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Municipal Politics

Kirk LaPointe, Cipher Candidate

A journalist who never tipped his hand. A political unknown 'cautious' on policy. Who is this NPA leader?

Doug Ward 13 Nov

Doug Ward is a veteran political journalist based in Vancouver. Find his previous Tyee stories here.

Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" blasted out of the sound system of the Victoria Drive Community Hall last Sunday as Kirk LaPointe walked through cheering Non-Partisan Association supporters and climbed onto the stage like a conquering hero. He cupped his hand to his ear once and then twice as if to say, "I can't hear you" and raised a clenched fist. The crowd roared: "Kirk! Kirk! Kirk!"

The NPA, he told his audience, is "within a hair of victory" over Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver -- "an incumbent council and mayor, a happy-go-lucky brand, all looking like the true House of Cards, right? A mullet government: Tidy in the front, lots of weird stuff happening in the back." Bad-um-chhh.

Who would have guessed a few years back that LaPointe would be anointed as the new favourite son of the conservative side in Vancouver's civic debate? Or that polls in the final week of the election would put him only four points behind Robertson who began the campaign as the clear favourite? Six months ago, almost none of these cheering people had any idea who LaPointe was.

He emerged somewhat out of nowhere as the mayoral candidate for the NPA through, in his own words, an "executive recruitment process."

Ex-newspaper baron Conrad Black, his former patron, once described LaPointe as a "presentable young man." And there's no doubt that his new patron, railway entrepreneur and NPA president Peter Armstrong, who was clapping in the back of the Victoria Drive hall, and who hovers over most LaPointe events like an anxious stage manager, feels the same about the ex-newspaperman who, at 56, is now graying around the edges.

Journalism career stalled

After 25 years in the executive suites of some of Canada's major media corporations, including the managing editor office of the Vancouver Sun, LaPointe's impressive and peripatetic career had stalled the year before. He is editor-in-chief of Self-Counsel Press, which publishes books on topics such as probate, landlord rental forms and how to create a happy retirement. There are limited media management jobs in Vancouver where LaPointe is now settled and married to Mary Lynn Young, associate dean of arts at the University of B.C.

What to do?

A good friend who was a volunteer with the NPA introduced LaPointe to Armstrong in early spring. The two alpha males met and eventually struck a deal. It's a safe bet they agreed the NPA had a real shot at a comeback. Six years of baggage had dimmed Robertson's lustre. Neighbourhood groups were upset about Vision's attempt to create more density. There was sectarian disunity on the fickle liberal-left, with COPE, now a far-left group, putting forward a spoiler mayoral candidate who could help the NPA cause. And the Green Party was on the rise because of its nebulous motherhood appeal and pandering to angry residents' groups.

Armstrong, developer Rob Macdonald and a small committee were impressed enough with LaPointe to appoint him their mayoral candidate. ("The opportunity arose and I believe in going through open doors," said LaPointe, about his new alliance with Armstrong.) They then selected all the other council candidates. There was no nomination meeting.

The campaign would be framed around LaPointe who is an excellent retail politician (most of the time); articulate, quick on his feet, telegenic. He projected managerial competence.

And the platform would be whatever LaPointe and Armstrong wanted it to be. This time, the NPA, once the party of Vancouverism, of towers and density and real estate magnates, would be the party siding with angry neighbourhoods fighting developers and city hall. Bring back the '90s era City Plan. Whatever. This would be the path back to power at 12th and Cambie.            

Over the past three years, Armstrong, who runs the Rocky Mountaineer luxury rail operation, has spearheaded the NPA's operation to take over city hall from his office in the 30th floor of the TD Tower. He gave $470,000 to the NPA campaign, about 20 per cent of the party's $2.1-million war chest.

Armstrong, notorious in the labour movement for locking out his Rocky Mountaineer employees for two years, had a big smile at the weekend Victoria Drive pep rally, as LaPointe smoothly delivered a series of wisecracks, playing for easy laughs from the partisan crowd.

Swears off personal attacks

LaPointe reminded his giddy audience of how he'd sworn at the outset of the campaign that he would avoid personal attacks. He paused, smiled and said: "We're doing... somewhat OK on that one."

Laughter ensued over the obvious reference to LaPointe's mid-campaign decision to go aggressive and charge that the appeal by Robertson and councillor Geoff Meggs for financial help from unionized city outside workers was a "a horrible act and I believe that our community understands that it was buying votes" -- a statement that sparked a defamation lawsuit and quickly shifted the election's narrative away from policy, which hasn't been the NPA's strong suit.

LaPointe launched his campaign in the summer with a promise that his new party was "not the NPA you thought you know." The new NPA was not, as Robertson once described it, the party of "angry white men." But there is little in LaPointe's remarkably unambitious platform that would give "angry white men" cause for alarm.

In fact, this year's version of the NPA is arguably further to the right of the political vehicles led by previous mayoralty candidates Sam Sullivan, Peter Ladner and Suzanne Anton. Certainly, these NPA leaders never connected themselves so closely to oil and cars as has LaPointe, in striking contrast to Robertson's eco-branding of Vision Vancouver and the city.

