Vancouver’s mayor is a pescatarian, bike-riding advocate for all things green, pleasantly low-key and good-looking – a central-casting choice for his role.
Gregor Robertson has spent his past two terms working on issues such as reducing homelessness, lobbying for a rapid-transit subway on Broadway and building a new tech-oriented economy.
His council has committed $275-million in the past three years to create low-cost housing and brought in an incentive program that has developers building new guaranteed-rental apartments at a pace the city has not seen in decades.
On paper, the 50-year-old mayor should be a shoo-in for a third term next Saturday, just as he was three years ago.
But Mr. Robertson’s candidates are warning their supporters the gap between the mayor and his closest rival, the NPA’s Kirk LaPointe, is dangerously small.
That’s even though Mr. LaPointe, who has no experience in civic activities, has offered few ideas and no plan of action on the biggest issues – housing, homelessness, transit – and has stuck mainly to saying the city needs a more open government and a new conversation with its residents.
Vision’s slim margin is also a factor of voters splitting off to other parties.
Those include the long-standing left-wing party COPE, and its mayoral candidate Meena Wong, which broke away from a coalition with Vision Vancouver; the Green Party, which is positioning itself as a middle-of-the-road balance-of-power party; OneCity, a breakaway from COPE; the Cedar Party, which achieved fame by filing lawsuits and asking for police investigations related to Vision; and the undefinable Vancouver First.
Vision’s council candidates, and the mayor himself, are routinely booed or heckled at debates and community meetings.
Polls from the past year have shown that Vancouver residents think their council has done a poor job of handling growth and development, engaging with citizens, and combatting homelessness.
Even one of Vision’s biggest backers, former NDP premier Mike Harcourt, is exasperated.
“I’m probably going to support the Vision slate, but I’ve been chewing them out for a while,” he said this week.
He still believes they deserve credit as one of the most activist, progressive governments among North American cities.
But he adds that, in their drive to change things quickly, they handled some important issues badly. And they exacerbated that with the way they talked to residents.
“Their bedside manner is terrible. They’re tone-deaf with the public.”
It’s not just that.
There are questions about whether Mr. Robertson overpromised by vowing to end street homelessness by 2015 and trying to tackle an issue as complex as housing affordability.
And there are other questions about whether he responded quickly or sensitively enough to people’s fear about changes they believe are altering their neighbourhoods. For some, foreign investment and the destruction of the city’s older houses are the threat. For others, it’s the new wave of high-rise development that has moved from downtown to areas that used to be all single-family homes and low-rise apartments.
Insights West pollster Mario Canseco says another factor is that the young generation that helped Vision sweep to power six years ago is older now. They still care about the environment and creating a less car-dominated city but worry how they’ll buy a place to live or create a decent life for themselves here.
The Vision Vancouver party created in 2005 was a civic version of a federal Liberal party, a centrist operation with a strong green overlay.
For the previous 80 years, city council battles were a fight
etween the hard right, which got business support and won, and the hard left, which got union support and lost, except for a few brief periods of coalitions.
Vision attracted donations from business, labour and the general public, raising enough to put it on an equal footing with the NPA. Both parties now raise more than $2-million apiece in the election year.
Vision’s money-raising success eventually led to profound suspicion about the impact of big money on council decisions.
Faced with all this, Mr. Robertson and his team have run a tightly scripted campaign, regularly saying the city needs an experienced council with a clear agenda to make progress on major issues.
The themes the mayor has hammered: affordable housing, especially for the younger generation; better transit; and, in a constant reminder of the green values that have been his calling card, opposition to twinning the Kinder Morgan pipeline that carries oil from Alberta and to a big increase in oil-tanker traffic.
Mr. Robertson acknowledges he and his team have rubbed some people the wrong way.
He also said he believes a quiet majority – people who do not hang out on Twitter or come to the polarized and hostile community debates – supports what he has done.
He says he’ll try harder to communicate and provide information.
But he also sounds like he is not prepared to make any fundamental change.
“I’ve been ambitious about tackling our city’s toughest challenges,” the mayor told The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau this week.
“If I err on the side of going too fast, too far, I’d rather that than be an idle mayor. I want to get things done, and that usually means not everyone is happy with the result.”Report Typo/Error
Photographer John Lehmann wanted to find a unique way to represent the three front-running mayoral candidates, so he took toy figures out on the streets of Vancouver to get snapshots of their (poseable) positions on the issues.
Action figures Kirk LaPointe, Meena Wong and Gregor Robertson outside Vancouver City Hall.
Gregor Robertson has said a priority for his Vision Vancouver party is to say no to Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, and the 340 or so oil tankers that could end up making their way through Vancouver's harbour.
Meena Wong promises a universal transit pass program costing residents only a dollar a day, and prefers LRT and buses over a Broadway subway.
Kirk LaPointe is promising to double the number of outdoor swimming pools from three to six.
Gregor Robertson visits the Point Grey Road bike lane. Robertson has been a big proponent of bike lanes during his time in office.
Meena Wong promises COPE will propose an amendment to the Vancouver Charter to empower the city to set a municipal minimum wage at $15/hour, to be indexed to inflation.
Kirk LaPointe is promising to make metered street parking outside the downtown core free on Sundays and statutory holidays.
Gregor Robertson on the track of the Arbutus corridor rail line in Vancouver. Robertson has taken a hard line in the land dispute with CP during his time in office.