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Municipal Politics

After Nail Biting Night, Kennedy Stewart Is Vancouver’s New Mayor

Following close race, runner up Ken Sim isn’t ready to concede.

By  Tyee Staff and Contributors 21 Oct 2018 |

Geoff Dembicki, Christopher Cheung, David Beers and Bryan Carney contributed to this Vancouver election report.

Kennedy Stewart will be the next mayor of Vancouver after a nail-bitingly close race to the finish against NPA candidate Ken Sim. He will now preside over a city council that is at once more progressive and more conservative than the previous council.

“Was that close enough for you?” Stewart said to roaring applause in the basement of the Waldorf Hotel in east Vancouver. Stewart beat Sim by just under 1,000 votes, according to unofficial election results posted on the City of Vancouver website. Independent candidate Shauna Sylvester placed third.

During an election dominated by housing and unaffordability, Stewart promised to build tens of thousands of non-market housing units, create a new city position to advocate specifically for renters and form a Downtown Eastside emergency task force to address the opioid crisis. “Today people voted to take action on these challenges,” he said. “What we do has to make life better for everybody.”

After 10 years in power, Vision Vancouver was virtually wiped from the electoral map. It elected no city councillors. The NPA meanwhile elected five councillors: Melissa De Genova, Colleen Hardwick, Lisa Dominato, Rebecca Bligh and Sarah Kirby-Yung. The Green Party, making huge gains not only on council but parks board and school board, elected three councillors: Adriane Carr, Pete Fry and Michael Wiebe. Christine Boyle from OneCity also won, as did COPE’s Jean Swanson.

What this means is that city council is evenly split between councillors from the centre-right NPA and others associated with centre-left parties. That leaves Stewart potentially as the tie-breaking vote that can pass policies related to his progressive agenda, assuming he’s able to broker alliances with the Greens, OneCity and COPE.

Stewart told a press scrum after his speech that he’s up to the challenge. “I’ve been talking to all the councillors all the way through this race and I think there’s ideas that we share in common and I think we’re just going to have to build policy by policy and make sure we don’t alienate anybody as we move forward,” he said.

In the months and weeks leading up to Saturday’s vote, the Greens, COPE and OneCity agreed to not compete directly against each other. They worked with Stewart and the Vancouver and District Labour Council with the goal of preventing right-wing candidates from forming the balance of civic power in Vancouver.

Boyle, the newly elected councillor from OneCity, is confident that this loose coalition can persist during actual governing, and that progressive parties can work with their NPA counterparts to pass policies that will address the housing crisis.

“We heard a lot of shared commitment [during the campaign] to addressing affordability and particularly to making sure that those most vulnerable are prioritized,” Boyle said. “So I’m hopeful we can hold our councillors up to that, certainly in our progressive mix of councillors and also across the board.”

COPE’s got hope

Over at COPE’s election night party at Junior’s Pub on Commercial Drive, people involved with the party were hopeful that Stewart represents a real departure from outgoing Vision mayor Gregor Robertson — but they’re waiting to see specifics.

“I want to see Kennedy to be a little more clear on his policies, how they’re going to implement it, where the money is going to come from,” Meena Wong, who ran for mayor with COPE in 2014, said before the results came in. “He says he’s good at working with people of different opinions,” she continued. “That will be a test.”

Swanson said that COPE already proved during the campaign that it could help set the progressive agenda and pull politicians further to the left. In a speech to her supporters, she suggested that her support for a “mansion tax” in last year’s city of Vancouver byelection helped push the provincial NDP to implement its recent tax on homes worth more than $3 million, while COPE’s advocacy for a “rent freeze” helped push a B.C. government task force to urge against raising rents by 4.5 per cent.

“We made it legitimate to say what we actually need,” Swanson said. “For 11 years Vision talked about homelessness [and] backed down… We also succeeded in changing the framing of the struggle and made it legitimate to put class into it.”

At Stewart’s event, former NDP MP Libby Davies said the success of progressive politicians in this year’s municipal election was driven in part by a popular backlash against Vancouver’s developer community: “I feel like we’re in a period of time now where most people feel like developers have too much control over City Hall, they have too much influence over what’s going on in terms of development,” she said.

Meanwhile, over at Sim City…

It was just before 1 a.m. when Ken Sim finally emerged from the wings of the NPA’s election night party and congratulated his opponent, Stewart. At first no one clapped. Maybe it was because it wasn’t clear whether Sim was conceding or not. He looked tired and un-victorious. But “there were still votes to count,” he said, and left it at that, even though the TV news stations were declaring Stewart the winner.

It also had been a nail-biting night in Sim City, the loudest cheer going up the one time the tallying votes showed Sim in the lead. But that was less than halfway through the count. The rest of the evening Stewart clung to his lead, usually by less than a point. Cheers broke out again when it became clear the NPA would comprise the largest voting bloc — five members — on council.

