What to make of the battle for Vancouver City Hall? Millions of dollars have been spent for what seem like a set of jobs on council with lousy pay and unreasonably long hours. But for the city, it matters a lot, and the stakes are huge for all the political players in this election.
So who's who in the Vancouver contest? I'll whittle it down to the top four elector organizations.
First, we have incumbent Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver, a political organization with some of the most intriguing origins in the city's history. They are a coalition of public sector union supporters and left-leaning liberals combined with environment industry activists with networks and funding sources trailing back to the United States.
Centre-left coalitions are nothing new to politics, but Vision's "blue-green" party is the longed-for marriage of the labour left and green advocacy touted by progressives on both sides of the 49th parallel.
Then we have COPE, which clings stubbornly to the far-left after purging those in their ranks willing to make any accommodation with pro-developer, big money Vision Vancouver. Their mayoral candidate Meena Wong has proved her toughness during candidate debates, though her platform commitments sound less like practical public policy than a manifesto for the working class.
Thirdly, we have the Green Party, who to their credit is running some bright and credible candidates. Their position on taking big money out of politics is what you would expect from a party that has only ever elected one city councillor, one park commissioner, and one school board trustee in its history.
But "being green" is a hot commodity these days, and therefore Green Party candidates stand a good chance to ride Vision Vancouver's somewhat muddied coattails.
Finally, we have the NPA, or Non-Partisan Association, and its political neophyte mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe. The NPA have not held power since their three-year stint under Mayor Sam Sullivan, and their capability as a cohesive election machine has lessened over the past decade. Their ability to raise money has not waned though, and as a result they are considered serious contenders for office in 2014.
For months I have hedged my bets on whether any change will happen at Vancouver City Hall, but have always expected to be surprised.
The Vision political machine is strong enough to practically withstand any amount of policy missteps. Furthermore, their opponents and the communities they speak for have seemed too dispersed to amount to a real force for change.
Nonetheless, my position on this is shifting in recent days. It has become clear to me that public opinion has swung hard against Robertson's team. If their opponents could match Vision's base of volunteers and manpower provided by labour groups, it is most likely there would be a change in government.
Alas, that is a big "if."
The reality in politics is that campaigns matter, and in 2014, the NPA, COPE and the Green Party are bringing what amounts to a slingshot to a gunfight. Voters might have other ideas, however. What could tip the balance then? Here's a short list.
No party has decided to run a full complement of candidates. There are 10 council seats and Vision, NPA and COPE are only running eight each. The Green Party is only running three.
There is a school of thought that running 10 candidates disperses your vote among those who will not choose the whole slate. Mathematicians say the science is strong on this, and unbelievably the NPA -- who lost badly in 2011 -- actually had more votes than victorious Vision because they ran more candidates. Go figure.
The vast majority of voters don't have time to figure out who every candidate is, and with 49 people running for city council it becomes especially hard. Candidates whose last names begin with A, B, and C are more favoured to win because they are at the top.
In order to vote for the first Vision candidate on the council ballot -- Heather Deal -- you have to go past 15 other names. Candidates like "Meggs" and "Reimer" have to count on a lot of name appeal to get into the top 10 council slots.
The community centre brawl
Few of us have as many connections to our neighbourhoods as do the operators of Vancouver's park community centres. Many of these centres have been under a threat of governance reform pushed by Vision and the city manager Penny Ballem. It is possible that unhappy community centre operators and their faithful volunteers are letting patrons know how they feel. It could be a toxic mix, especially for Vision's park commission candidates.
The media have been quick to read into the 98 per cent increase in voter turnout for the advanced polls, but we have to remember that the number of days went from four in 2011 to eight in 2014. What is clear from the new days is that people will take advantage of the increased opportunity to vote. Will it result in a higher overall turnout, especially with this week's sunny weather? I doubt we'll see much more than the 34 per cent turnout of 2011.
It didn't take both NPA and COPE long to realize the cardinal rule of fighting an a political incumbent means you have to "go negative." What has been especially interesting is that Vision chose also to go very negative as well. It was a strategy that risked alienating some of their voters -- especially women supporters.
Gregor Robertson took a big chance by saying "I'm sorry" to voters at the outset of a mayoral candidates debate. It was quickly determined that the apology strategy had been focus group tested by a pollster three days earlier. It seems like the height of political cynicism to some, but others think that the apology -- no matter how it is arrived at -- made the mayor look humble.
The 2014 Vancouver election might seem like a hard one to predict, and the millions poured into the two top campaigns makes it seem like a real race between Vision and the NPA. However, I feel like we are all in for a real shock after the polls close after 8 p.m., and it will not be because voters showed up to demand change in government. It will be because all the old rules about predicting campaign outcomes just went out the window.
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