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Municipal Politics

Who Should Progressives Vote for Mayor?

Experts from across the political spectrum dissect Vancouver’s left.

By Geoff Dembicki 18 Oct 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee. His work also appears in Vice, Foreign Policy and the New York Times. His 2018 municipal election reporting is supported by Tyee Builders.

This has been a year of big and tumultuous changes for progressive politics in Vancouver. The decision by Mayor Gregor Robertson — as well as the majority of Vision Vancouver councillors — not to seek re-election on Oct. 20 opened up a progressive void that several new candidates and parties are attempting to fill.

Polling suggests independents Kennedy Stewart and Shauna Sylvester are the leading progressive options for mayor, while the Greens and COPE are competing neck-in-neck with the right-of-centre NPA to win the balance of power on city council, with Vision and OneCity not far behind.

With so much in flux, it’s difficult to know how to make sense of it all.

For guidance, I reached out to 10 people who are deeply involved in Vancouver politics. Each of them comes at it from a unique perspective. They shared their thoughts on the subtle but important distinctions between Stewart and Sylvester, whether either of these progressive options mark a significant departure from Vision Vancouver, and how the city’s left-wing politics have shifted over the past year. The following remarks have been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Patrick Meehan, member of the Cambie Report podcast

“It seems clear that Kennedy Stewart has a substantial hold on the left vote in Vancouver, but I think some of that may be shifting to Shauna Sylvester after the last poll put Kennedy so far in front that people that wanted to keep the NPA out felt safer voting for her if they wanted to… I think both of them reflect a continuation of Vision. Vision came together as a merger of federal Liberals and moderate New Democrats, and in many ways having both of them running is giving each wing of the Vision coalition an opportunity to vote for a candidate that reflects their values… With a centrist candidate in Shauna Sylvester and a candidate essentially running as a New Democratic Party candidate, it’s a real test of whether there are more federal Liberal or NDP supporters in the city.”

Teresa Alfeld, director, The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical

“The term ‘progressive’ has sort of come to mean everything and nothing in this election, in my mind… Shauna seems to be striving to appeal to a broader, more diverse demographic, championing coalition and consensus building, and somewhat prolific policy development. Kennedy is more traditional Vancouver left/labour/younger/lower income folk, with more generalized statements. Neither represents a revolutionary candidacy or real threat to the status quo… Vision’s legacy ultimately is governance for the developers, by the developers. Campaign wise, both are wise enough to have distanced themselves as much as possible (though Shauna still struggles). I certainly hope that whichever we get will come to represent a departure, however I’m mindful that Vision and Gregor looked a lot different at the onset than at their departure.”

Bob Penner, president and CEO of polling firm Strategic Communications

“Both [Shauna and Kennedy] have very similar policy views as Vision. Gregor had pretty wide appeal, and that was one of the reasons for his success. I think both of them potentially could have wide appeal as well… I don’t see a big difference between what they are running on and what Vision is this time, or in the past. They have some good new ideas and these are consistent, although not always identical, with what Vision’s approach has been and is now. As to what the future holds, the mayor has more budget, and more influence, but they are still only one vote. If the city is going to continue with a progressive agenda then it will depend on getting Vision councillors elected, otherwise it will be likely the NPA will control the council, whether Shauna or Kennedy win mayor or not.”

Bill Hopwood, member of the Canadian chapter of Socialist Alternative

“I haven’t voted yet because I don’t know who to vote for. Kennedy Stewart is probably going to win, I think. He has the best machine, he has left-wing politics but he’s a slick NDPer and did nothing about renovictions in Burnaby. Shauna Sylvester, I always go back to she was going to be Vision’s candidate when she first ran… I guess the question to me is which of those two can we push more, and I haven’t worked that out… I’m not convinced either of them are Vision-marked. They’re definitely both to the left of where Vision ended up. Neither of them are suck-ups to the developers… Both are talking to some extent about non-market housing, that’s probably a really important shift.”

