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Can a New Dem Win in North Vancouver-Seymour?

It would mean a major upset in a Liberal bastion. Why is NDP candidate Jim Hanson optimistic?

By Crawford Kilian 10 May 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Jim Hanson seems like too good a candidate for the NDP to squander in a solid-Liberal riding.

He's a founding partner in Surrey-based Hanson Wirsig Matheos, the firm representing the Queen of the North survivors and other clients seeking compensation from powerful organizations. He has law degrees from UBC and Oxford; his wife is a successful realtor, and at 52 he routinely runs in marathons.

You'd expect to find such a successful businessman-lawyer running for the Liberals, or at least for a safe NDP seat. Instead he's chosen to run in his home riding of North Vancouver-Seymour, which last elected a New Democrat in 1972, when Dave Barrett took power and Hanson was 11 years old.

Even then, the NDP win was a stroke of luck. Seymour was then held by Liberal talk-show host Barrie Clarke, who should have won in a walk. But the leader of the revived Progressive Conservatives, Derrill Warren, chose to run there, and the Socreds also ran a candidate. Colin Gabelmann, a young employee of the B.C. Federation of Labour, had agreed to be the NDP's sacrificial lamb. Instead, with barely 33 per cent of the vote, he slipped up the middle.

The NDP's adversaries didn't make that mistake again, and Seymour has since been held by a string of provincial Socreds and Liberals. The NDP was reduced to running sacrificial lambs again. Even in the NDP 1990s, the Liberals took Seymour by close to two to one. In 2001, they actually took five times the NDP vote -- 15,568 to 3,016.

Even with newcomer Jane Thornthwaite running in 2009, the Liberals racked up 12,783 votes to the NDP's 5,863. Now she's running again, having weathered the scandal of a drunk-driving charge (she pleaded guilty to a charge of driving without due care and attention). If BC Liberals could forgive Gordon Campbell for his drunk-driving rap, surely they have forgiven Thornthwaite.

A winnable seat: Hanson

So why was an intelligent, successful lawyer seeking such a seat? Never mind that he has lived in the riding most of his life, or that he really didn't like what the Liberals had done to B.C. since 2001. Hanson thought the seat could be won.

It was not an impulsive, last-minute decision. After exploring the state of the constituency, Hanson sought and won the nomination in 2012. Since then he's been out knocking on doors.

Speaking to The Tyee recently, Hanson said he's hearing a lot of unhappiness on Liberal doorsteps. "They don't like Jane, they don't like Christy, and they don't like the Liberals in general," he said. Many are planning to vote NDP for the first time in their lives.

It remains to be seen whether he can count on four or five thousand such disenchanted Liberals, enough to stage the biggest upset since 1972. But after 40 years of pro-Liberal demographics, Seymour may be swinging back.

A starter home in the riding hasn't always cost close to a million bucks. The whole district of North Vancouver went bankrupt in the Depression. It had been a community of sawmill workers, loggers and shipbuilders, and it didn't really begin to suburbanize until the 1950s. Even then, squatters like Malcolm Lowry were living in shacks on the waterfront, and you could buy a water-view house in Deep Cove for five grand -- $40,000 in today's dollars. Even in the late 1960s, Seymour seemed too distant, too rainy, and too funky for most Vancouverites.

That rustic-bohemian age ended in the 1970s, when the last squatters' shack on the Maplewood mud flats were knocked down. By then, developments like Windsor Park were gentrifying Seymour. The commute into town was still near-impossible without your own car, but -- ironically -- the Dave Barrett NDP brought in regular bus service.

A demographic trending right

So Colin Gabelmann had truly got in by the skin of his teeth, and his own government ensured upwardly mobile young families would replace Seymour's original population of sawmill workers, ship-builders and squatters.

As property values rose, political values trended rightward. Since the 1970s, Seymour's demographic and political shift has been entrenched by a series of real-estate booms, each of them pushing up the value of homes in what is now considered a very up-market region. Old-timers can now reflect on the irony that their own kids have little chance of acquiring a home in Seymour unless they inherit it.

A few young families have moved into the riding, but they are not quite like those in 1975, when Seymour moved back into the Socred-Liberal fold. Today's young homeowners have put themselves in debt on a scale that their grandparents would have rejected outright. These families don't identify with political parties; at best, they see parties as tools, levers to move B.C. in desirable directions.

However hip and trendy the BC Liberals may have been in 2001 and 2005, they must look pretty stale to many of Seymour's young families. If they remember Gordon Campbell at all, it's as a con artist in red mittens who screwed up on the HST, bailed, and got a cushy job in London.

Christy Clark can push her soccer-mom image, but many of Seymour's young families have jobs in a new knowledge economy far removed from the days of shipbuilding and logging. If the studios on Brooksbank Avenue are in trouble, those families are in trouble. Older families have kids at Capilano University (or they may provide homestay for international students, using them to help pay off the mortgage).

If you're in such a situation, you want someone who's in a position to fight for you. At that point, a plaintiff's advocate starts to look pretty good -- especially if the Liberal, if re-elected, is likely to be sitting on the Opposition benches, ignored by the new government.

Environment a key local issue: Hanson

Speaking with The Tyee, Hanson described the mood in North Vancouver-Seymour more concretely: "I've been getting the same message on the doorstep for a year. They don't want the Liberals again, and they're skeptical about the NDP."

He said the dislike of the Liberals grows from many issues: Fiscal conservatives are angry at the growing deficit, and nurses are still mad about the shredding of their contract over a decade ago. The $6 million payout for legal bills in the Basi-Virk case still rankles.

"There's a love of the environment in North Vancouver-Seymour, but the environment is being undercut," he told The Tyee. He also mentioned unemployed young adults still living at home with their parents, and the lack of adequate community-living facilities for people with disabilities.

He's met plenty of people who hate the NDP, he said. "But not one person has supported the government." They may be skeptical of the NDP, but no one else offers them what they need.

With John Sharpe, a former Green candidate, door-knocking at his side, Hanson feels covered on that flank despite the late arrival of another Green in the contest, Daniel Smith. Other contenders include BC Conservative Brian Wilson and independent Jaime Webbe -- each more likely to attract votes from unhappy Liberals than from the New Democrats.

Thornthwaite herself has run a dull campaign, offering little more than sympathy about the cuts at Capilano University and the worsening situation in the film business. At a recent all-candidates' meeting, she was the only one to provoke actual jeers and scorn from the audience.

So despite some tough odds, Jim Hanson just might pull off the biggest upset of the election.  [Tyee]

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