The Peter Ladner insurgency within Vancouver's ruling party moved to a CBC radio studio Wednesday morning, where his jousting with Mayor Sam Sullivan revealed long-suppressed fractures within the Non-Partisan Association.
The two publicly debated for the first time just days before members of the NPA will choose who will lead the party into a fall election.
New polling data suggests Ladner has replaced Sullivan as the apparent frontrunner among NPA members -- and that the centre-right NPA has lost ground to the centre-left Vision Vancouver party among all voters.
Wednesday's morning's debate, hosted by Rick Cluff on CBC radio's Early Edition, followed a debate-style event on Tuesday night in which journalists grilled just Ladner, sans Sullivan. The event was hosted by the Ladner campaign, convened in part to call attention to Mayor Sullivan's refusal to participate in any on-stage debate in the months leading up to Sunday's NPA nomination meeting.
'The only reason I am mayor...'
"I'm running for the NPA mayoralty nomination because Sam can't win in November," Ladner said in an opening statement that set the tone for the hour-long exchange.
"Everywhere I go, people are saying the same thing: 'I supported Sam Sullivan and the NPA in the last election, but I won't be voting for Sam again.'
"And the polls bear this out. Two-thirds of the voters say they are unlikely to vote for Sam Sullivan in November. NPA members prefer me as their leader by a two-to-one margin."
Ladner wrapped up with a rapid-fire summary of his vision for the city: "I want Vancouver to be the greenest, safest, most affordable and globally competitive city in North America."
Sullivan disputed neither Ladner's claims nor his aims. Instead, the one-term mayor spun a cautionary tale about political solidarity.
"Well, the only reason that I am the NPA mayor and the NPA is in government right now is because several COPE councillors in the last government decided to squander their majority and split the party. They didn't want the COPE debt. They didn't want to work with the people who got them elected. And they split the party and that's why I am mayor.
"The public said, 'We don't want to deal with disunity. We don't want to deal with bickering individuals.' They gave them three years to patch it up, to come to a resolution with each other. [But] they're still going into an election disunited.
"The NPA offered a united team. And, you know, there's one group of people that really sit around the table with Coun. Ladner and I, and have the most at stake as to who should be the mayoral candidate, and that's the councillors. Every NPA councillor endorses me."
A taped boxing-ring bell sounded the end of round one.
Shadowboxing over social housing
The contenders quickly fell into a shadowboxing routine illustrated in the following exchange.
Cluff: "Both of you have voted to decrease the social housing commitment in Southeast False Creek. So why should voters believe you will do anything to increase social housing?"
Sullivan: "You know, for three years, I watched while COPE and Vision created 600 units of social housing. In our two-and-a-half years we're already up to 3,000 units. That's five times as much as what COPE and Vision did..."
(The mayor's claim elicited guffaws from the reporters huddled in the sound booth. Sullivan's oft-repeated claims of new social housing have devolved into fodder for jokes among city hall press corp. Just moments before the debate began, for example, Sullivan playfully suggested to Vancouver Courier columnist Allen Garr that he'd endorse a recent proposal to create a 100-year time capsule, "so long as they put you in it." Garr quipped back: "You'd probably declare it a unit of social housing.")
Cluff interrupted Sullivan: "But, mayor, are those commitments, or are those actual units?"
Cluff tried again: "Are they open, though?"
Sullivan dodged. "All of the renovations for life safety have been done. But we have to do other renovations..." In fact, BC Housing has not yet begun major renovations on most of its recently acquired residential hotels.
Cluff looked perplexed. He exchanged shrugs with a producer seated in the control booth, and moved on: "Coun. Ladner?"
"More than half of our citizens are renters. If we won't deal with the apartment rental situation, housing is never going to be affordable," Ladner said, calling for federal tax law changes to spur rental construction.
"That can only happen with leadership from the mayor of Vancouver," Ladner jabbed, "going to Ottawa with something else to be concerned about other than a drug experiment."
The CBC presented the NPA contenders with a well-considered array of taped questions in which listeners asked about property taxes, affordable housing, drug policy and other issues.
But while Sullivan and Ladner are, in fact, both quite well versed in these issues, very little of their mutual wonkiness was on display this morning.
Instead, they stuck to their opening routine, round after round: Sullivan played rope-a-dope with COPE, Ladner hammered Sullivan; Sullivan claimed accomplishments or cried out for party unity, Ladner hammered Sullivan. Through it all, they sat shoulder-to-shoulder, without ever making eye contact.
