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Ladner Takes On Sullivan

Mayor Sam changed the game. Now everyone wants to play.

By Monte Paulsen 14 Apr 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Monte Paulsen is investigative editor of The Tyee. He welcomes e-mail and invites respectful comment in the forum below.

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Mayor Sam Sullivan and Coun. Peter Ladner.

[Third in a series on candidates in the Vancouver mayoralty election.]

"Not all that long ago, the Vancouver mayoralty was a kind of a gentleman's pastime," recalls SFU political scientist Kennedy Stewart. "Philip Owen, for example, often gave the impression that he was just a nice guy who was willing to do the job because no one else wanted it."

Not anymore. There are already seven likely contenders for the job. In addition to Mayor Sam Sullivan and Non-Partisan Association (NPA) rival Peter Ladner, there are three candidates for the Vision Vancouver nomination, COPE Coun. David Cadman has said he's likely in the race and activist Betty Krawczyk leads the perennial pack of long-shot independents.

"I think this is a good thing for the city. Voters in both parties now face a real choice among competing visions for the city," Stewart said.

"And I put some of the credit for this maturation with Sam Sullivan. He was in 2005 -- and is again -- a different brand of mayoral candidate. He really started all of this with the Christy Clark race. He showed that he wanted the office more than she did."

2005: Sullivan versus Clark

Christy Clark was favoured to win the 2005 nomination race. She'd served as one of the most popular ministers in Premier Gordon Campbell's cabinet from 2001 to 2005. And she held deep ties into the federal Liberal party -- including her husband, uber-organizer Mark Marissen. Her campaign was staffed by veteran political operatives working from waterfront offices.

Sullivan's team included his father, Lloyd, who drove around dropping off membership forms while Sam's mother, Ida, worked the phone from the kitchen of their East Vancouver home.

But on Sept. 24, 2005, Sullivan won the contest by a margin that was reported to be less than 100 votes. He'd prepared a concession speech, and when the results were announced in a downtown ballroom packed with NPA faithful, his first word was reportedly "Wow."

(Afterward, Clark scoffed at a scrum of reporters who'd asked how the Liberal machine had failed to usher her into office. "You guys never believed that did you?" she asked, adding, after an appropriate comedic pause, "Suckers.")

Sullivan changed the office itself, as well. He's run Canada's eighth largest municipality as if he were its prime minister, assigning "portfolios" to NPA councillors. He's brought in his own executive team, in the form of high-priced consultants such as lobbyist Ken Dobell and former attorney general Geoff Plant. And he's maintained a full-time political team as well -- paid by political donations, not tax dollars -- led by NPA caucus coordinator George Higgins.

"Now the job is coveted," Stewart said. "Sullivan really, really wants to keep it. And a field of qualified politicians want to take it from him."

Ladner vows early disclosure

Two-term city councillor Peter Ladner is the most bold among Sullivan's many challengers, defying both Sullivan and his supporters to push the NPA into opening up its nomination process. As a result, the party will convene on June 8 to endorse a candidate for mayor, five candidates for Vancouver City Council and four candidates each for school and park boards.

Ladner is a fourth generation British Columbian -- his ancestors founded the community of Ladner -- who co-founded the Business in Vancouver newspaper in 1989. He is an avid commuter cyclist who lives with his wife and four children.

"A lot of people have lost confidence in Sam," Ladner told The Tyee. "Some of his endorsers have told people privately that they are going to support me."

Policy differences between the two NPA candidates are not vast. Ladner does oppose a Sullivan program to distribute heroin, stating: "I believe every addict has the potential to quit."

Ladner said he would run the mayor's office in a more "open and transparent" fashion than Sullivan, whose executive management style often gives the impression that key decisions are made in advance of public debate.

For example, Ladner pledged to disclose the names of all of his funders before the November general election, "if not earlier."

"There's been a lot of concern around Sam's fundraising," Ladner said. "There's been concern within the party that Sam may have been taking money for one purpose and using it for another."

