If you are a B.C. political junkie, there was plenty to keep you engaged over the weekend — whether it was the contest in Penticton that attracted over 700 B.C. Liberals to choose one of four candidates to replace MLA Bill Barisoff, or the comparatively tame function in Vancouver-Fairview where two "heavyweights" duked it out for the NDP nomination.
Of the two political events, however, the one in Vancouver garnered more online buzz thanks to its unexpected outcome.
Vancouver City Coun. Geoff Meggs, considered to be a slam dunk to win the Vancouver-Fairview nomination, lost badly to former union boss and Sierra Club executive director George Heyman.
What is perhaps most interesting about Sunday's vote, however, is the way it illustrated both the close ties and competing agendas of Vision Vancouver and the B.C. NDP.
As I see it, the loss on Sunday by Meggs is a minor yet significant setback for the B.C. NDP's leader. Adrian Dix desperately wanted his friend Geoff at his side going into the spring election – Meggs is a loyal ally, an articulate spokesperson, and someone who thinks like Dix on a wide range of issues. When the news arrived that Heyman beat Meggs for the NDP nomination it produced a minor shockwave. Journalist Frances Bula tweeted what many felt:
Geoff Meggs had been endorsed by both CUPE local 15 president Paul Faoro and by the grand dame of the B.C. NDP Joy MacPhail. Meggs' wife Jan O'Brien is the party's provincial secretary. And the close connection between Meggs and Dix cannot be understated. So what went wrong?
Winning was not going to be a cakewalk for either candidate. I tweeted as much the day before:
Students of B.C. political history know, particularly when it comes to the sometimes volatile B.C. NDP, you should never assume it is over until the last ballot has been counted. Though they rule the NDP party as a whole, the union's' brothers and sisters do not always win riding nominations. Few guessed that bus driver Mable Elmore could knock off high profile former BCTF president Jinny Simms in Vancouver-Kensington back in 2009. And in 2004, a political unknown with tenuous ties to the B.C. NDP toppled labour heavyweight Judy Darcy in Vancouver-Fairview. That "unknown" candidate was Gregor Robertson.
The narrative since Sunday's nomination vote in Fairview has been about how few members each candidate signed up after a year's worth of campaigning. Only 382 members cast ballots for the contest, 221 votes for Heyman, 161 for Meggs – 40 per cent more votes went to Heyman. But the winner, who declared his candidacy 18 months ago, says he signed up only 160 new NDP members. That's an average of fewer than 10 new party memberships per month!
You do not win elections with so little support from the grassroots. Despite having two big name NDP candidates duking it out for over a year, the low membership numbers are astonishing. It is an ominous sign for other candidates such as Constance Barnes, who is also seeking a nomination in a local B.C. Liberal held constituency.
As to why Meggs lost, I have a theory. The Sunday night tweet by Vancouver Park Board chair Sarah Blyth is a hint:
You can be sure that many of her Vision colleagues were similarly "glad" about Geoff's loss. Meggs is Vision's undisputed brain trust on city council. He subs in for Mayor Gregor Robertson on all the tough files – including on the Olympic Village mess and the bike lanes controversy.
Meggs is also one of the few members of the Vision caucus who doesn't suffer from foot in mouth disease when in front of a TV camera or a microphone. Everyone else, including the mayor, is held on chief of staff Mike Magee's tight leash.
When Vancouver Courier reporter Mike Howell cornered both Amy Robertson (Gregor's wife) and Magee at the nomination meeting, neither of these NDP members would declare who they voted for. It was a telling sign that neither of them supported Meggs, at least publicly. In fact, I predict that many Vision supporters chose to cast their ballot for Heyman instead.
Coincidentally, Magee ran Robertson's Fairview campaign in 2004 where he beat former CUPE national president Judy Darcy. Just as in 2004, today's favoured labour candidate (Meggs) challenged a candidate with strong green credentials (Heyman). Despite having the support of many Vision back-roomers such as Bill Tieleman and Marcella Munro, and school trustee and trade unionist Mike Lombardi, Meggs could not pull out a win.
In 2012, as in 2004, green trumped orange.
Geoff Meggs, left, and George Heyman, right, debated on Oct. 15, 2012. A week later, Heyman won the NDP Vancouver-Fairview nomination. (Facebook)
One NDP supporter told me that through the vote the members in Fairview sent a message to NDP bigwigs that the people, not party insiders, prevailed. If it was meant as a shot across Dix's bow, it was pretty subtle one. Another political watcher surmised that the Fairview contest was a referendum on Vision's governance. But are people ticked off about stacked townhouses the real reason for Meggs' loss?
The folks behind Vision Vancouver have always made it clear that they have much bigger plans than just ruling city hall. Their raison d'être has been to influence Canada's energy policy at the highest level, including stopping oil pipelines and ending oil sands development. To achieve this they have sought to bring NDP members (traditionally linked with big labour) together with environmentally-conscious Liberals. In the U.S.A. a similar movement is dubbed the BlueGreen Alliance (that is blue, as in blue collar).
Influencing the Liberal's agenda could explain why powerful environmental advocates are getting behind Justin Trudeau's leadership bid. Gerald Butts, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), just announced he is leaving his $200,000+ salaried position to work on the Dauphin's campaign.
The speculation on Robertson's political future has pivoted around federal opportunities, not provincial. With Trudeau as leader, Robertson would have the star power to gain or hold on to a Vancouver seat for the Liberals.
So who replaces Gregor as Vision's leader? How about George Heyman?
Heyman just might have all the right stuff to lead Vision. He's got good green credentials as an opponent of mining and aquaculture, and he also has the backing of big labour as a former BCGEU president. He's also well-spoken and telegenic. If he loses to incumbent Dr. Margaret MacDiarmid next year, his next role in life could be as Robertson's heir apparent.
So if people ask how a high profile city councillor could have lost to a relatively unknown former union boss, tell them it was Vision's call.
For Dix, Meggs' loss is a mere glitch. If the NDP leader becomes premier, it is only a matter of time before his friend Geoff will be working beside him in the west wing of the B.C. legislature.
And for political observers, Sunday's vote turns the page on an interesting new chapter in Vancouver politics.