Regardless of how much or how little business owner Ken Sim knows about city politics, housing policy or transportation infrastructure, he is an eminently presentable mayoral candidate for the Non-Partisan Association.
He has a warm smile, listens carefully and comes across as a genuinely kind person. At a recent interview at one of his Rosemary Rocksalt bagel outlets, he rushes to offer our table near the door to a woman pushing a baby stroller.
Born and raised in Vancouver, Mr. Sim is a Horatio Alger figure, who came from a humble family and as soon as he turned 15, begged for his first job at Wendy’s working nights. He holds a business degree from the University of British Columbia, worked as a forensic accountant and investment banker and then started his own business. He co-founded Nurse Next Door, a home-care nursing service that today employs more than 5,000 people. His latest venture is the bagel chain he and his wife, Teena, started with a couple of close friends.
He hadn’t thought much about politics until he was approached to run by NPA kingmaker Peter Armstrong, Lululemon founder Chip Wilson and others who told him he was just what the city needs.
He allowed himself to be persuaded, but it remains to be seen what Mr. Sim will offer Vancouver. The NPA platform will be released later this month, and right now, when you ask for his ideas about how to fix housing affordability or transit, Mr. Sim’s answers are cautiously vague. Either he hasn’t yet formulated opinions or is waiting until NPA head office gives the green light to articulate them.
When asked how he would alleviate the housing crisis, he mentions only two points we’ve all heard before: Bring down costs associated with permitting backlogs and work collaboratively with other levels of government on social housing.
Despite his political inexperience, Mr. Sim is a catch for the centre-right NPA. His business credibility was honed outside the world of big-money property developers.
Outgoing Mayor Gregor Robertson’s political career ended because his name became too closely associated with developers who are scapegoats for Vancouver’s housing affordability crisis. Similar concerns appeared to drive Mr. Sim’s soon-to-be rival Hector Bremner out of the NPA. Mr. Bremner was widely seen as the front-runner until the party rejected his mayoral candidacy. His employer, Pace Group Communications, serves many developer clients.
Mr. Sim plans to call Mr. Bremner but wouldn’t commit to inviting him back into the fold until he gets to know him. Mr. Bremner doesn’t seem keen to rush back. He’s forming a new party and will likely run for mayor against Mr. Sim, positioning himself as a fresh voice who broke away from the waspy NPA old boys club. (Mr. Bremner is white but is married to a Filipina and many of his supporters come from the Filipino community.)
Mr. Sim, who is of Chinese heritage, speaks passable French and is married to a South Asian woman, has a similar profile. He describes himself as socially progressive and someone who represents the diversity that is the new Vancouver. A youthful 47, he will help the NPA shed its hidebound image as a party of greying, white men.
Although Mr. Sim is short on policy details, it is clear he intends to differentiate himself from Mr. Bremner with a more moderate approach to densification. Mr. Bremner believes Vancouver can build its way out of the housing crisis and has mused about up-zoning every neighbourhood. Mr. Sim talks about picking the right spots and community consultation. This is a smart political move.
Mr. Robertson’s political slide began in Grandview Woodlands, when he alienated key supporters with a new community plan calling for density levels many felt were too high. Vancouverites know more housing is needed and may even support a mayor who runs on a build-big ticket.
But when it comes to their own neighbourhoods, NIMBYism, especially on the west side of the city where the NPA draws more support, is alive and well.
Mr. Sim may be green, but he gets that already.