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The Mayor Sam Sullivan non-roast roast

It was a strange event, befitting a strange term of government.

And the tribute to Mayor Sam Sullivan, attended by about 400 in a banquet room at the Westin Bayshore, also felt kind of sad. Although several people said many nice things about Sam, mostly about his personal courage in overcoming his disability, the ashes from his reign filled the room.

At one table, there were all the Non-Partisan Association candidates who got wiped out in the recent election thanks to either 1) public rejection of Sam and all his ideas or 2) an internal party war started by those who feared that Sam was leading the NPA to rejection or 3) both.

At another, Councillor Peter Ladner sat quietly eating his salmon, which probably tasted more like crow, while guests heaped praise on the man Ladner helped to defeat for the mayoral nomination last February, giving him the chance to lead his party personally over the cliff.

At still another table, the city’s senior staff gathered, wondering what new trials await them after three years of chaotic rule and now no one knows what next with the new group coming in.

The lunch ended with city manager Judy Rogers being literally chased out of the room by a couple of reporters trying to get her to comment on the recent report that former chief financial officer Estelle Lo has been given a severance package of about $200,000. (”No comment, that’s a personnel matter,” said a grim-faced Rogers as she led Janet Brown from CKNW and Ted Field from Global on a merry chase through the hotel, showing that her fitness regime is really paying off as she outpaced them briskly.)

That minor fiasco, the latest in the larger mind-boggling melodrama of the Olympic athletes’ village and its financial problems and the ongoing leaks from city hall that uncover bits and pieces of it, was the tail end of a term that started with the mysterious role of James Green and the mayor’s connection to it. We’ve never seen a term with so much political intrigue and unsolved mysteries and hopefully we never will again.

But none of that was mentioned at the lunch, although the past and current troubles had to have been present in people’s minds.

Instead, it was an unalloyed tribute to Sam, with one speaker after another saying they didn’t have it in them to roast him. (The one to come closest to a roast was host Vicki Gabereau, when she described Suzanne Anton as “Vancouver city councillor and lonely girl” — referring to Anton’s new status as the lone NPA representative on council.)

Tung Chan, Lorne Segal, Suzanne Anton and Rick Hansen all praised him to the sky.

“I must confess, Sam Sullivan is my hero,” said Lorne, sounding pretty emotional. “Every now and then, a leader arrives in the community who achieves distinction because of the qualities of his mind and character. Sam Sullivan has not just been our mayor — he has been and will continue to be a symbol of the possibilities that lie within us all.”

Suzanne also praised his political courage, particularly in championing EcoDensity. “I believe it will be remembered as one of his great legacies.”

She also emphasized repeatedly how popular he was and the way people would cluster around him when he went through town.

And Sam himself made one of his most heartfelt speeches. He talked about how he remade himself into another person by making two decisions, 23 years ago. One, that he would stop thinking about himself and start thinking about others. And second, that he would set goals and think big.

He also told a story about going to an event in those early years, where someone carried him up the stairs and when Sam thanked the man for carrying him, his porter replied: “You carry me just as much as I carry you. You inspire me.”

Sam returned that compliment to the audience. “Every one of you carried me and had a role in making my life beautiful. In so many ways, you have made my life blessed.”

It was sad for everyone because it reminded all of us of how Sam seemed to have so much possibility and somehow it all got blown. Some will blame the media. (Though Sam thanked us for giving him a real beating, instead of those saccharine profiles he used to be featured in. You’re welcome.) Some will blame Peter Ladner and his supporters. Some will blame the ignorant public.

But, for all the deserved praise, all the things that annoyed people about Sam kept sneaking into the tribute.

The video/slide show about him displayed a huge number of shots of Sam with famous people, like some teenager’s collection of autographs from his pop-star idols, leaving the lingering feeling that getting to hang out with celebrities was the most significant part of his job.

The section labelled “agent of change” had a depressing number of references to stories about things actually initiated by staff or that had nothing to do with the mayor — electric cars, booming construction, the city’s tedious No. 1 rankings, the police efforts to reduce violence on Granville by eliinating cars, and many more. A reminder of all those press releases where he announced his firm support for staff recommendations that everyone was going to vote for unanimously anyway.

And Suzanne Anton, while making a valiant effort to highlight Sam’s good qualities, noted that one of his key qualities was an ability to listen — and then she told a story that was all about how everyone at some banquet hung on Sam’s every word because his speech was in Chinese.

If anything, it epitomized why Sam’s team did so badly in the election. They mistook people’s admiration for his personal achievements, whether physical or mental, for political support of his policies.

In the end, it was Concord Pacific CEO Terry Hui who came the closest to capturing some essence of Sam, as he described several of his “surreal” moments with the mayor, talking about Chinese poetry late into the night or being taken in by Sam’s assertion that his wheelchair had four-wheel drive.

And he talked about a brief encounter he had with the mayor one afternoon — a very Vancouver kind of moment. Terry, who is an avid kitesurfer and unusual-sports guy, had just gotten an electric skateboard and rushed out to try it on the seawall after a day of meetings, not even bothering to take off his suit. He met the mayor while he was out there. Sam was interested in Terry’s new gadget and so Terry slalomed around on the seawall, showing the mayor what it could do.

In return, Sam said, “Watch this,” and popped a wheelie in his wheelchair. So there they were, a major developer and the mayor of the city, bopping down the seawall on an electric skateboard and a wheelchair running on two wheels.

“The best of luck and have more surreal moments,” Terry said at the end. “But don’t ask him to do a wheelie now. This is a less sporty version of the wheelchair he was on before.”

Maybe now he’ll go back to that lighter wheelchair.

France Bula is a columnist for Vancouver Magazine and a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail.

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