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BC's Youngest MLA Goes for Two

Spencer Herbert seeks re-election in a redrawn riding where 'renovictions' and gay rights are issues.

By Garrett Zehr, 6 May 2009, TheTyee.ca

Spencer Herbert

NDP's Herbert campaigning in Vancouver-West End. Photo by Chris Grabowski.

Spencer Herbert enjoys a lot of face recognition for a young MLA who was only on the job in Victoria for five months.

"Spencer, you're a shoe-in," yells a middle-age man from across the street as the NDP candidate walks between apartment buildings, off to knock on another round of doors in Vancouver's West End.

"And a hell of a dresser!" adds the man, admiring Herbert's grey suit from his collection of hand-me-downs and thrift store formal attire.

It's probably the most sparkling compliment of the day, but a surprising number of less-than-supportive or perhaps apathetic constituents also seem to know who the candidate is.

And the B.C. New Democrats have taken notice. Party leader Carole James dropped by Herbert's riding the day the writ dropped for an early-morning appearance with the up-and-comer candidate.

He does have the advantage of a recent dress rehearsal to boost his recognition. He went through a similar campaign routine in last October's byelection for the old riding of Vancouver-Burrard.

"It feels like I never really stopped," Herbert says.

The 27-year-old handily won that contest with just over half of the vote, almost 2,000 ballots more than his closest challenger, B.C. Liberal Arthur Griffiths.

He's understandably buoyed by such a recent win but isn't taking this one for granted -- a number of things are different this time around.

Different riding, new campaign

Byelections are often the opposition party's to lose and the NDP took both ridings that were up for grabs last fall. Before Herbert's win, Vancouver-Burrard had been Liberal since 2001.

He can also expect a much greater turnout than the meagre 23 per cent byelection count, attributed to the voter fatigue from sandwiching the provincial contest between last fall's federal election and Vancouver's municipal race.

The riding boundaries have also changed. Occupying the northwest corner of the city, Vancouver-West End comprises only about 60 per cent of the riding Herbert won, now bordered by Stanley Park, Coal Harbour, English Bay and Burrard Street in the east.

But perhaps his biggest challenge this time around is that he is also running on a provincial campaign with 84 other candidates, a party platform and the media spotlight on his leader.

So constituents ask him about the NDP candidate who was forced to resign over sexually playful Facebook photos and why environmentalists are attacking his party's climate change platform.

"The provincial campaign plays a much bigger role in it and it's more than just you," says Herbert.

Judging by what voters are saying at their doors and on the streets, this could be his biggest threat.

"I think Spencer is someone who has a lot of potential and is going in the right direction but I don't agree with Carole James," says Peter Litherland, who engaged Herbert in a lengthy but pleasant street exchange over rent control and the carbon tax.

Litherland has "not entirely" decided which party will get his vote on May 12 and undecided voters like himself are sometimes torn between a likable local candidate and the thought of that party in government.

Herbert seems to know this and is trying to run a very local campaign.

"I put my neighbourhood first," he explains in between doors after being asked yet again about the party's plan to get rid of the carbon tax.

"We're continuing to talk about our area's issues."

'Renovictions' and other top issues

The top three he hears about are rent concerns, threats to St. Paul's hospital and gay bashings. All were high on the agenda in his afternoon of door-knocking and street canvassing last Friday.

It's easier to run such a local campaign when the geographical size of the riding is so small. Stanley Park aside, the riding has one of the densest populations in the province.

"I can walk across it in 20 minutes," says Herbert, who then goes on to express sympathy for his Northern colleagues who must fly to get around.

With such density in the West End, apartment buildings are prominent and 80 per cent of the residents are renters.

It's no surprise then that concerns of skyrocketing rent and unjust evictions top the list of issues Herbert hears at the door.

One of the two private members' bills he introduced in the legislature was about just that and he recently received the support of the NDP leader's campaign to protest "renovictions" -- massive rent hikes and evictions when landlords make apartment upgrades.

BC's 'gayest' riding

Another vocal constituent group in Vancouver-West End is the LGBT community -- it's the "gayest" riding in the province, according to the gay newspaper Xtra West.

Herbert's main challenge in this riding is another gay-rights champion, B.C. Liberal candidate Laura McDiarmid.

