Wednesday, October 13, 2010

‘Real’ Encouragement from a ‘Real’ Passionate Calgarian: Drinks with Barb Higgins

Nation: The following is a submission from FOES (Friend Of the Enlightened Savage) Christina Rontynen.  It is also posted at her shiny, new blog: PC in YYC

Christina's text appears...  now.


I had been attempting to sit down with Barb since the week after my original blog had been published. A member of her team contacted me and let me know that this “interview” was important to them. Throughout the course of the last month I received emails and the occasional phone call asking my availability for the week ahead. On Friday night I was asked if I could be flexible over the long weekend. As a citizen blogger my answer was, of course, YES - except for the thanksgiving dinner factor on Sunday night. That was unlucky for me because I was invited to experience the Flames home opener with Barb that night. I really chalked it up to bad luck and bad timing. The next morning, to my surprise, one of Barb’s volunteers called and asked if I could meet for drinks at 8pm.

My day continued like any other – and when 7pm rolled around @ppilarski and I got ready and headed out to meet the mayoral candidate. We were meeting at Earls on 4th Street; as a resident of Mission Barb says that 4th Street is one of her favourite hangout spots, especially the Joyce.

We were greeted by a Barb volunteer and sat down in the restaurant. We chatted for a bit, and found out Barb was on route. At this moment her partner, Brad, walked in. He sat down with us and was surprised I was the blogger. I started to explain the concept to him and Barb barrelled into the restaurant. I say barrelled because she has so much energy that you literally feel it when she enters the room – big smile, moving quickly, bright appearance. She is with her campaign manager. Brad and the manager excuse themselves to the lounge; they have a football game to watch. Barb sits down right beside me and says she wants to be close so that she can get to know me.

She is wearing jeans, a blazer and a scarf. I noted this because I’ve never seen her in jeans during the course of this race. I appreciated that she came casually – she came as her weekend self. The first thing she explains is about keeping her purse around her ankle on the floor. A stolen purse in South America taught her that lesson. This leads to a conversation about travelling. The conversation about travelling leads to a conversation about Calgary. This was a turning point in our conversation. At first it was clear that Barb really did not know what to expect – but she warmed up to @ppilarski and me, and started being ‘real’ within a few minutes.

After her warm up it became very clear that her strength was being one on one with people. She looked you right in the eye when you spoke and when she responded. She never hesitated and she never held back. She was enthusiastic, down to earth, and exuded confidence.

“There is nowhere else on earth like Calgary. The energy here is different. You can propose an idea and people get excited about it. They want to do it and they find a way to get it done. It’s refreshing. I love it here.”

We agree that Calgary is a special place; it breeds and attracts individuals that are bold go getters. It’s clear she understands the people of this city. I’ve grown up here my entire life – I know that vibe, I live that vibe, and it is important to me that a mayoral candidate would recognize it and be willing to nurture it.

We talk about her campaign. “I feel like we have finally figured it out – we are finally gelling.” She explains that she felt as if she couldn’t be herself early on in the campaign. She couldn’t handle that anymore, switched up her campaign team (as we all know), and finally felt free to speak her mind and run the campaign the way she envisioned it. I feel like getting to spend some time with her was a direct result of a more organized team – a guest blogger for CalgaryPolitics was no longer on a list, but on the “things to do” list.

I ask her about social media – I had to it’s my passion. “I tried the Twitter thing. At the beginning it was all me and I’d respond to tweets before bed. I was willing to get behind it and use it every day but people just got really nasty. I stopped surrounding myself with nasty people in my real life a long time ago. You shouldn’t surround yourself with those people. If I was sitting here with someone treating me badly I’d pay the bill, wish them well and leave. That’s what I did with Twitter.” She explained what an avid Facebook user she was before the election. She loved sharing pictures and catching up with friends online. She suspended her personal Facebook account for the election and is focusing on her political one. She likes it and feels she is using it effectively. She likes responding to comments online. “It’s like we are sitting here at Earl’s, we are having a good time, but the people at the Joyce across the street are mad because we are here and they are over there. Come on! I picked a restaurant and you are free to come here too. That’s kind of how I feel about Facebook and Twitter. I ended up picking one and anyone is welcome to join me there.”

I’m impressed by her understanding of social media and how it is being used. True, she had no idea about my blog but she did understand its potential and knew about CalgaryPolitics. She told me she was tired of going to bed angry after reading the day’s tweets. I can live with that response. We are all aware there are some angry voices on Twitter this election (something I need to blog about too). Do I wish she would have tried Twitter longer, yes; do I think she understands it will be important to engage on social media in some way if she wins the mayor’s chair, yes.

A conversation about Facebook undoubtedly leads us to a discussion about friends. Those are the people that convinced her running was what she needed to do. Similar to Nenshi, she was looking for a strong candidate to support and bring change to city council. When she didn’t find that, she started to realize that perhaps she needed to step up. “I was physically surrounded by friends at a Wednesday night Stampede party. They were from all different areas of my life, old and new.” They all wanted her to run for mayor, so she invited them over for breakfast on Friday. Dressed in Stampede gear, they all committed to Barb to help; she made them look her right in the eye and promise.

“Then I realized I had to quit my job!” She took time off from work and came in to give notice over her holidays. “I usually go out of town when I’m on vacation from work so when I walked into the newsroom everyone knew something was going on.” Darryl Janz, of course, took the news the hardest. “He cried. I love him. He is a special man.” Barb hasn’t regretted a single moment since. “I know in my heart this is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life right now.”

During the course of our conversation Barb says hello and gives big thanks to a table of her volunteers beside us. She tells me that she spent Sunday phoning volunteers and thanking them, “that’s what I was thankful for this Thanksgiving. I just can’t explain how thankful I am to all these people. I never expected it. I knew I’d have name recognition and people would trust me after my experience as their evening news anchor, but this has been incredible.”

We talk about the fact that the mayor will have to deal with becoming a local celebrity. “I dealt with that in my twenties,” Barb explains. “I have learned how to use my influence to highlight issues that matter. This isn’t about me. I’m doing this because I can facilitate change and point out the issues in this city.” She alludes to the fact that some candidates running will have to adjust to all the popularity they will receive; walking down the street won’t just be walking down the street anymore. She won’t need this adjustment time.

Barb pays the bill as soon as it gets to the table. The waitress recognizes her and we all chat about the election. Barb explains how to vote – unfortunately this young lady has only been a Calgary resident for 2 months.

Barb turns to me directly and shifts her focus. She wants to know about me; something I had asked in my original blog “what would candidates ask me?” @ppilaski and her volunteer begin to banter – it’s just Barb and I. I feel like she has known me for a while, like a mentor. She encourages me on my path of communications and reminds me to go with my gut. We both understand what it is to be passionate and she says she is excited to see where I will end up. Wow. This conversation continues for at least 10 minutes.

I receive a big hug from Barb and @ppilarski gets a firm handshake. “I’m so glad I got to sit down and do this,” Barb gushes, and you can tell she isn’t blowing smoke up my behind ... she genuinely enjoyed giving me an hour and a half of her time. She comments that at this time next week she will be in front of a television biting her nails. One week away from election day and she is still willing to give me so much time. “I wish I could sit down like this with everyone in this city. I want to know their stories. Calgary is made up of people with incredible stories. To understand them is how you understand the needs of the city.”

I walk out with @ppilarski and say “Wow, that’s not what I was expecting.” I’m impressed. She literally opened up her heart for an hour and a half, no pauses, no awkward moments, straight constant attention and conversation, no politicking just people. Her passion and grace overflows – and she is eager to pour it out over Calgary.

Cross posted on

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