An interest in art and design took Sarah Hamilton to the Windy City, but politics snuck up and stole her heart while she was there. It was 2012, and Barack Obama was running for a second term as POTUS. Hamilton was working on an M.A. in visual culture and critical studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and needed some data for her masters thesis. “I intended to volunteer for both campaigns as part of my research, but the Republicans never called me back,” she says. The Democrats, on the other hand, were happy for the help. “It was a really positive experience. Being part of that was kind of magical and it made me, I won’t say course-correct, but think about my career in a different way. Once you start volunteering in politics and see how the work you do can affect change, it can be a very addictive feeling.”
Evidently. At 34, by some years the youngest member and one of just two women (Bev Esslinger being the other) on Edmonton City Council, Hamilton is closing on the midpoint of her rookie term as the elected representative for Ward 5. Her ward covers the southwest end of the city north of the river, including the Lessard neighbourhood where she grew up next door to a certain Stephen Mandel and his family. It was Mandel, former Edmonton mayor and current leader of the Alberta Party, who gave Hamilton her earliest taste of politics. As a child, she helped out with his first, and unsuccessful, bid for elected office, as he vied for a public school board trustee spot in the 1995 election.
Mandel might not have detected his junior campaigner’s true calling back then, but when Hamilton returned from Chicago in 2014, after a stop in Phoenix, he recruited her to his communications staff the day after Premier Jim Prentice named him Alberta’s Minister of Health. She also helped elect Mandel in the 2014 by election.It would be a short-lived gig, however. Hamilton watched with dismay as Mandel lost his Edmonton-Whitemud seat and the PCs were swept from power by the NDP in the spring of 2015.
“That was another formative experience,” Hamilton says. “I was upset about the loss. Stephen and (wife) Lynn were focused on their family, focused on what next. And I think that’s a good lesson. If you’re going to be involved in politics, there will be wins and losses and you can’t let the other parts of your life slide. It helped me go into this role with eyes wide open, to keep dates with my family and go out with friends and have those positive experiences.”
Following the election, Hamilton went private as a communications and public-relations consultant. Her clients included The Coal Association of Canada. She responds to an interviewer’s sideways glance at that prickly item on her résumé with aplomb, pushing back diplomatically. “Environmental arguments aside, I got to travel to a lot of small towns across Alberta and meet really decent people — families who worked in the mine to supplement their farming operations so they could stay on the farm. People who used it as bridge income so they could pay to go to post-secondary. A single mom who works in coal mining because it allows her to earn a really decent wage and be home with her kids every night.” Her point made — that coal provides a livelihood for real people who deserve to be treated with respect — Hamilton acknowledges the energy sector must be replaced by something greener as soon as possible. She says of a recent trip to China: “Being in Beijing and seeing brown-out days is pretty gross.”
Early in 2017, Hamilton sensed the time had come to step into the ring herself. “I never really liked being in front of the camera or the microphone. I always felt my best impact was behind the scenes. I’d try to stay out of the way and let somebody else do the talking. I thought that would leave me the room to focus on supporting decision-makers, people who wanted to put their name on the ballot, and I’d never get any attention for that. But then I had a couple of experiences where I realized it didn’t matter how small I made myself or how quiet I was, I was still going to catch hell. And so if you’re going to catch hell, you may as well catch hell for something you believe in and something that is worth fighting for.”
Her decision to eschew a larger arena for a run at civic politics might be described as a combination of disillusionment and impatience. “I was getting increasingly turned off by provincial and federal partisanship,” she says. “Municipal government was always a place where if you made a law on Monday, it would be in place by Wednesday. That kind of nimbleness is wonderful in terms of how it can really serve citizens.”
To take Ward 5, Hamilton would have to defeat David Xiao, a former Tory MLA vying for the job. In the end, it was not even close; underdog Hamilton drew almost twice the votes Xiao got. She won the old-fashioned way, with a strong ground game. “I believe you can’t win an election on social media, at coffee clubs and shooting the breeze with your friends. If you’re not seeing new people every day then you’re not making an impact,” she says. Over eight months of campaigning, Hamilton knocked on 13,000 doors. “I had a Fitbit on the whole time, and I told people I walked the length of Italy. Different scenery, obviously,” she adds with a laugh.
Hamilton has been an active councillor since she was sworn in, lending her considerable energy to a wide range of projects and issues. She represents Edmonton as one of the seven municipalities (along with Devon, Parkland County, Leduc, Strathcona, Fort Saskatchewan and Sturgeon County) on the River Valley Alliance, and is an advisor to the Council’s Indigenous People’s Strategy. She is also a City representative on the Edmonton Police Commission and REACH, Edmonton’s Council for Safe Communities. Crime prevention has become an important focus for her. “There are not a lot of women in that space, and yet it’s an area where women are deeply impacted,” she says.
Though he’s been busy himself preparing for a pivotal provincial election this spring, Hamilton’s former next-door neighbour has followed her work at City Hall. He likes what he sees. “Sarah is incredibly bright, dynamic and self-assured,” says Stephen Mandel. “She has a real passion for this city and the people who live here.”
Given her educational background (she has a BA in art history from the University of Alberta in addition to her masters from Chicago) and some early career experience with the Art Gallery of Alberta and as an arts journalist, it is not surprising that Hamilton has made the aesthetics and amenities of this city another personal priority. “There were a lot of people who said that every pothole in the city should be filled before you hang another painting in the art gallery. I never saw it as being one after another. I’ve always felt that, and I’ve said this before, what good are the roads you’re building if you have no place to go on them?” She launched and now co-chairs, with fellow Councillor Scott McKeen, the Urban Design Initiative and likes the idea of an architect in-residence for Edmonton. “It‘s a way of repatriating some of our talent that has gone abroad and bringing them back, or bringing in architects from other cities on a short term basis to help us address some of the issues we’re having.”
Asked to describe her place on the political spectrum, Hamilton says she is a “socially progressive, fiscal conservative.” For her, the two are not mutually exclusive. “You don’t, for example, save money by only having more police and no crime prevention. You don’t build better cities by cheapening out on design elements. Economic prosperity is tied to how people feel about the space you create as much as the industries that are available.”
This article appears in the April 2019 issue of Avenue Edmonton