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'Change' Wins in Vancouver

Now the hard part. What will 'change' mean? Notes from last night's landslide.

By Geoff Dembicki, Irwin Loy and David Beers 17 Nov 2008 |

Geoff Dembicki is a reporter for The Tyee; Irwin Loy is a reporter for Vancouver's leading free news weekly 24 Hours and is a frequent contributor to The Tyee and its blog The Hook; David Beers is editor of The Tyee.

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Robertson delivers victory speech. Photo Michael Tippet of NowPublic.

The party promising "change" won by a landslide in Vancouver on Saturday. Just what measure of change the voters demanded wasn't immediately apparent, however. Were they expecting Vision mayoral candidate Gregor Robertson to make good on his victory speech promises to eliminate homelessness and turn Vancouver into "the world's greenest city"?

Or was "change" just this simple: For a change, let's try a running city hall without leadership disintegrating through vicious infighting and schisms.

After all, the last three elections have been lost by parties that tore themselves apart before the voter's eyes. First the NPA's Philip Owen was sidelined by a Jennifer Clark faction lukewarm to his harm reduction policies -- and in swept COPE led by Larry Campbell. Then Campbell's party split into "COPE Classic" and "COPE Lite" factions, burping forth Vision Vancouver. And now, after Peter Ladner's palace coup against NPA Mayor Sam Sullivan, Gregor Robertson leads a slate representing a patched back together alliance of COPE and Vision.

That Vision/COPE coalition painstakingly crafted months before may have been key to how the city-wide electoral map looked last night, with the left-of-centre slate taking all but the most affluent neighbourhoods of the West Side and Yaletown. Not long after he helped arrange the détente with Vision, veteran COPE Coun. David Cadman confided to a Tyee reporter that if COPE candidates didn't as a result get elected, he would be "hanged" by his party. But last night at COPE headquarters, a strip mall storefront on Kingsway near Fraser, people were arriving with huge plates of veggies and dip, and a mix of youthful and greying volunteers were settling in for what would prove to be a very happy evening.

Meanwhile, at the ritzy Hotel Vancouver, where Vision Vancouver held its joyous election party, beer and wine went for $8.75 a pop, food was non-existent and the room never completely filled up.

If there's any lesson to take from all that, it may be that Robertson and his team need to spend as much effort showing respectful cooperation towards their COPE colleagues on council, David Cadman and Ellen Woodsworth, as they do reinventing city hall's approach to creating an ecologically sustainable city where everyone has a roof over their heads.

As Barack Obama might tell them, it's great to have a mandate on election night -- but with expectations so high as you take on huge political challenges, it's crucial to maintain a fired up, broad and cohesive base of support. And for now, Robertson seems to have that.

'Nothing to be ashamed of': Ladner

It wasn't supposed to be like this for Peter Ladner, who delivered Sam Sullivan a stunning defeat when he narrowly won nomination as the NPA's mayoral candidate. Last night, the tables turned once again as Ladner did his best to put a good face on one of the biggest NPA election night blows in years.

According to preliminary results, voters elected Gregor Robertson by almost 20,000 votes and all but shut the NPA out of council.

Nine candidates -- including incumbents Kim Capri and Elizabeth Ball -- were defeated, leaving only Suzanne Anton to represent the NPA on city council.

As the results were confirmed, the full NPA slate took to the stage in the swanky Harbour Ballroom of the Marriott Renaissance Hotel.

"This is a sad day for Vancouver," said the NPA's Michael Geller, who missed a spot on council by less than 2,000 votes.

Nevertheless, a festive mood prevailed as Ladner took the stage. Funky drums and blazing horns blasted out of the loudspeakers, bright balloons lit up in photographer's flashes and cheers erupted across the room.

Ladner was joined on stage by his wife, whose misty eyes betrayed the bitter taste of defeat settling on everybody's tongue.

"Obviously the voters wanted a change," Ladner said. "But we have nothing to be ashamed of. We delivered some very good results for the city of Vancouver."

Speaking to reporters after his concession speech, Ladner said he was "kind of relieved" the election campaign was over, though he found the results "extremely disappointing."

