September 21, 2018 10:00 am

COMMENTARY: A surprise exit opens up Vancouver’s mayoral race

Affordable housing was top of mind at the first Vancouver mayoral debate on Monday night. Eight of the 21 candidates looking to replace Gregor Robertson took part in the debate at SFU.

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The first big move of the Vancouver election took place last week when Vision Vancouver announced it would not field a candidate for mayor. It meant the end for Vision’s decade-long hold on power, and also changed the dynamic of the race. Vision Mayor Gregor Robertson garnered over 83,000 votes and 47 per cent of the popular vote in 2014. It’s now all on the table to be divvied up.

If history is any guide, this election should be easy pickings for the NPA. Vancouver’s oldest civic political party has been in the top two of every mayor’s race for over 30 years.

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In the last three elections that it lost to Vision’s Gregor Robertson, the NPA’s mayoralty candidate still had at least 39 per cent of the vote. That would be more than enough in this year’s crowded field. The political pendulum should be swinging the NPA’s way. The incumbent administration is unpopular and the NPA has been the main opposition.

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However, the NPA is struggling. It had a messy mayoral nomination last spring when two of the candidates split from the NPA, gnawing away at the NPA from different angles. In addition, five candidates with previous NPA affiliations are running as independents for council. That’s a lot of collateral damage.

A successful businessman, NPA mayoralty candidate Ken Sim has almost zero experience in politics at any level. Some may cite that as a plus, but he has yet to be tested in the political arena. He hasn’t filled in many of the blanks since the spring and with four weeks to election day, he is cutting it close. He could be Vancouver’s first Chinese mayor, if he can stitch together the NPA’s historic voting coalition.

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The other lesson from history is that the only “left wing” mayors that succeed appeal to centrist voters, like Gregor Robertson, Mike Harcourt, and Larry Campbell. Those mayoralty candidates who have run from the left side of the equation, like Harry Rankin, Jean Swanson, Libby Davies, David Cadman, Carmela Allevato, and Jim Green, came up short.

Kennedy Stewart, the freshly-resigned NDP Member of Parliament for Burnaby-South, will claim undisputed leadership of the left. Backed by the Vancouver & District Labour Council, Stewart is trying to seize the anti-pipeline, environmental, social activist vote. His hopes have been boosted, it seems, by Vision Vancouver’s departure from the mayor’s race and by popular Green Councillor Adriane Carr’s decision to pass on the opportunity to run for the top job.

Stewart will need to explain how a seven-year Burnaby MP can suddenly be a plausible Vancouver mayoralty candidate. Will his arrest at Camp Cloud be seen as principled or polarizing? Can he claim enough of the middle ground to win? And will Vancouver voters want an NDPer in charge at City Hall as well as at the B.C. Legislature?

READ MORE: Ian Campbell departure pushes Kennedy Stewart ahead in Vancouver’s Mayoral race, poll says

Complicating Sim and Stewart’s plans to unify historic right-left voting blocs are the plethora of candidates attempting to gain breathing room in this crowded race — 21 in all. Vision’s departure might give some of the candidates a little more oxygen.

Hector Bremner will argue that the NPA is out of gas and not providing adequate housing solutions and that his ideas are aligned with former Vision voters. Shauna Sylvester, a former Vision Vancouver executive member, might inherit some of Vision’s support base. Will she be able to make the case that Stewart is too far out there, and attract moderates who appreciate her attention to policy and the fact that Vancouver has never had a female mayor in its 132-year history? Bremner and Sylvester need Sim and Stewart to falter in order to emerge.

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But it may be Wai Young, mayoralty candidate for Coalition Vancouver, who makes the real difference. A one-term federal Conservative MP in the riding of Vancouver South, she is mincing no words when it comes to bike lanes, modular housing, and speculation taxes. Her vote will mainly come off the ledger of Ken Sim and the NPA. As Young’s vote goes up, Sim’s vote will go down.

In short order, we will likely hear the warnings that if you’re not voting for Sim and the NPA, you will be helping elect Kennedy Stewart. You will also hear the same call from the left — that failing to unite behind the Vancouver & District Labour Council slate may propel the NPA back into power after a decade-long absence.

We know from history what we might expect, but we may well end up with the unexpected. After all, who thought a year ago that the frontrunners in 2018 would be a virtually unknown businessman and a Member of Parliament from Burnaby? In four weeks, it will be in the hands of the voters, not the historians, to decide.

Mike McDonald is chief strategy officer with Kirk & Co. and former chief of staff to former B.C. premier Christy Clark. He blogs at Rosedeer.com.

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