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Occupy issue occupies campaign's final hours

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson's re-election once looked like a slam dunk. But the Occupy Vancouver situation may have eroded his popularity.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

Mayor Gregor Robertson ended his bid for a second term denying that the Occupy Vancouver settlement in the heart of the city would sway votes in the municipal election this weekend.

But this year's race will likely be remembered as the Occupy campaign.

"If it happens to be a reversal of fortune for Robertson, that is the issue," said political scientist Richard Johnston of the University of British Columbia.

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Municipal elections will be held across B.C. on Saturday, but the most closely watched race is in Vancouver where Mr. Robertson, a former NDP member of the legislature who pivoted to mayor with the Vision Vancouver party in 2008, is facing off against key rival Suzanne Anton of the Non-Partisan Association.

There have been polls with fluctuating outcomes. Mario Canseco, a vice-president of Angus Reid Public Opinion, noted that turnout is so low in Vancouver municipal votes – it was 31 per cent in 2008 – that it's impossible to make an emphatic call on the outcome because the sample size would be too small. Whoever gets their base out wins, he said. Also pivotal is which party rallies the sit-at-home voters of 2008 to get to the polls.

Vancouver election twitter list

Mr. Robertson is assuming the vote will be close. "We are competing like it is anybody's race," he said Friday. "We expect to campaign hard, right through tomorrow and get as many people out to vote as we can."

The Occupy tent settlement on the north plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery – the key outdoor assembly area for the city – gave Ms. Anton an issue to work with as she tried to deny a second term for Mr. Robertson, Prof. Johnston said.

"It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the handling of Occupy Vancouver is the rhetorical ploy by Suzanne Anton that seems to have given her traction," he said. "I don't have the sense that any of the other [issues]really got rolling, but this one did."

Fairly or unfairly, he said, Occupy Vancouver played into an NPA effort to cast Mr. Robertson as a "ditherer."

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Throughout the campaign, Mr. Robertson counselled a cautious approach on Occupy. He ruled out police intervention as the tents went up in mid-October, concerned about a clash between law enforcement and crowds. He ruled out enforcement pending the outcome of court action to seek an injunction against the camp. The court ruled late Friday afternoon that the activists have until 2 p.m. Monday to leave the area.

Ms. Anton said the tents should never have been allowed to go up, and challenged the mayor throughout the campaign for his patience. More recently, she has counselled waiting out the legal process. To Mr. Robertson, "the NPA's position has been extreme and about ultimatums that backfired in other cities."

But on Friday, Mr. Robertson acknowledged Occupy as a challenge, while denying its relevance to the outcome of the vote.

"This election is about big issues far beyond the Occupy situation," he said. "Vancouver voters are going to be voting based on our record, and commitment to affordable housing and transportation, delivering results every day that make a difference to people's lives," he said.

Prof. Johnston was skeptical. "To me that suggests he's worried about it. He's trying to frame the election in terms that work to his advantage."

Not surprisingly, Ms. Anton says the Occupy Vancouver camp made a difference. "We had always said this election was about leadership and that became clearer as the campaign went on," she said.

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Ms. Anton, relaxing briefly at the campaign office Friday afternoon, said she is thrilled with how well the NPA's campaign has gone.

The campaign offices of the three main parties were all busy on the final day before the election, with people preparing for the massive E-day effort to make sure identified voters get to the polls. The NPA office, for example, had boxes of oranges and water stacked to keep volunteers going during the day.

About 125,000 people are expected to vote, if the past is any indication, which is a little less than one-third of the city's registered voters.

With a report from Frances Bula

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