Last month, Ladner called upon Sullivan to give back money the mayor raised for his personal campaign, saying it had been donated by people supporting the party as a whole, and not just Sullivan. A spokesman for Sullivan replied that donors "had the choice between giving directly to the NPA and giving to Sam Sullivan. I think they gave the money to re-elect the mayor."

A proxy fight for economic vision?

Ladner acknowledged that his bid to unseat Sullivan as the NPA candidate will be the "toughest" job. Part of his pitch to the party faithful is that he will do better in the Nov. 15 general election.

"I have much more broad support across the political spectrum," Ladner said.

Like Vision candidate Gregor Robertson, he has longstanding relationships with the city's emerging class of business leaders who are committed to economic, social and environmental sustainability. This group has historically clashed with business leaders who feel their interests are well represented by the Vancouver Board of Trade, many of whom have supported Sullivan. So to a minor degree, the contest between Ladner and Sullivan could be viewed as a proxy fight within the NPA among two competing visions for Vancouver's economic future.

In order to win, Ladner has to not only lure voters among past Sullivan supporters, but will likely have to recruit new blood into the city's oldest political party. Because of a rule requiring participants to be NPA members for 30 days prior to the nomination meeting, Ladner has only until May 8 to sign up new supporters.

"Peter Ladner's bid to become the NPA candidate for mayor of Vancouver depends on him bringing more members to the NPA nominating meeting than anyone else," wrote campaign manager Tina Oliver in a widely circulated letter.

Ladner said recruiting new NPA members has been the primary focus of his campaign thus far. He would not say how many he's signed to date.

"We're calling anyone and everyone who might support this campaign," he said. "We're putting their names down on a list, and we'll chase them down on June 8." In a telling faux pas, Ladner's exhaustive recruitment effort even dialed Sullivan spokesman David Hurford.

Sullivan running on his record

Mayor Sullivan founded several non-profit organizations that serve people with disabilities, and has served on Vancouver City Council since 1993. In 2004 he organized a coalition that defeated the implementation of a ward system that was intended, among other aims, to limit the influence of campaign contributions. And he was elected mayor in 2005.

He is a recipient of the Order of Canada. Since breaking his neck in a skiing accident at the age of 19, Sullivan has shown the world what quadriplegics can accomplish. In addition to being a tough political fighter, he sails using a specially designed boat he helped to create, and hikes with an assistive device he co-invented.

Sullivan is running on his record, which he claims includes creating the strongest local economy in Canada and bringing more civility to Vancouver's streets. Highlights of his single term as mayor include the Project Civil City and EcoDensity initiatives. Last summer's prolonged strike was among the low-points of Sullivan's tenure.

"I want to make this the safest, most environmentally friendly and accessible city in Canada. I want Vancouver to continue to build a strong economy for the future and have an arts and culture sector that is world class," Sullivan said in a statement. "For these reasons, I am running again."

Handlers cast mayor as underdog

Both of Sullivan's teams -- his city hall handlers and his campaign staff -- repeatedly suggest that he is the underdog in this fight. They complain that while Ladner is free to focus his efforts on the campaign, Sullivan must continue to run the city.

"This year's race is a very different dynamic," said Hurford, who serves as Sullivan's director of communications. "Whereas both Sam and Christy were challengers, Sam is now quite busy running the city." Also, "the mayor is much more of a lightning rod for criticism, because frankly that comes with the job."

Likewise, nomination campaign manager Michael Davis said, "Our operation is much smaller than rumoured."

Davis said the campaign counted "about 40" volunteers in March. And he noted that he himself is a volunteer.

"Our job is to sign up as many new members as possible and make sure they show up for the meeting." Davis said. "I'd like to provide some great strategic insight, but it really all comes down to turning out the numbers."

SFU's Stewart disputed the notion that Sullivan is an underdog.

"Within the NPA, I think Sullivan has a huge advantage," Steward said. He said Sullivan is reported to have raised close to half a million dollars for his re-election campaign.

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