In a brief scrum that was interrupted by NPA media liaison Michael Meneer only minutes after it started, Ladner had some words of warning for Robertson and the new council.

"They will have some very serious financial challenges right off the start," he said.

Two hours before Ladner's concession speech, the ballroom was mostly empty except for bored reporters and the odd NPA supporter. Platter-carrying waiters put bowls of chips and salty peanuts on nearly every available surface. One reporter joked that the NPA was trying to boost its cash bar.

Time for soul searching

Margot Paris, NPA candidate Geller's campaign manager, made the rounds of the room with a glass of white wine in hand. She said the party would be in for some serious soul searching whether or not Ladner triumphed.

"The NPA I think will go through a really important and necessary reconfiguration," Paris said.

She said the centre-right NPA shares many sensibilities with Vancouver's business community, adding that the party must become more inclusive if it wants to remain a vibrant political force.

"We have to throw open the tent," she said, referring to a need to attract candidates and support from a broader range of Vancouver constituencies. "There are some old school factors at work."

As results began to filter in, Paris's analysis appeared to gain credence. With only 42 out of 133 polls counted, Robertson was over 3,000 votes ahead of Ladner while Vision candidates dominated the council tallies. Over the next half hour, a mounting tension filled the room.

NPA school board candidate Sophia Woo bit her nails and looked apprehensive as she watched Robertson's lead widen to 14,000 votes on a large TV screen.

An NPA supporter without official ties to the party exclaimed, "The mayoral race is over!"

NPA school board candidate Ken Denike -- who appeared to win re-election later in the night -- said he was "concerned" about the results. Asked what could account for the lead, he said Robertson was able to take control of homelessness as a campaign issue better than Ladner.

"People are really put off by homelessness, they wanted a solution," Denike said, referring to Robertson's pledge to end homelessness by 2015.

But Denike warned that Robertson and Vision could have trouble making a difference. "They've raised expectations but they're not going to be able to deliver," he said. "Good luck."

'Back in three years!'

Asked if the controversy surrounding the Olympic village was a deciding factor, Denike said it wasn't a bellwether issue.

"It had a lot of media interest, but it didn't influence a lot of voters," he said.

By about 10 p.m., all traces of hope had vanished from the room and the full slate of NPA candidates took to the stage. As the crowd waited for the speeches to begin, former NPA-turned-independent park board commissioner Allan De Genova blamed Sam Sullivan's unpopular leadership for damaging the party's popularity. But he also credited Vision for drawing strong support from local, provincial and federal unions.

"The unions mobilized more than they ever did before," he said.

De Genova said Robertson did a "marvellous" job of shoring up pre-election support, but predicted the municipal newcomer will now have to rely on the political experience of Vision candidates Raymond Louie and Geoff Meggs to keep the government afloat.

"Hopefully, they'll get along internally," De Genova said. "If not they'll be gone in three years."

Shortly after, Ladner took to the stage. As his concession speech wound down, the defeated mayoral candidate summed up his party's prospects succinctly.

"We will have to work at the NPA and start again," he said.

When he left the stage, shouts of "NPA! NPA!" filled the air. Outgoing NPA Coun. B.C. Lee grabbed the microphone and said defiantly, "We'll be back in three years!"

'We are going to end homelessness': Robertson

Meanwhile, at the Vision Vancouver victory celebration, Gregor Robertson finished his campaign the way he started it -- with a pledge to end homelessness in Vancouver.

"We are going to end homelessness in Vancouver," Robertson told cheering supporters.

Robertson has pledged to solve homelessness by 2015, a promise he tried to temper in his speech.

"Building homes will take years," Robertson said. "And too many people are forced to sleep on the streets tonight. Too many people are unable to find safe and clean shelter."

The ballroom was the largest Vision organizers could find in the city. And supporters happily shelled out the high price of drinks at the non-host bar to have a sip of victory.

Return of Jim Green

For Jim Green, a landslide victory for the party he used to lead was vindication.

Three years ago, the former mayoral candidate for the centre-left Vision Vancouver party came within 4,000 votes of a victory he was convinced was his. This time around, there was no question who won.

