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Vision Pushes Ban on Big Campaign Cash Sources

Council to debate ban on corporate and union donations.

Monte Paulsen 1 Nov

Monte Paulsen is investigative editor of The Tyee. He formerly worked as a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Integrity, a non-partisan electoral watchdog group based in Washington D.C.

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Vision's Heather Deal: 'This is getting ridiculous.'

If collecting fistfuls of big cheques is a measure of electoral success in Vancouver -- and the record suggests it is -- then Mayor Sam Sullivan is running far ahead of his yet-to-be-nominated competitors in next year's municipal election.

Sullivan raised $250,000 in the last two weeks alone, boosting the size of the Non-Partisan Association's war chest to an estimated half-million dollars. Sullivan raked in most of that money over the course of two recent fundraising dinners at which -- without a hint of irony -- he decried the way labour unions were spending money to defeat him.

The NPA is poised to blow past the $2 million it spent on the 2005 contest. Vision Vancouver and the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) have little choice but to follow suit.

"If you're going to play in this poker game, you've got to bring at least $2 million to the table," said Vision co-chair Mike Magee. "We'll have to raise at least that much -- probably more -- just to stay competitive with the NPA."

If the NPA raises $3 million, Vision raises $2 million, COPE collects the same half-million it spent in 2005, and the parties collectively spend another undisclosed half-million on pre-election activities, then total spending on Vancouver's November 2008 civic election could top $6 million.

That would represent a 50 per cent increase over 2005 spending, would rival what the BC Liberal and New Democrat parties, combined, officially spent on the 2005 provincial election, and could add up to $45 per vote -- a stratospheric figure previously unseen in Canadian politics.

"This is getting ridiculous," City Coun. Heather Deal said. "Spending on Vancouver elections has spiralled out of control."

Deal and fellow Vision councillor George Chow have introduced a motion to reform the way Vancouver campaigns are funded. The Vision motion, crafted in part as a response to Sullivan's union-bashing, would seek to ban both union and corporate donations, while at the same time improving disclosure and limiting campaign spending.

The motion is expected to be debated in November. But while councillors from all three electoral organizations are expected to make passionate speeches in favour of reform, interviews with operatives within each party suggest change will be an uphill battle. And a review of Mayor Sullivan's voting record on this issue reveals his longstanding opposition to electoral reform.

NPA: 'Spend what it takes'

George Higgins is caucus coordinator for the Non-Partisan Association, which raised $250,000 in the last two weeks at a $185-a-plate NPA banquet and a $5,000-a-seat dinner party.*

The NPA is not legally required to disclose who gave any of that money. B.C.'s anaemic municipal campaign finance laws simply don't require disclosure of funds raised this far in advance of an election. But Higgins -- whose salary is among the many line items funded by NPA's annual fundraising efforts -- said "it's fairly likely" the NPA will disclose anyway.

"We've told all of our donors that it is very likely we will be disclosing who they are, even though there is no mechanism for it right now," Higgins said.

Unlike Vancouver's other municipal parties, the NPA pushes its candidates to raise their own funds, and requires they contribute to the party. In 2005, each city council candidate was required to ante up $15,000, while parks and school board candidates ponied up $5,000 and $3,000, respectively. Higgins said that the inherently competitive nature of simultaneous at-large campaigns encourages most candidates to raise more.

Sam Sullivan raised $490,000 in 2005, and appears on track to raise more than a million dollars for his re-election bid.

"The Mayor's campaign has been run separately from the party," Higgins said. "I don't know if it's a control issue or what."

Unlike his counterparts at Vision and COPE, Higgins is not disturbed by Vancouver's skyrocketing campaign spending.

"I wouldn't say that it concerns me. I personally am willing to spend what it takes to get the job done," Higgins told The Tyee.

"It sounds like a big number, but in order to do the typical political things you would be doing, you have to spend the money," Higgins said, noting that polls cost $20,000 each, flyer drops cost $100,000 each, and voter identification programs cost a few hundred thousand per election.

Nor does Higgins believe a ban on corporate donations would hamper NPA fundraising.

"There is a really huge appetite to support the mayor and caucus right now. We've had two sold-out events in the last week. I'm confident those donors would write the same sized cheques from their personal accounts," Higgins said.

"We'll still get donations, and we'll still out-compete Vision," Higgins added. "The party that has the most to lose from Vision's suggestion is COPE, because so much of their money comes from unions."

Vision: 'Boink moments'

Mike Magee is co-chair of Vision Vancouver, and a point man for party fundraising. Like Higgins, he is among the very small circle of operatives who know from whence Vancouver's political capital flows.

"I know who gives to the NPA," Magee said. "The same donors are playing both sides."

But while Higgins regards donor largesse as an expression of support, Magee sees the NPA's black-tie strategy as a shakedown.

"A lot of them hold their nose and say, 'I'm sorry, I'm going to go to Sam's thing because I've got a project that's coming before council and I don't want to be seen as not showing up.'" Magee said.

Vision started this campaign cycle with a six-figure debt left over from the 2005 race. So while the NPA has already put a half-million in the bank, Vision is only now able to bank money for 2008.

"Frankly, we're in danger," Magee said. "Even though we're capable of raising a lot of money, we may not be capable of raising as much money as an incumbent mayor of the NPA."

Magee supports limits on both giving to and spending by municipal campaigns, and thinks its time to take corporate and union donations out of politics. He acknowledged that Vision -- which took 12 per cent of its 2005 funds from trade unions, including $72,700 from CUPE B.C. -- would have to make sacrifices in order to comply with the rules proposed earlier this week by Couns. Chow and Deal. But Magee believes Vision would emerge a better party as a result of the transition.

"I would be way more interested in organizing teams of people to go door to door and ask their neighbours for money by talking about issues that are important to them," Magee said.

As it is, he lamented, the figures he requests are rising even faster than Vancouver real estate.

"The high-end ask used to be like $5,000 or $10,000. Maybe a big donor would give a couple of checks a year like that," Magee said. "Now I sit down with people and say, 'I need you to think about $100,000 or $150,000.'

"There are a few kind of 'boink' moments." Magee widened his eyes and reared back his head to illustrate the reaction. "They look like they're thinking, 'Whoa, that was a lot more than I thought you were going to ask me for.'

"Our donors are going to be thrilled with the idea of campaign finance reform," Magee laughed. "Thrilled."

COPE: 'A voice at the table'

"It's insane that municipal elections are bought and sold in this way," said COPE communications director Ivan Bulic. "It boggles my mind the way the NPA spends money."

COPE, which took 69 per cent of the $526,157 it disclosed during the 2005 election cycle from labour unions, opposes the part of the Vision motion that would ban union donations.

"I'd be loathe to tell mom-and-pop small business where to spend their money, and I'd be loathe to tell organized workers that they can't support the party of their choice," he told The Tyee.

"COPE was founded, in part, by organized labour," Bulic said. "Working people have fought long and hard to be able to have a voice at the table, both elected and otherwise."

Bulic said COPE supports spending limits and other reforms.

"I have reservations about whether Vision's motion will get at the issue. I think it's a knee-jerk reaction to Sam Sullivan's attack on working people."

When asked whether COPE will be able to raise $2 million for the next election, Bulic changed the subject. He said what's needed is a coalition of organizations campaigning against Sullivan.

"If this becomes a group of opposition parties fighting for a limited pool of money, that will simply guarantee the NPA will buy another election."

Tomorrow: A study finds that cities throughout the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley make it hard for citizens to know whose money backs their local politicians.

*On Friday, Nov. 2, we corrected the cost of the NPA banquet dinner.

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