Exhibit A: At Sunday's NPA event, LaPointe had the party faithful chortling as he called Robertson "the darling of American financial interests." It was a right-wing talking point straight out of the playbook used by Stephen Harper's federal Conservative government to counter environmental groups opposed to Alberta oilsands expansion. It's also a message attacked by previous NPA mayoral candidate Ladner in a newspaper column two years ago that began "Do I have a conspiracy for you!"

Ladner mocked the theory making the right-wing rounds that Robertson, his former opponent, is acting on behalf of American interests to curb natural resources development in Canada because some charitable foundations with connections to Robertson and Vision get funding from American eco-friendly sources. "The most Robertson has done to 'control the flow of Canada's natural resources and trade to Asia,'" wrote Ladner, "has been to wave an ineffectual hand at the prospect of more, bigger tankers moving through Vancouver harbour."

Ladner, who is far more of a liberal centrist than LaPointe (or, at least than the persona LaPointe has chosen to present in this campaign), wrote that it "would be simply pathetic if this line of kooky thinking hadn't been picked up by our prime minister and his top ministers."

But this same conspiracy theory has been gladly picked up by LaPointe who has made repeated remarks about outside money backing Robertson's campaign.

A political unknown

Full disclosure: I worked as a reporter at the Vancouver Sun when LaPointe was managing editor. I and my colleagues had little sense of his politics. You knew what the libertarians in the Sun's editorial page office thought about taxes -- and you knew that the shop steward on the copy desk liked the NDP and that the editor-in-chief probably didn't. You knew that the people behind editorials upstairs at the Province loathed Robertson and Vision.

But LaPointe -- you could just as easily have imagined him voting Vision as NPA. When he wrote for the Sun, it was usually about running, or novels. He rarely wrote about politics. He was a political unknown.

And his real politics now, and what he would do in office, still remain unclear. His campaign has been full of goals and platitudes with few major specifics other than promises to launch reviews and studies.

"I have no idea how to read Kirk because to me he is just a place-holder," said Bob Ransford, campaign chair for NPA mayoral candidate Ladner in 2008, who now backs Vision. "He has not really said what he believes in. He's talked about some initiatives he wants and has thrown out some harsh criticisms.

"But in terms of the direction the campaign is going, it's very much more right-wing than Peter Ladner's campaign. And I would say it's quite a bit more aggressive and right-wing than Suzanne Anton's campaign."

Ransford said the key to the NPA's politics has less to do with LaPointe than with who is backing him. "The people behind the scenes are two business guys (Armstrong and Macdonald) and a lot of federal Conservatives." Ransford ran the federal Conservative campaign in B.C. in 2005.

Party of bluebloods

"When you look at the donation list to the NPA, it's really a who's-who of the blueblood Conservatives of Vancouver who have been giving to Conservative campaigns for the last 40 years. I didn't see many federal Liberals there."

On the issue of his politics, LaPointe has told reporters: "I am not a big believer that the ideological pinnings are germane... I'm a social liberal and a fiscal conservative and the NPA is not just a Conservative machine."

Michael Davis, a past NPA president who ran the media campaign for mayoral candidate Anton in 2011, similarly said that LaPointe's campaign has been more "right-wing" than those run by Anton, Ladner or Sullivan.

"He's a credible public person. But you have to look at who is backing him," said Davis, who left the NPA a few years ago and now supports Vision. "It's a couple of guys deciding who is going to be the candidate for council and mayor. I don't know what that is -- but it's not a democratic party."

Davis said that LaPointe's has been very "cautious" about policy. "He hasn't really talked about anything they will do quickly other than to review. He's said we are going to review the vacant house issue. And even on that one, he has said lawyers told him he couldn't do anything about it. But it's very easy to pander to populist sentiment, knowing full well you're going to do nothing about it."

Former NPA councillor Gordon Price said that LaPointe has "unquestionably re-established the credibility of the NPA." He added that LaPointe has been adroit at finding "just this position where he doesn't have to commit himself to do things, when he doesn't have to."

Derides bike lane

On the Point Grey bike lane, for example, LaPointe continues to get some political capital out of its unpopularity in certain circles, by sarcastically calling it a "gated community." But the NPA leader has acknowledged that while he will review the bike lane, it's unlikely he will dismantle it. (Many of his most rabid supporters won't be too happy about that.)

LaPointe has argued that he is not anti-bike and that previous NPA administrations brought in more cycling lanes than Vision. But Price, who was one of the NPA's strongest cycling advocates, said that such comments are misleading. It was Vision, said Price, which was willing to risk public anger by building separated bike lanes on Burrard Bridge and Point Grey Road. "Yes, the NPA has every right to say they pioneered infrastructure. But it was affordable to do and the NPA didn't take on the tough stuff. We weren't proposing anything like a separated lane through the downtown."

The NPA platform is decidedly small-ball: free WiFi, counter-flow traffic lanes, ending evening parking restrictions. On the biggest issue facing the city -- housing affordability -- there is nothing of any substance. LaPointe would let a future City Plan discussion address the issue, but there are no details about how the plan could work or create more housing supply. It's hard to imagine that neighbourhood groups wouldn't emerge to fight new forms of density.