In response to a question about traffic, Sullivan promised that each of TransLink's new SkyTrain lines would remove 10,000 cars from the road.
Ladner rebutted: "The major investments in transportation are all coming from the regional level. We need a mayor of Vancouver who can work at the regional level. Mayor Sullivan was virtually invisible and unheard at the TransLink board."
On EcoDensity, Sullivan said "It really makes me very, very sad to see what is happening to our region. We're rolling over farmland, over forests, over ecologically sensitive areas."
Ladner replied: "His personal labelling of EcoDensity has aroused opposition which detracts from the absolutely essential goals..."
'Put the non-partisan back' into the NPA
After watching them chase one another around the studio in this fashion for more than half the hour, host Cluff finally loosed the weasel with a question about leadership. Excerpts from that exchange:
Ladner: "I would like to put the non-partisan back into the Non-Partisan Association... I think Sam has been focused very much on politically divisive partisan approaches to things. I'd like to look at the best idea, and go for the best solution, wherever it comes from."
Sullivan: "Every one of the NPA councillors has said they are endorsing me for mayor. Not one of the councillors that sit around the table, that know our style, is endorsing Coun. Ladner."
Ladner: "If you talk to people, you'll hear all over the city, 'I'm disappointed with Sam. I voted for him. I supported him. But I'm not happy anymore..."
Sullivan: "Coun. Ladner finds wherever he goes people are telling him that he's the best person for the job. You know, whenever I go anywhere, they tell me I'm the best person for the job. And they're probably the same people. We have to be careful not to listen to the people around us.
"There's one group of people that has more at stake for getting it right, getting the right leader, than anybody in this city. And that's the councillors whose fortunes will rise and fall with the right mayoral leader."
Ladner: "Sam has put a lot of pressure on these people to express their loyalty, to be loyal to him. The mayor has a certain amount of power over people. He can intimidate people. There are a lot of people who fear reprisals from the mayor if they are not doing what he thinks they should do."
ABS: Anybody But Sam
Most of Ladner's zingers had been road-tested during his debate-style question-and-answer the previous night. (Full disclosure: This reporter served as one of four journalists on Ladner's panel.)
Host Cluff raised the subject of Ladner's quiz show when he made reference to Chinese radio commentator Dr. K.K. Wan's sombre warning that the NPA would not win without Chinese support.
"I see the NPA is losing lots and lots of Chinese support to Vision Vancouver," Wan had challenged Ladner during the Tuesday night event. "Among the Chinese, actually, there is a movement called 'ABS': Anybody But Sam. But unfortunately, I do not identify that group of people in the NPA, even though they are actually very conservative," Wan had said.
Ladner's Tuesday night reply provided perhaps the most blunt analysis of this campaign to date. After acknowledging the popularity of Chinese-Canadian candidate Raymond Louie and long-time Chinatown supporter Al De Genova, Ladner said to Wan, "I don't think Al De Genova is going to win. I don't think Raymond is going to win. I think it will be Gregor Robertson." Ladner then pressed the question to Wan: "Does the Chinese community want an NDP mayoral candidate?"
But on CBC, Ladner stuck to his hammering.
Cluff asked, puckishly, "What are you doing to woo the Chinese community?"
Ladner replied, "The Chinese community... they don't want to be seen as offside with a leader who's known to be vindictive at times."
What the NPA needs?
Both candidates pledged to support the party's nominee in November. And each man ended the hour with one more swing at his talking point:
"The NPA needs a unified team," said Sullivan.
"The NPA needs to be able to win," said Ladner.
"It's not quite, 'Yes we can', is it?" mumbled a CBC staffer in the control booth, where Barack Obama's picture appeared on a television monitor tuned to a network TV signal.
The boxing-style bell rang one last time, and the most awaited debate of this mayoral contest was over.
Sullivan and Ladner will face off again this Thursday afternoon on CKNW. That debate will be hosted by Christy Clark, the former BC Liberal cabinet minister who Sullivan defeated for the NPA mayoral nomination in 2005. (Their opponents at Vision Vancouver have already held two debates, and will meet for one more this Thursday evening at SFU's Harbour Centre.)
The two NPA candidates left the sprawling CBC building separately.
Related Tyee stories:
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He wants a 'Civil City' but critics see devil in details.
- Bad Numbers for 'Civil City'
Vancouver's citizen security project way off its goals.
- Swinging at Mayor Sam
At debate, Vision candidates play to rowdy crowd.
Read more: Politics