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Municipal Politics

What's the Plan, Kirk? Five Questions NPA's Choice Must Answer

In Vancouver race for mayor, Vision's Robertson holds most decided voters but NPA's LaPointe starts strong.

Frances Bula 1 Aug

Frances Bula was a reporter at the Vancouver Sun for 21 years, is the city columnist for Vancouver Magazine and an instructor in the journalism program at Langara College. She also writes for The Globe and Mail and B.C. Business magazine and appears on the CBC's civics panel and on CKNW to talk about city politics and issues. Frances also has her own blog, State of Vancouver where a version of this first appeared.

I went to get some of my crazed summer-frizzed hair chopped the other day, so got to talk to my hairdresser, my infallible guide to the mood of the city. He has a lot of west-side clients, so he gets a sense of things percolating before I do. He told me when the tide was turning against Sam Sullivan, how much people liked Gregor Robertson at first, and then how fed up they've been with him lately.

This time, he said that everyone (of his clients, a select group, as I said) is looking for a hopeful saviour. And they're interested in Kirk LaPointe, the NPA's newbie political candidate. They just don't know a thing about him, even in this small town where everyone knows everyone. (This fact is always brought home to me forcefully when I get calls from people wanting to know what I really think of this or that job candidate -- when I haven't been listed as a reference. People in this tiny city trade information constantly about who's who.)

LaPointe was not the kind of editor like my old Kamloops Daily News boss, Mel Rothenburger, who followed council closely and was forever opining about civic stuff. When people voted for Mel as mayor back in 1999 and in 2002 in Kamloops, they had a pretty good idea who he was and what he would do. In contrast, LaPointe was not quoted often during his 2003-2010 at the Vancouver Sun on any topic, where he was the second in command. And he wasn't that interested in civic politics at the time.

Mysteriously pulling 41 per cent

I did a story on the latest Justason poll in today's Globe, linked to here, that showed that, although 59 per cent of decided voters are still committed to Vision's Gregor Robertson, a surprisingly strong 41 per cent of decided voters said they would vote for Kirk LaPointe as mayor -- even though he had declared his candidacy only the week before and hardly anyone knows anything about him. (I should mention that 45 per cent of people in the poll were undecided.)

So LaPointe is starting with an advantage and the few people who did know something about him liked the fact that he sounded smart and honest. (See more on what people thought of the two mayoral candidates here.)

But he and his team have to know that that's not enough. The political elders I talk to all the time like to say, "People vote governments out, they don't vote them in." That's been the conventional wisdom for a while and I'm sure that will be true for some voters.

But, as we saw in B.C. and Ontario provincial elections recently, it doesn't seem like it's enough just to say, "I'm not the other guy." A party that doesn't present a credible enough alternative will drivers voters back into the arms of even those governments with a messy track record.

The NPA and LaPointe will get the standard NPA base. Suzanne Anton got 58,000 votes last time to Gregor Robertson's 77,000. So they can count on that. LaPointe may also be successful in pulling out a few more NPA-inclined voters who stayed home last time.

They can also likely count on some votes that went to Robertson in 2011  peeling away to COPE, in spite of the uncharted waters COPE appears to be sailing in these days. Justason's poll had COPE getting support from 10 per cent of those surveyed. So perhaps Robertson will lose as many as 10,000 votes from committed lefties who either don't vote for a mayoral candidate at all or vote for whomever COPE runs -- Tim Louis, perhaps.

The swing 15,000

Some former Vision voters may just stay home. But, really, to win the election, LaPointe will need to try to persuade about 10,000-15,000 moderate voters, people who voted for Vision last time, that he's worth a try.

LaPointe comes across as much more moderate than the party's traditional image, so far, though mostly because of his direct, articulate presentation as opposed to any new policy. But the swing group is not going to be persuaded by someone who is speaking standard NPA lines, just with more verve, wit, and a bigger vocabulary. They'll want to know what LaPointe, who says he is now the leader of the NPA (as opposed to Peter Armstrong), is going to do differently.

The party hasn't wanted to spell out policy yet and I don't blame them -- it's a hot summer, no one is paying attention, and why should they? (Plus, they're probably still figuring it out.) But after Labour Day, people will expect more thoughtful ideas and solutions.

Five mystery busting questions

Some questions Kirk LaPointe and the party likely need to answer for those people who will want to be reassured there's a possibility of real change:

1. What is the plan for affordable housing for not-rich, not abjectly-poor, but regular people in the city?

That showed up as a top issue in the Justason poll of what people are concerned about. (And it can't just be the "I feel your pain. I can't even afford to live in the city myself" that LaPointe referenced in his first news conference. LaPointe and his wife own, according to the records, a property assessed at $1.266 million on UBC land, double what it was when purchased 10 years ago, and appear to have a household income that puts them in the top 10 per cent.)

In the past, the NPA's position has been that if the city just makes it easier for developers to build, the supply of new houses and condos will solve all problems. But there's been a lot of doubt about that lately among people unhappy with the city's development policies. Even Vision councillors, as pro-development as people believe them to be, will say they've learned that supply alone is enough. It has to be supply but supply with some kind of city policy attached that produces something besides than tiny one-bedrooms on the east side selling for $300,000 a pop.

2. What is the plan for creating more public trust in the campaign-finance system?

The poll said that 68 per cent of people think developers have too much control at city hall.

LaPointe has now said a couple of times, "I'm beholden to no one." That's true today. But, after five months of campaigning with a team that will likely pull in at least $2 million from donors, he will appear to many to be beholden to quite a few people. Does the NPA have a real plan to put limits on donations or provide information on donors in advance of the election or anything that will give people more confidence? Something beyond a promise to lobby the provincial government for changes.

3. What is the plan for dealing with homelessness?

Previous governments, mostly NPA but even COPE in 2002-2005, took the position that it was all very sad about people sleeping on the street, but it was the province's responsibility to provide more shelter not the city's. So those people continued sleeping on the street, more of them every year. The NPA did press hard to have the province create more social housing and were successful in getting started on what became a massive provincial plan to build 14 social-housing sites. Those are almost done. But that's not going to get everyone off the street, sorry to say. And I don't think most people are willing to go back to shrugging off people sleeping in the alleys and in doorways as "not our problem."

4. How will the NPA manage the difficult task of listening to communities, while not putting a moratorium on development in the whole city?

Vision's weakest point is the perception that the party just doesn't listen. (The poll showed 62 per cent of people surveyed thought that was true.) Public hearings are legally mandated to be the awful circuses they are. So what is a new way to try to approach public conversation. (And don't say "online" or I might gag. That's a technology, not an attitude or a change in the dynamic.)

5. Finally, on the divisive issue of bike lanes, what is the plan?

LaPointe has said there are "lots" of solutions that don't create so much tension between drivers and cyclists. I'd like to hear about them. I'm a pretty dedicated motor-vehicle addict myself, but I do admire people who get out there and ride around town. I think they should be supported and not just told to stick to the streets where they won't bother cars.

A lot of people are looking forward to hearing about some new choices on these issues. They are genuinely hoping to hear more than rhetoric.  [Tyee]

Read more: Municipal Politics

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