It's hard to consider the race going on for mayor of Vancouver and not cast an envious eye eastward, toward Toronto, where the campaign for the same job has garnered national attention.
Sure, Toronto has enjoyed the advantage, such as it is, of having the Ford brothers as part of the race. And Olivia Chow has a country-wide profile. But beyond that, it seems like every week there is another debate involving those vying for the job. Some weeks it feels like there's one every other day, like a hockey schedule.
This seems right to me. Leading the fourth largest city in North America is a big job, with much at stake. The candidates' positions on various issues should be scrutinized. Debates provide coverage, which helps educate the public. Which brings me to the civic election campaign going on in Vancouver.
This week, I sat down with Mayor Gregor Robertson to question him at a public event, and before I began I told him this was the most boring, uneventful city election campaign in recent memory. To that point, there hadn't been a single debate between the mayor and his central challenger, Kirk LaPointe, who is running for the Non-Partisan Association. Not one. This, with voting day less than a month away.
The mayor smiled, shrugged his shoulders, not really offering anything like a cogent explanation for why that might be the case. All he knows, and all his advisers know, is that this is likely a good thing for the incumbent – certainly for an incumbent whose main opponent is a political newbie and relative unknown. To win in that underdog position you need widespread discontent, you need an issue that galvanizes the community against the person in power.
That is not to say there isn't anger out there about some of the actions and policies of Mr. Robertson's Vision Vancouver government. There is. Vision has been in office for two terms. Over the course of those six years, the party and its majority on council have made a few enemies while pushing a progressive, green agenda. Simultaneously, Vision has made many developers in the city happy. Condo towers are going up everywhere. But this has also created unhappiness among residents in more than a couple of neighbourhoods.
Mr. Robertson has failed to eradicate homelessness, something he promised to do in 2008 by next year. It won't be done. He's been criticized for making a pledge many felt he had no realistic hope of achieving.
I'm not sure that's fair. He's tried harder than any mayor in recent memory to deal with the problem. He's made real progress. He deserves credit for that.
Many people haven't been enamoured of his zest for bike lanes. Mr. LaPointe has promised to restore the balance between the rights of car enthusiasts and those who like to cycle to work. The former newspaperman has worked hard to create a distinct choice between himself and the mayor but it's been difficult. For instance, on the key issue of affordable housing, there really isn't a great deal that separates the two. Both admit they have no power to make housing cheaper in Vancouver; the market controls that.
So, they promise studies and Mr. Robertson talks about building rental housing. You certainly don't see anything in the NPA's policy docket on housing that is widely at variance with what Vision is doing.
I will give Mr. LaPointe full marks, however, for being a quick study in the game of politics. He's always been smart and articulate and not shy in front of a camera. But politics is a different beast. Making the transition from neutral news executive to partisan animal is not an easy leap, at least for most people. He's either a natural or been coached exceedingly well.
In the only debate so far that involved the two men, one held on Wednesday, I thought Mr. LaPointe got off the best shots. His well-rehearsed one-liners resonated with the audience. Oddly enough, he seemed much more comfortable in that antagonistic arena than the mayor, whose more serene disposition isn't made for the cut and thrust of debating. In fact, like most of us, he doesn't seem to enjoy conflict at all.
The most recent polls show Mr. Robertson and his Vision party with a healthy lead over Mr. LaPointe's NPA. It will be a shock if it doesn't continue that way through to election day. The biggest question will be whether anyone shows up to vote. Most wouldn't know there's an election happening.