Gregor Robertson was aware all was not well with his Vision Vancouver government's relationship with voters, long before he found himself in the heat of an election campaign. Polling had confirmed that. So had casual conversations with members of the public, many of whom felt city hall was pushing too hard, too fast, especially when it came to its pro-density agenda.
There were informal discussions over the past year among the mayor's top advisers around the idea of the mayor offering an act of contrition in some form, but not everyone was sold on the idea. Once the campaign began, however, and Vision volunteers starting knocking on doors, it became evident that party supporters were angry enough to register their dissent by either sitting on their hands on Election Day or finding a progressive alternative for whom to vote.
It was this cold, hard response on the doorstep that convinced the mayor a mea culpa was the right thing to do.
"Gregor was extremely sensitive to the feedback we were getting and was really the one pushing hard to try and make it right," a senior Vision organizer said. "He really believed there was no harm in saying sorry. He thought if it was genuine and came from an honest place people would respect him for it."
According to several people associated with the Vision campaign, a consensus emerged among party intelligentsia that an apology was not as vital to the mayor's candidacy as it was to Vision contenders further down the ballot, people like Geoff Meggs, the long-time party stalwart who barely scraped up enough votes to claim the last spot on council. There was a big fragmentation of the vote on the left, with both the Greens and COPE mounting credible campaigns, a fact that made making amends with progressive-minded citizens even more essential.
With just over two weeks left to go, the campaign brain trust met to further discuss the idea of the apology. Among those involved were the mayor; his long-time chief of staff, Mike Magee; party pollster, Bob Penner; Vision executive director, Stepan Vdovine; and communications advisers Braeden Caley, Kevin Quinlan and Marcella Munro. Ontario political strategist Don Guy was also consulted.
Mr. Guy's approval was noteworthy – not only because he was a respected campaign operative but because he'd also witnessed the effectiveness of apologies up close. He played an advisory role in Kathleen Wynne's election victory in Ontario last year. During that campaign, Ms. Wynne apologized several times for the actions of her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty.
It was Ms. Munro who floated the idea of Mr. Robertson offering up his plea for forgiveness at a CBC radio debate. It was agreed this would be a good platform because the CBC's audience was Vision's, too. Also, he could make the overture right off the top of the debate without being interrupted or having his statement clipped by the media, something he'd be vulnerable to if he tried to offer it during a scrum or at a news conference, an idea that was considered and nixed.
The Vision campaign felt NPA mayoral challenger Kirk LaPointe and COPE's Meena Wong would make some political hay in the aftermath of the mayor's statement, but it was felt Mr. Robertson wouldn't be penalized for the gesture. Furthermore, his opponents might look petty-minded for attacking someone who was seen to be making a rare – for a politician, anyway – conciliatory gesture.
The apology was timed to coincide with another important milestone in the Vision campaign – the pulling of all its negative ads in favour of ones that were positive.
"You can't just give people fear. You have to give them hope," a Vision party official said. "It's what you do when you know you have momentum and you need to motivate your base. It's what you do when you know you have enough support to win. What you need to do is inspire people to get out there and vote."
This move during the campaign's dying days was vital for Vision, arguably more so than the apology, campaign organizers believe.
Vision strategists said during interviews it was also a good thing the campaign eventually became a knock-down, drag-out affair. There was concern it had been such a boring, desultory contest that supporters might be lured into a false sense of security about Vision's odds of winning. The fact the campaign heated up likely snapped some of those people out of their lethargy and convinced them to vote.
The secret recording of Mr. Meggs making promises to union officials ahead of a massive campaign contribution was also a low point, along with the "corruption" ads that the NPA quickly put together to capitalize on the situation. The donation quickly began to dominate debate on the campaign trail; the ads were damaging and effective. The Meggs meeting monopolized the campaign agenda. That is when a decision was made to drop a lawsuit on the NPA, claiming the ads were defamatory.
It was a strategic move intended to shut down the corruption talk and recapture control of the campaign narrative. It worked.
Finally, Vision's ground game was vastly superior to the NPA's. The party had 1,800 people turn up to help get out the vote – a record number. That was likely the difference for more than a few Vision candidates who kept their jobs thanks to the hard work of the party faithful. And there were undoubtedly some among them who might not have shown up to knock on doors if they hadn't heard the mayor say he was sorry.