Rob MacDonald, the rich realtor who’d pulled in millions for the NPA when he chaired its fundraising, had arrived early. He sipped wine and complained to a circle of nodding heads that Shauna Sylvester was “just rude. Not a woman thing, just rude.” Kirk LaPointe, the NPA’s mayoral candidate last election, drifted in around 11:45 fresh from attending the opera, which he said was okay. He pondered the thought of poverty activist Jean Swanson now on council and joked that she would cause exasperated eyes to roll at council meetings.

NPA council candidate Colleen Hardwick, solidly on her way to winning a council seat, told The Tyee her first order of business would be to open the city’s books to a forensic audit, zeroing in on the hidden ways the Vision-led council had spent the property endowment. Hardwick suspected the Visionistas had been drawing down the fund instead of preserving its principal as its originator, then mayor Art Phillips, had intended. She worried the money had been misspent on… bike lanes. Or other capital costs.

That sounded a bit technical, even fastidious, in a moment of crisis. What about tackling affordable housing? Was Hardwick saying the goal was for municipal government to spend less, not more, on lower cost housing? She answered: “These are complex problems that require some in-depth analysis we have never been able to do.”

Pressed to say what she’d do about housing, Hardwick said her focus would be “the missing middle” — encouraging the building of low-rise multi-family forms of housing in single-family neighbourhoods. She would also work to make permit processes for renovations more streamlined.

Hardwick studied urban planning before working in the film industry. She then founded a public engagement company and heads the non-profit Urbanarium think tank. “What I heard campaigning is that people don’t feel they are being heard,” said Hardwick.

Asked if people might be skeptical an NPA board would be more receptive to grassroots communities, given its strong ties to realtors and developers, Hardwick laughed. “Vision has certainly outdone us on that.” Her daughter, who is pregnant and tends bar at a restaurant joined her mom’s side as Hardwick said, “All I can do is speak for myself. I am willing to put up my dukes to fight for the right things.”

On television a commentator was musing that the pro-business coalition in Vancouver had “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory” because Wai Young of the Vancouver Coalition had split the vote for mayor on the right. And it meant that Stewart, with just 29 per cent of the vote, had “the weakest mandate” of any incoming Vancouver mayor.

True, but even if you add Young’s seven per cent to Hector Bremner’s six per cent to Sim’s 28 per cent you get 41 per cent, versus the middle to left glob of votes that is Shauna Sylvester’s 21 per cent plus Stewart’s 29 per cent. That would be 50 per cent of the vote — a whopping progressive(ish) mandate given how varied was the mayoral field.

Sim continued his address to the NPA crowd by saying, accurately, “We had a great night and we should celebrate it. We elected five councilors — five women councillors.” That brought Sim his biggest cheer.

960px version of Ken Sim
Photo by David Beers.

Sim, a businessperson who owns bagel restaurants and a senior care service, had no political experience prior to running for mayor of Vancouver, but he had powerful backing.

Peter Armstrong, the owner of Rocky Mountaineer railroad and many real estate holdings is a BC Liberals’ insider who has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into past NPA campaigns. Early on, Armstrong tapped Sim over other hopefuls, including Hector Bremner, in an ugly battle to win the NPA mayoral nomination. Sim also drew the backing of Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, who owns the biggest mansion in Vancouver and major investments in local real estate.

In an election where voters clearly had lost patience with Vision’s long reign and skyrocketed housing costs, Sim campaigned as an agent of “change.” His party’s other slogan was “Back to Basics at City Hall.” The changes Sim proposed tended to align with the interests of Vancouver’s real estate industry and wealthier homeowners.

Sim opposed the provincial tax on homes over $3 million, saying he was “against any tax based on asset values.” While other candidates said the time had come to densify Vancouver’s wealthier west side neighbourhoods, Sim was not among them.

His party’s plan for combatting Vancouver’s housing affordability crisis was largely market-driven, vowing to streamline building regulations and push for tax cuts for developers of rental units.

Sim’s speech amounted to very little more than a round of thanks to the voters, the candidates, his team members. And, finally, his parents, “who came to Canada looking for a better life — not for them, but for their kids.”

Supporters cheer Sylvester’s showing

Despite a third place finish, Shauna Sylvester’s supporters still found reason to cheer at her election night party, held at warehouse-turned-arts space The Ironworks. She performed well, receiving 20.5 per cent of the vote. “I feel like something happened that was different in this election,” Sylvester said in a speech to supporters.

960px version of Shauna Sylvester
Photo by Christopher Cheung.

When Sylvester entered the race, the Globe and Mail wrote that she “[wasn’t] exactly a household name” in Vancouver, though she was “well-known among the environmental activist, city-visionary, PechaKucha crowd.”

She is the director of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, the founding executive director of the school’s Public Square, and has sat on many high-profile boards, including those of Vancity Credit Union and Mountain Equipment Cooperative.

But Sylvester gained momentum as her campaign progressed. She released a detailed platform before many other candidates, with detailed policies on everything from housing to climate change to arts and culture (she heavily supported co-op housing, as a resident of an equity co-op).

Charlie Smith of the Georgia Straight praised her for doing her homework, saying that she left other candidates “in the dust” on policy development.

