ELECTION 2014: Connecting with the electorate may require sore knuckles

City of Kelowna: Hold a high profile role in this community for long enough and you'll inevitably gain a reputation for something.

Hold a high profile role in this community for long enough and you’ll inevitably gain a reputation for something.

For Kelowna Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick, that reputation is being Mr. Door-Knocker.

“It’s not like I invented it,” he said, with a laugh. “Door knocking started when democracy started. The best way to build a relationship is to shake a hopefully-future-constituent’s hand, ask  ‘what should I do if I’m elected on your behalf?’ and have a conversation.”

These days Letnick is a fixture in Victoria as one of the three MLAs representing this region, and can be seen travelling around the province in his role as the agriculture minister, but in 2005 he was just embarking on a political path in Kelowna.

“I spent two months non-stop knocking on doors,” he said, noting that as an Okanagan College professor, he had July and August off and he saw it as the perfect time to make a bid for a seat on city council.

“I’d be at the door for half a minute to a minute, and most would say ‘thank you, but I’m not interested,’ and in other cases they’d say ‘come in and have a beer’ and the conversation would last an hour. If you’re a people person the best way to hear concerns is face to face.”

The conversations weren’t just idle chatter, either.

“I kept track of all the submissions by neighbourhood, so I could understand what people in Rutland, the Mission or the Quail Ridge areas cared about,” he said. “In some cases there was consensus on city issues, and in other cases they wanted to talk about issues that were specific to their neighbourhood.”

It was a tack that paid off for Letnick who won the seat on council he was looking for and then the MLA seat that came up after his time on council ended.

That said, surveys online communication and other means of initiating face-to-face contact are just as important, he said.

“The important part is listening,” he said.

Building a connection with the electorate is something that’s particularly challenging in political races where the field of contenders is so wide, said  UBC Okanagan political science professor Wolf Depner.

“Door knocking, I would argue, in itself is not going to do anything,” he said. “There’s simply not enough time to knock on all doors and reach as many people you really need to.”

Depner thinks a bit of door knocking, paid advertising, media penetration and social media presence would likely do the trick, but key to it all is having something to say.

“You need a message that resonates with people,”he said. “If you don’t have a message that resonates with people, you can door knock on as many doors as you want. If they don’t buy what you’re selling you’re not going anywhere.”

Where the benefit of building one on one relationships may lie is that it drags one candidate’s message away from another’s.

“There’s an obvious danger that messages are going to sound alike,” he said.

“If you listen to people campaigning in municipal politics, all they talk about low taxes and jobs. People can think, ‘wow I’ve heard this before.'”

To help build an opinion on the contender’s in the Central Okanagan’s municipal election go to http://www.kelownacapnews.com/municipalelection/