"I'm just overjoyed. I think it's the best thing that could happen to the city," said Green. "It looks like we're going to have very little opposition on council. Which means we can really now deal with homeless issues."

In the three years since his election loss, Green has dropped out of the public radar, exchanging his high-profile politician's persona for that of a behind-the-scenes development consultant.

With Robertson's victory, Green is hoping the new council will use the partnership model he championed with the Woodward's development to create an affordable housing building boom.

"I think we're going to be the model for the world. I really do," Green said. "We're going to follow the Woodward's model and we're going to develop the city in a way that's totally inclusive."

Going into Saturday's vote, both sides had an idea of what would happen. Vision polling last week had suggested to them that Robertson had as much as a 20-point lead over Ladner. The NPA's polling showed a lead for Robertson as well.

But in the last week of the election, Ladner appeared to suffer most from the fallout surrounding an alleged $100-million loan the city approved to the developers of the 2010 Olympic Village. The city has yet to confirm the loan but an anonymously sourced newspaper report proved to be an explosive issue for some as the campaign wound down.

Robertson alluded to the controversy in his speech.

"We understand that many people have lost confidence in city hall over the $100 million bailout of the... Olympic Village," he said. "When the city uses public money, the public has a right to know where it's being spent and what it's being used for."

Dhaliwal's loss makes night bittersweet

But amid the celebration at Vision headquarters this weekend, privately some members were miffed that the city had again failed to elect a South Asian candidate to council.

Preliminary results suggested Vision elected seven of its eight council candidates: Raymond Louie, Kerry Jang, Heather Deal, Tim Stevenson, George Chow, Geoff Meggs and Andrea Reimer.

The eighth candidate, Kashmir Dhaliwal, appeared to finish 11th. As the influential head of the Khalsa Diwan Society, which runs the Ross Street Temple, Vision had high hopes for Dhaliwal.

His omission from council seemed particularly conspicuous to some organizers, given the near Vision sweep.

The NPA also ran a prominent South Asian candidate for council in businessman Daljit Sidhu. He finished last among NPA candidates, 5,000 votes back of his closest colleague.

Yet for all the celebration at Vision headquarters this weekend, Robertson will inherit the aftermath of the Olympic Village controversy, a severe and worsening problem of homelessness and a city budget that is under immense upward pressures.

Robertson may have won votes by declaring an end to homelessness by 2015, yet there are few indications today that the goal can be met within the city's reach.

"We can't do it alone," Robertson admitted in his speech. "We know that Premier [Gordon] Campbell and [Housing Minister Rich] Coleman want to do the right thing for Vancouver. I'm looking forward to working together to pursue an aggressive housing agenda...

"We will work with everyone in the city to find solutions, including those with contrary opinions, and we will start right away," said Robertson, whose new council will begin its work in the first week of December.

A 'change' in Vancouver's self-image?

And so ends what is almost certain to be the most expensive civic election in Vancouver history, in which more was spent by the parties per vote than was expended in the U.S. presidential election. What made city hall such an alluring prize? Not just the usual -- its role as gatekeeper in a (once) hot real estate market -- but also the right to represent the city when the world looks in for the 2010 Olympics.

And so there is some poetic justice in the fact that the rocky road to building the Olympic Village would emerge at the last second as a key issue in the campaign. One of the first acts the NPA's new Mayor Sam Sullivan oversaw three years ago was the trimming of social housing from the Olympic village master plan, handing the project to by far the highest bidder, Millennium. That firm now seems to be straining under the weight of needing to sell enough luxury condos to service its huge debt and swing a profit. Which is why, we learned in the final week and a bit of the campaign, the city secretly offered Millennium a $100 million loan backed by Vancouver taxpayers.

Just three years ago, city hall seemed intoxicated by Vancouver's own hype, the notion we'd created the perfect global real estate investment climate, the livable, eco-dense downtown with endlessly replicable killer views of sea and forested mountains.

Now, amidst a global credit and real estate meltdown, one big "change" Vancouver needs is a new narrative to reflect today's more sober realities. The political task of showing the world who we really are, and might become, now falls to Gregor Robertson and the renewed coalition he leads.

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