October 15, 2018 11:05 am

COMMENTARY: The tepid race to be Vancouver’s next mayor

Although not illegal, questions are being raised about whether it's right for organized labour to pay union members to campaign for a Vancouver mayoral candidate. Paul Johnson reports.

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The Vancouver election campaign has been notable by its lack of campaign. Few fireworks. An amorphous discussion about housing. And not much focus anywhere else.

It’s surprisingly tepid, considering that the city was spontaneously combusting in the middle of a snow day last winter because the streets weren’t being plowed fast enough, everyone is upset about housing, and grievances large and small have been aimed like poison darts at 12th and Cambie.

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The darts certainly hit their target as Gregor Robertson is leaving without even a replacement candidate. Vision Vancouver is a shadow of its former self.

One would think that the opposition party, the NPA, would have been in a position to confidently step into the breach and take their turn. They came reasonably close in 2014.

Along comes an implausible candidacy from Kennedy Stewart, a Burnaby Member of Parliament with hardly a groundswell underneath him. He’s not particularly well-known to Vancouver voters, other than having the letters “N-D-P” associated with him. It turns out all this time that Kennedy Stewart, and the Vancouver & District Labour Council, have been treating this campaign like chess while everyone else has been playing checkers.

Last spring, if you’re Kennedy Stewart and you want to be mayor, what’s stopping you? Answer: someone more popular than you. That person was Coun. Adriane Carr, who topped the polls in 2014 and has high name recognition. Carr and the Greens backed off from running a mayoralty candidate, thinning out the field of mayoralty competitors on the left. Then, by circumstance, COPE withdrew its plan to field a candidate. Then, Vision Vancouver’s mayoralty candidate withdrew. It may all be luck, but Stewart worked early to build strength from the left.

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Meanwhile, independently of Stewart’s campaign they claim, the Vancouver & District Labour Council has constructed the de facto left-wing slate in this campaign, endorsing Stewart and Council candidates from Vision, the Greens, OneCity, and COPE. In total, those four parties are running 14 Council candidates out of a field of 71. Glossy brochures were mailed to Vancouver households with Kennedy Stewart’s beaming face and 10 endorsed candidates from the Labour-backed slates, four of whom are Vision Vancouver candidates. Those parties have increased their odds by minimizing vote splitting.

Contrast that with the NPA. It’s been a three-ring circus. They ban their own newly-elected councillor, Hector Bremner, from running for the mayoralty nomination, depriving the party of a youthful cadre of supporters. They took off and formed their own party — YES Vancouver. But the NPA allowed Glen Chernen to run, who has a controversial record in City politics. He loses, then also quits the NPA.

His new party, Coalition Vancouver, is running a large slate of candidates that is munching through NPA votes, especially in the Chinese community, led by mayoralty candidate Wai Young and her blunt-trauma messaging.

NPA mayoralty candidate Ken Sim came into this after much of this damage was done, but he is struggling to demonstrate that he has the strength to pull things together and unify voters. As a virtual unknown, he hasn’t built a track record in politics where people will naturally gravitate toward him. The onus has been on him to earn it. It will be a desperate dash for him in the final days.

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Successful parties unify, see the common interest, find a way to compromise, inspire, and have leadership that works its tail off to keep internal factions from turning on each other. Multi-term mayors like Gordon Campbell, Mike Harcourt, Art Phillips, Philip Owen, and Gregor Robertson found a way to keep their side together so that they could increase their share of votes from rival candidates.

In elections like this, where there is a decided lack of enthusiasm for the two main rivals, there is a huge opportunity for a third way. Shauna Sylvester would seem to be well-positioned to attract moderate voters, but she appears to be lacking the punch to break through. It is one thing to put your own policies forward, but Sylvester must draw a much more effective contrast with Stewart in order to harvest those former Gregor Robertson voters.

If you’re Kennedy Stewart, what’s stopping you now? A determined final week effort by rival campaigns aimed at people likely to vote that haven’t really tuned in yet, momentum from Sylvester, and the NPA being able to unify more voters on its side of the spectrum. It’s a tall order. With finance reform, advertising budgets aren’t what they used to be, and advertising itself isn’t what it used to be. Campaigns will be have to be bold and creative to find a way to send desperate signals to the masses to not only vote their way, but to vote, period.

READ MORE: B.C.’s four largest cities now facing allegations of civic election interference

The remaining chess pieces are being played by independent council candidates who may be feasting on dissatisfaction with the choices presented by party slates. Some candidates are standing out and may be in line to be the first independents elected since Carole Taylor in 1988. If they succeed, they will have changed the game.

But when it comes to the mayoralty, the signal I’m hearing in the days ahead is sounding like “checkmate.” Your move, voters.

Mike McDonald is chief strategy officer with Kirk & Co., senior research associate with Pollara Strategic Insights, and served as chief of staff to former B.C. premier Christy Clark.

Tune into Global News and BC1 coverage of the local elections to see how your candidates are standing out in your community.

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