Pete Fry, city council candidate for the Green Party

“Kennedy’s a solid centre-left candidate, but his strength is NDP and labour, which may be a turn off for some centre-left voters in particular on the West Side where they likely identify more as Liberals. Shauna is also a solid centre-left candidate and she has less political baggage for that demographic on the West Side. But Shauna will have a tough time breaking through that traditional NPA stronghold… It might be premature to talk about Vision’s legacy. On the surface, what’d we’d call legacy is really zeitgeist type stuff — bike lanes, food trucks, climate change resilience, but also the urban crises of job and housing precarity, increasing homelessness and the opioid crisis — these scenarios and responses are playing out in major cities across North America. How we view Vision’s legacy in our specific context might take more time and distance to unpack.”

Garth Mullins, activist with B.C. Association of People on Methadone

“I know the argument is to vote for the least bad option. But at all levels of government, I’ve been asking myself lately: is it better to be governed by someone who’s a straight-up, right wing nemesis? Or by someone who says they’re progressive, but gaslights us, implementing business as usual policies – or worse? I can tell you, it’s easier to organize social movements against a straight-up enemy. And progressive gas lighters just bring nihilism amongst people who feel betrayed. If Rebecca Solnit is right, voting is a chess-move, not a Valentine. But I still don’t know what the chess move is in mayoral race… Anybody running for mayor and claiming to be progressive must make a complete hard, break from Vision Vancouver. I haven’t really seen that rupture. Big developers and their parties should be like kryptonite to any progressive.”

Mario Canseco, president of polling firm Research Co.

“I think both [Stewart and Sylvester] are succeeding in courting the centre-left vote that is not interested in going to the new parties or to the NPA… While Gregor Robertson might have become unpopular in the past four years, he still won three elections: two with more than 50 per cent of the vote and the last one with 46 per cent. That is a large proportion of the electorate that is up for grabs… While Vision is running candidates for all three offices, it is not trying to corner everything by running a full slate. You also have the emergence of One City, the popularity of the Greens and also some independents who are definitely progressive, particularly Sarah Blyth. The centre-left vote has always been there. Now it’s a bit more fractured and the composition of council will give us a good indication of what people will want.”

Tristan Markle, communications director for COPE

“The council race, according to current polling, is between COPE and the Greens on the one side and the NPA on the other side. It’s very tight, COPE is basically tied with the NPA… I think the best poll to look at is the byelection results from last year. If you think of that as a massive public opinion poll, that was 45,000 people voting, 10 times more powerful than any single opinion poll. What that shows is by last fall, Vision got fifth place, that’s the kind of thing I’d expect to see this [election]… The real big battle now is money versus people. The NPA has outraised all the other parties with over $800,000… On election day it’s going to be $800,000 versus thousands of volunteers and a grassroots campaign.”

Christine Boyle, city council candidate for OneCity

“With the decline of Vision, the progressive wing has opened up and there are a lot of parties who are fighting for space. I think something relevant and interesting that people like the Cambie Report have been talking about is the urbanist-conservationist spectrum alongside the right-left spectrum. On one hand you have progressive parties who are trying to turn back the clock a few decades to make Vancouver more affordable, which is impossible to do, and then you have parties like OneCity who are looking for the opportunity in this crisis for Vancouver to grow up into a city that is denser everywhere, but also more affordable and more livable, through better transit and active transportation, vibrant busy streets, and a mix of housing in every neighbourhood. I think that’s the most important change we’ve seen in progressive politics in the last year. We’ve added another spectrum in Vancouver politics that really is all about imagining the city that we want.”

Gordon Price, NPA city councillor from 1986 to 2002 and currently a Fellow with the Centre for Dialogue

“Both [Sylvester and Stewart] represent a departure, because Vision’s brand has reached its sell-by date. But both would keep the ‘green’ legacy while shifting the focus to housing and planning. Shauna is more broadly appealing in that respect, but also more associated with Vision… The ‘centre-left vote/demographic’ covers a lot of ground… I could give you at least three scenarios about how [the vote] might turn out without having any idea which will prevail. Strategic Voting: whoever looks like they will win, to avoid splitting the vote. Stewart is the most likely choice. Momentum Voting: Sylvester is very appealing. If she’s on a lot of lists being circulated, and there’s a sense of momentum, that might do it. Low-turnout Surprise: Lots of vote splitting, and an outlier comes in on a small but committed vote. Neither win.”  [Tyee]

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