She is the former vice-president of the Vancouver Pride Society and has spent a lot of time volunteering with AIDS-Vancouver. McDiarmid was unavailable for an interview for this story.

And running for the Greens is Drina Read, herself an activist on rental, LGBT and environmental issues.

Herbert has perhaps some advantage, having become a sort of de facto LGBT critic for the NDP. He says he welcomes the opportunity, not only because he himself is gay, but so are a large number of his constituents.

In between door-knocking and canvassing on local issues, the issue draws Herbert into an erupting debate in the provincial campaign.

The NDP had issued a press release regarding an old e-mail sent by Maple Ridge-Mission Liberal candidate Marc Dalton the party said contained homophobic remarks and Herbert fielded a number of media requests for comment.

He also led a march and rally down Davie Street a few weeks ago to protest an alleged gay bashing that had occurred outside a local pub. Herbert called for increased vigilance by the community and prosecution of such attacks as hate crimes.

The poor, the rich and all between

At the same time, he recognizes that gay men and lesbians from places like Abbotsford or Prince George, particularly youth, face different struggles than many of his constituents on Davie Street and in a way he represents them too.

He said he is proud of the NDP's history on LGBT rights and points to a number of his gay and lesbian colleagues and allies.

"We don't have any candidates running for us who have sent homophobic e-mails," he says.

Renters and the gay community have Herbert's ear but he is also aware he represents a fairly diverse set of constituents he must win over if he is to prevail on May 12.

"The riding includes the most marginalized folks who are living on the streets right up to the people living in the penthouses in Coal Harbour," he says.

Which means his campaign strategy and tactics must also be diverse.

After spending some time talking to voters on the street, it's back to the campaign office where he grabs his bicycle and heads off to Vancouver's critical mass -- a monthly congregation of cyclists who take over the city streets with their bikes.

He's donned a helmet but is still wearing the grey suit. Herbert's a regular and has been attending for years. "I remember when it was just 20 people," he says looking out over a crowd many times that size.

It surely helps the long days on the campaign trail when you can add some fun and social activities into the mix.

After the bike ride he'll take part in a Davie Street pub crawl, but he promises to limit himself to one beer.

The Friday night bar crowd is not the same as the seniors who have invited him in for afternoon tea, but Herbert says the issues are similar even if the exchange is slightly different.

"Sometimes the bar discussions are a bit more impassioned than we may have on the street corner," he says with a chuckle.

On message, online

Finding new ways to reach voters is always a challenge for candidates, and Herbert's age may give him a bit of an advantage over some of his colleagues. His Web 2.0 campaign is impressive.

He's all over Facebook (while perhaps expressing caution over the photos he posts), Twitter and blogs, which he says he uses to communicate with constituents both during his time as MLA and now that he is on the campaign trail.

"That's a different way that I get feedback from people."

His "We Heart West End" campaign has gone viral and is providing both a unique fundraising and promotional tool.

Herbert's ability to connect with voters is also enhanced by his theatre degree from Simon Fraser University, where he studied part time while working various jobs.

He dove into municipal politics in 2005 with a term on the Vancouver Park Board Commission, a natural extension of the community volunteering he had been doing, he says.

"I've always been interested in community building and I guess politics is part of that."

After serving three years on the park board, he decided to try for the leap across the Strait of Georgia to Victoria.

Since winning last fall, Herbert has served as the NDP critic for Arts and Culture, in addition to representing his Vancouver constituents.

He says he has enjoyed his time in the legislature but it hasn't been without his challenges.

"It's not the system that I'm used to," he says, adding he found much more cooperation on the parks board and during his volunteer days with community groups.

Being the youngest

As the youngest MLA, he also faced some barriers because of his age. He recalls one government minister who told him in a "condescending and patronizing" tone that he would "teach him a lesson."

But if he is successful this time around, he will no longer be the legislature rookie that he was in the fall.

And given his age and appeal, the NDP would probably love to roll him out as a star candidate for many elections to come.

Herbert says he is just focused on winning this campaign and serving out the next four years if he is successful and refused to speculate on further provincial terms or a possible federal run. (The Lower Mainland has provided its fair share of LGBT caucus members for the federal NDP in Svend Robinson, Libby Davies and Bill Siksay).

But the New Democrats should be grateful for the time they get from Herbert as he did give a subtle hint he is not a political-lifer.

"I've never gone into this as a career," he says.

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