LaPointe has said that he would create rental housing by working with other levels of government to create a tax credit. But this is not a new idea, and neither Ottawa nor Victoria has shown any interest adopting it.

Former NPA president Davis doubts that LaPointe's NPA would continue with its new anti-density approach if it formed government. "I don't think you would see it in action. (Previous mayoral candidate) Suzanne Anton was calling for more density up at 41st and Oak in the last campaign. I would be very surprised if the NPA went for less density." Davis added, "we all want more affordable housing, which means more supply, which means more density. And when you look at who the NPA's backers are now, I don't see anything that suggests the party is going to rein in big tower development."

Raised in poverty

During the campaign LaPointe has repeatedly told the story of how he grew up in poverty and how his single mother had to make a choice of which one of her two sons she would keep. His older brother was sent to live with friends in New Brunswick. LaPointe says his childhood experience makes him the "authentic" candidate when it comes to fighting homelessness. Yet in the NPA platform there is no strategy to end street homelessness, which has been a huge issue in Vancouver's civic conversation for many years.

The best LaPointe has to offer is the creation of a czar for the Downtown Eastside, someone who will work with stakeholders and residents and conduct an audit of funding. LaPointe's anti-poverty strategy appears to be based on the conservative trope that the real problem in the Downtown Eastside is the mishandling of government money by the "poverty industry" and that a tough guy is needed to go in and clean up the mess.

The absence of any attention to the homelessness file in the NPA platform stands in clear contrast to Robertson who has largely staked his legacy on his unprecedented efforts to get the homeless into social housing or shelters. Indeed, the man who grew up poor in Toronto attacked Robertson time and time again during the campaign for giving the homeless false hope with his goal of ending street homelessness by 2015.

Despite his platform being threadbare except for promises of more transparency in government, LaPointe has been adamant that his party is dramatically different from the one that has ruled city hall since 2008, which is what all parties do in elections.

Former NPA councillor Price, who is now director of SFU's City Program*, said that the two mainstream parties have more in common than either party wants the electorate to believe. There has been a political consensus in Vancouver since the Art Phillips era of the '70s, said Price. One based on mixed-use livability, low property taxes, good public services and institutions such as the development permit board and the property endowment fund.

"But the less difference there is in the centre," said Price, "the more people exaggerate to push into the extreme."

Attacks subway proposal

Which may explain LaPointe's strange attacks on Robertson over the Broadway subway proposal. Both agree it should be built and should be tunnelled. But Robertson claims he will be the better fighter for it while LaPointe claims Robertson has alienated other levels of government and that he, LaPointe, will be able to bring them around. He has never provided any evidence for that.

He has also repeatedly attacked Robertson for not delivering the subway line, when it is clearly part of a package of improvements TransLink would like to make for the whole region -- and which no one, from Surrey to Maple Ridge to Vancouver -- is so far getting any help from provincially and federally.

When pressed on his efforts to differentiate himself from Robertson, and why he is blaming Vancouver's mayor for elements of the transit package that the region's mayors jointly decided on, LaPointe said: "Uhm, sorry, don't have an answer for that. I mean that's a bit of a, it's a bit of an empty question." The encounter was the campaign low-point for LaPointe with Vision gleefully putting out a video of the "empty question" remark on YouTube and turning it into a campaign ad.

LaPointe's messaging campaign gained traction about a week later during a debate when he grilled Robertson about the decision by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) to give Vision $102,000 after councillor Meggs personally reminded the city's outside workers' local of Vision's long-standing commitment to maintain contracting-out of city services at current levels.

Meggs' appeal and the CUPE decision was caught on audiotape and leaked to a reporter. The NPA fired off a press release, but it failed to generate much buzz. It wasn't "news" that the CUPE local would give money to Vision, as it had done previously, nor was it "news" that a civic party with ties to the labour movement would have curbs on contracting out.

Nevertheless, sensing that he had an issue which could shift the campaign's media conversation, LaPointe went after Robertson with the faux-outrage of Captain Renault exclaiming in the movie Casablanca that he was "shocked" to find gambling in Rick's bar. LaPointe asked Robertson if he was "proud" of Meggs' role in securing the CUPE donation.

Robertson became defensive and didn't directly answer the question, looking like he had something to hide. Robertson's flub became a YouTube video and a NPA ad.

"LaPointe has sharpened his messaging and has been really aggressive on the attack side of it," said former NPA campaign manager Ransford. "And that has deflected some of the criticism about the NPA's lack of policy. It's bought him some extra capital."

The question is whether LaPointe's more pointed attack in the last half of the campaign will resonate with that middle, centrist band of voters the NPA needs in order to regain power. Or whether it only appeals to the NPA base, whose anger with Vision is already red hot.

Former NPA president Davis said that the grassroots of his old party have become increasingly cranky about the city.

"There is a sense that they are opposed to everything -- and they are very angry about. You put in a bike lane and it's like they see it as a threat to their way of life."

LaPointe will need that anger to extend beyond the NPA crowd for his mid-life career change to be complete.

*Corrected Nov. 13 at 3:30 p.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: Municipal Politics

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