimately, country-building. It's all rewarding.
Why is it important to have women's voices in a political system?
Those entrusted to legislate and make public policy are making decisions for the people they represent. Local government, in particular, makes decisions that impact the everyday lives of citizens. The fact that women are half of the population makes it imperative that there’s strong representation so those voices are represented amongst the policy makers who are affecting change.
We’re celebrating 100 years of suffrage this year in Alberta. While those women and men had challenges and victories, it’s because of their commitment that I am able to sit here as a Mayor of one of the great emerging cities in Canada.
Personally, I am very intentional in investing time in kids and youth. In particular, the young girls who will come into my office and say, “I want to be a mayor." We sometimes underestimate our influence and impact. It’s important that we continue to pave the way for others.
What advice would you give other women looking to run for office?
Campaigns are an exciting time. They are invigorating and inspiring. They also are a lot of time and effort. Here are a few things I'd recommend:
- Get as much experience as possible, even if it is volunteer experience, so that you start your race strong, with well-developed skills.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. Build on your strengths. Where you have a weakness, surround yourself with people who can fill that gap.
- Get advisers that you know and trust. You’ll need support in implementing your campaign across the full spectrum.
- Be mindful that we communicate with both our words and our actions. Individuals often judge themselves by their intentions, whereas others judge us by our actions. It’s important to closely link your intention and your action. Sometimes that’s through verbal communication but sometimes that’s just through taking action through your day.
- Be prepared for debates. In our municipal elections, there are between eight and twelve debates. During campaigns, particularly for first time candidates, you don’t need to have all the answers. It’s important to at least speak from a principle if you don’t know the answer to a specific question. Then find out more and get back to that specific citizen.
- Know why you're running, what you hope to do and be able to back it up. Campaigns are about credibility. If someone is going to enter a campaign, do so with strong rationale for why you want to run and how you plan to execute that. Anytime you face a challenge, go back to your why.