Something happened to the bland, uninspiring battle for the mayor's seat in Vancouver: It's no longer bland and uninspiring.
For sheer entertainment value, it could never hope to match the day-in, day-out drama of Toronto's mayoral race, of course. Few elections can. But the contest for the job in Vancouver wasn't supposed to be a contest at all. There wasn't a defining issue that so divided the community it was enough to bring down the incumbent, Gregor Robertson. Plus, the mayor had the added advantage of having a political newbie who entered the fight late as his primary opponent.
Yet the latest polls show the spot is suddenly up for grabs. Carrying the flag of the Non-Partisan Association, Kirk LaPointe has, in a matter of a few weeks, erased a double-digit deficit. He and the mayor are four points apart, and all the momentum is with the challenger. You can feel the sense of panic in the ranks of Mr. Robertson's Vision Vancouver party. All hands are on deck to get the vote out on Saturday.
As hard as Mr. Robertson has tried to minimize his opponent, the reality is Mr. LaPointe has largely outperformed his more experienced rival on the campaign trail. The mayor has been underwhelming when defending his administration's track record; debates are definitely not his strong suit. More often, he comes across as the affable, Hollywood-handsome front-man for a progressive political party that's in a hurry to carry out an ambitious green agenda.
A former New Democratic Party MLA, Mr. Robertson is running arguably the most modern, left-wing government in the country. Provincial New Democrats can only dream of exercising the kind of power Vision Vancouver has at the civic level. But after six years in office, voter fatigue seems to be setting in. People are tiring of Vision's all-too-often paternalistic and sanctimonious attitude.
The Vision-led Vancouver school board turned down a chance to access nearly $500,000 from a program Chevron runs to help kids develop greater skills in math, engineering, science and technology, for instance. Even though the oil company operated the project at arms-length through a third-party, the board refused to participate, saying that accepting money from "big oil" didn't fit with Vancouver's mission to become the most environmentally friendly city in the world.
In the four years that Chevron has operated the program and distributed nearly $100-million to school districts around the world, Vancouver is the only one to turn the opportunity down. The city's loss was the gain of five other boards in the province that quickly said yes to the money. Many parents in Vancouver were furious with Vision's unilateral edict.
Mr. Robertson long ago declared war on the car, hiving off parts of busy, central-city streets to put in bike lanes. Throw in lane closures for construction and the result has often been gridlock. "As much as the mayor would like to think otherwise, cars are not going away tomorrow," Mr. LaPointe has said throughout the campaign, while touting a plan to introduce counter-flow lanes to ease the congestion during peak hours. It's a message that's resonated.
The mayor has also campaigned hard against the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal, saying the additional tankers that would fill the harbour to collect the crude pose a safety risk. Again, Mr. LaPointe has used the mayor's position to suggest the man running the city is an anti-resource-industry ideologue using his bully pulpit to proselytize on the evils of oil.
The mayor has other problems too. Affordable housing remains a concern of many people, and Vision isn't seen to have done much on this file. Mr. Robertson will fail on his commitment to end street homelessness by January, 2015. On the positive side, he's held taxes low, kept the city's books reasonably healthy and helped foster a growing technology sector.
Mr. Lapointe, meantime, has been criticized for a platform that has been short on details and long on promises to carry out studies and consultations. Mostly, he's been an effective pitchman for the notion that under the mayor and his party, Vancouver has become a poorly run nanny state.
No one gave the long-time journalist a chance at the outset of this race. Now the polls indicate he's in a position to pull off a stunning upset. If Mr. Robertson loses, he will have been done in by hubris. If he prevails, the question will be what, if anything, the election taught him.