Sylvester’s strengths as a facilitator and educator shone through during her campaign, with one standout event held by the Shaughnessy Heights Property Owners’ Association, which calls the historic neighbourhood of the city’s wealthy its home. Sylvester calmly faced down anti-bike lane hecklers with facts and silenced the crowd at one point with a near-death encounter she had while cycling in her 20s.

But despite Sylvester’s performance, a big question — a fair one to ask or not — dominated her candidacy: would she split the progressive vote?

Endorsements were viewed as signals of Sylvester’s political leanings. While Stewart collected endorsements from many past and present NDP politicians (Mike Harcourt, Jagmeet Singh, Don Davies, Libby Davies, Jenny Kwan, and Joy MacPhail), Sylvester received support from past and present politicians such as Liberals like Joyce Murray and Stephen Owen and former NPA councillors like Gordon Price and Peter Ladner.

So while she may have collected votes from left-leaning voters, she also collected some who leaned more to the right.

“Shauna crosses party lines,” said Ladner on Saturday night. “She’s such a strong candidate and remarkable person that people are willing to go to her because they respect her so much. She’s an independent, so it’s not like you’re picking a party — you’re picking a person, and then you’re free to pick whatever party you choose to support [for council].”

This was something Sylvester spoke about in her closing speech to supporters. “There are a lot of people that found a home here, people that didn’t necessarily go to the right or to the left,” she said. “They found a home here, and my hope is that that home gets embraced in the new [mixed] council.”

Wai Young’s goodbye

When Wai Young began her thank you speech to supporters after losing the mayoral election Saturday night, her small campaign office on Main near 49th Street had filled in a fair bit — 50 or so people at peak.

“We made a significant impact on policy, we changed the full conversation this election, we got on the map in terms of what were the things that are important to Vancouverites,” said Young, who finished fourth with seven per cent of the vote. “Across the city people are now talking about different things than they would have if we hadn’t been here.”

Media liaison David Cavey spoke about the challenges of getting attention in the press with so many candidates. “I wrote the press releases that you probably got, I came up with the names like ‘Plain Cracker’ for the NPA and Ken Sim and ‘Burnaby Bully’ Kennedy Stewart.” Cavey said he was eating crackers when the idea occurred to him.

Cavey had worked on a number of federal Conservative campaigns, including Young’s. If he hadn’t been working for Young, he said, he’d be working on John Tory’s campaign to become Toronto mayor. Cavey said he had been tapped by Christy Clark to run as a BC Liberal in the next election, but instead decided to seek the federal Conservative nomination in Vancouver Centre.

Park board candidate Winnie Siu in her first run for office said she was encouraged by Young to run at a volunteer meeting after she told the candidate that she wanted more dog parks. But the first policy that attracted the rookie to Young was the no-more-bike-lanes policy, she said, as a traffic engineer.

Young’s candidacy gave volunteers and supporters alike a chance to have their ideas represented, they agreed. Some had left the NPA because the platform was too top-down or they were excluded from running.

Young said the campaign had made a difference. “We were connecting with regular folks, people that have children at home — that’s why you don’t see a lot of people here, they have jobs that they work during the day and they’re coming forward and doing what they can,” she said.

“We were the only ones talking about other things besides housing… although we know that housing was a big issue, there are other issues in the city that have to be addressed,” she said. “The crisis of homelessness, cleanliness of the city, small business people, taxes. This city has some very significant issues that we brought to the table and we’re very proud of that”

Asked if she would do anything differently if she could start the campaign over, Young said, “It would be great to have more union workers and union donations. Obviously in any political campaign, money and people are up there.”

“We were battling big businesses, the developers and special interest groups,” she said. “I think that was another stand that we took, to say that we’re not going to have any ties with them. We’re not going to sell out Vancouver because that’s been happening for a decade now. And that’s significant, we were standing up for the little guy in Vancouver.”

960px version of Wai Young
Photo by Bryan Carney.

One enthusiastic voter at the party told me his YouTube business has soared since he began doing videos about Maxime Bernier. Young’s small government and free market values attracted him, he said.

A retired projectionist who owns a home in Fraserview said that despite a life in Vancouver, Young’s was the first campaign he could get behind. “I drive, I walk and I cycle, so all three are important to me. Not all of those lanes are bad, but some, like the one next to the hospital, just make no sense.”

His taxes rose from $800 in the 1970s to over $8,000 now, he said. Most of his friends had cashed out and moved away, but he wanted to stay and the taxes were too high, he said.

Couldn’t he defer the taxes until sale? “Well… yes, but… well…” he said, shrugging, and switched topics to the Vision abuse of the public hearing process. “They voted together on decisions almost every time. It used to be that some would be for or against, but now they aren’t even holding the hearings sometimes.”

He, along with every supporter and volunteer gave Young a hug or a handshake as she went around the room before leaving. “This is our home,” Young said.

The work of emptying out the campaign office started almost immediately after Young left, while the votes were being counted and before Stewart would overtake Sim.

“Need some party supplies at The Tyee?” a campaign worker asked, holding a box full of disposable cups and cutlery.  [Tyee]

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