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How the Liberals and NDP are trying to woo Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson prepares to ride his bike back to City Hall after announcing changes to the food scrap recycling program in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday April 11, 2013.

darryl dyck The Globe and Mail

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Gregor Robertson's hopes for the future include winning a third term as Vancouver mayor next November. Beyond municipal politics, the founder of the Happy Planet line of organic fruit juices says he always expected to, in some way, return to the business world.

"My background is in business so long term I always assumed I'd be back in business," the mayor told reporters on Tuesday after talking up plans for a transit-oriented office tower beside the Canada Line transit system.

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He says he's focused on the agenda of his centre-left Vision Vancouver party – eliminating street homelessness by 2015, bolstering rental housing, and making the city more sustainable. "We're working along the bucket list for each of our big strategies" says Mr. Robertson, known for riding his bicycle around Vancouver on business as a reflection of his green commitment. "I have big ideas to deliver and it takes some years to do."

Sounds relatively simple, but it's all complicated by the post-mayoral plans that others have for the 47-year-old former NDP member of the provincial legislature.

Put simply, Mr. Robertson might be able to solve the problems of other political parties, which is going to fuel chatter about next political steps he says he has no interest in.

Justin Trudeau, meeting with the mayor while in Vancouver earlier this year for the annual convention of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities – Mr. Robertson is chair of the FCM's Big City Mayor's Caucus – asked Mr. Robertson about running for the Liberals in the 2015 federal election.

With two seats in B.C., the federal Liberals are looking for traction, which is probably why Mr. Trudeau made the pitch in hopes the mayor might be able to take a Vancouver riding.

It was, according to a municipal insider, a light touch, "If you're ever interested…" kind of thing the mayor shrugged off. Of the Liberal leader, Mr. Robertson said Tuesday that "I think Justin Trudeau asked the entire FCM audience if they would run for federal politics."

Word is that federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair made a similar pitch around the same time. It does not appear that the federal Tories have made a similar pitch.

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The NDP did not respond to queries about their interest. The Liberals did. A senior federal Liberal operative in B.C. said Mr. Robertson is politically attractive for his business background and the straightforward manner with which he has conducted himself as mayor. With turmoil at city halls in Toronto and Montreal, Canada's other large cities, Mr. Robertson looks quite stable by contrast.

While the Liberal organizer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it isn't clear if Mr. Robertson is Liberal, they noted that, from all the evidence, the mayor could fit under the tent that Mr. Trudeau is trying to build ahead of the 2015 election. After all Ujjal Dosanjh transitioned from the B.C. NDP to the federal Liberals, and that worked out, they said.

For the record, Mr. Robertson says he is only a member of his centre-left Vision Vancouver party – a political organization whose ranks include a mix of New Democrats and federal Liberals.

City councillor George Affleck, no political friend of the mayor given he's with the minority Non-Partisan Association party on council, says it's routine for Vancouver mayors to be headhunted. "The profile [being mayor] provides you? It's standard procedure. The mayor of Vancouver is always being courted."

However, he drily suggested the mayor pursuing one of these new opportunities is "potentially the best thing that could happen to Vancouver."

But the opportunities are not restricted to Ottawa. There's the leadership of the B.C. New Democrats. Adrian Dix is currently leader, but has spent the summer reflecting on his future after the opposition party was defeated in the May provincial election.

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Mr. Dix was expected to be the province's next premier, riding a polling lead of up to 20 points over the governing B.C. Liberals ahead of the election. But Christy Clark led the Liberals to a fourth straight majority mandate, largely through a campaign focused on jobs and the economy.

If, as many expect, Mr. Dix steps down, Mr. Robertson will face pointed and sustained questions about returning to Victoria. They probably won't stop until the ballots are counted at the next NDP leadership convention.

Mr. Robertson was elected an NDP member of the legislature in 2005, and served three years of his term before departing to run for the mayor's job. Two of his predecessors as Vancouver mayor – Mike Harcourt for the NDP and Gordon Campbell for the B.C. Liberals – made the shift to provincial politics where they served in opposition before becoming premier.

In theory, Mr. Robertson would offer certain strengths to the NDP if he went back. His business background that might inoculate him against Liberal attacks, which worked in the recent election, that the NDP was weak on the economy. Also, he wasn't on the NDP front lines during the 1990s when the party governed the province. Liberals have alleged that the NDP mismanaged the province during the decade of NDP governance that ended in 2001 with the election of Gordon Campbell as premier.

Mr. Robertson rolled the political dice to bail on relative certainty in Victoria for a bid for city hall in Vancouver. Might he again pick up the dice to go back to Victoria, this time as party leader?

It seems unlikely.

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He never seemed enthusiastic about opposition life as a provincial politician, but that would be a reality until the next election in 2017 and possibly beyond as the rattled NDP regroups after their surprise defeat. Mr. Harcourt and Mr. Campbell transitioned to provincial politics, but Mr. Robertson would be heading back to a destination he has already happily abandoned.

Also the timing is precarious, says one Robertson insider. The mayor will be focused on re-election through the next year leaving little time to pivot to a race for the leadership of the New Democrats. Nor does the mayor have the fired-up rhetorical approach New Democrats in B.C. will likely need to get off the political mat.

On Tuesday, Mr. Robertson was asked if, despite his denials, he's ready for sustained questions on using his current job as a political springboard. "It is a bit distracting in this setting when it keeps coming up rather than the issues of the city," he said, sounding about as vaguely exasperated as the affable mayor gets. "It is what it is."

Still, all options are open. As the federal Liberal said, "There's no way of knowing what he's going to do."

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