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Challenger runs negative campaign in bid to unseat Vancouver mayor

Vancouver's Civic Non-Partisan Association candidate for Mayor, Suzanne Anton in Vancouver, Wednesday, October 5, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak for the Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

This was supposed to be a positive day in Vancouver's election campaign: Suzanne Anton announcing that her party will bring back the city's beloved streetcar.

But within minutes, the happy talk morphed into a scornful report card on Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

He has "squandered the momentum" and "done nothing" to get a streetcar for Vancouver after its successful demonstration run during the Olympics, Ms. Anton said sharply as she stood in front of the empty tracks.

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Not very positive. But exactly on track with what political experts say Ms. Anton and the Non-Partisan Association have to do to take down an incumbent mayor who, after three years of inevitable decline from his previous golden-boy status, still has poll numbers that any incumbent would envy.

Go negative. Focus on the top guy's leadership and character. Make him look out of touch with the values of the city. Ms. Anton, in an interview at a Kerrisdale coffee shop near her house, does all of that repeatedly, while emphasizing her message about how different she is.

"Gregor makes our city smaller, not bigger," she says, jabbing at his obsession with green jobs, his failure to take responsibility for the Stanley Cup riot, his lack of consultation with businesses about downtown bike lanes. "A mayor needs to have a much bigger picture than he does. As mayor, I'm going to focus on that bigger picture."

Right on track.

"It's obviously a negative campaign and it's easier to focus a negative attack on one person and his character," observes Bob Ransford, a 30-year veteran of political wars who ran the NPA campaign for mayoral candidate Peter Ladner three years ago. "The question they want voters to think about is, 'Does Gregor have the credibility to be a leader and does he represent you?' "

That's why Mr. Robertson is the target in every NPA announcement, from small issues such as the streetcar or the shape of the park next to Science World to much larger ones.

At the top of the list is the Stanley Cup riot, which the public can clearly understand as a test of character and leadership. Next up is bike lanes, where Mr. Robertson can be portrayed as catering to special interests.

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Experienced campaigners on both sides of the political divide say the NPA has no choice but to go negative when it is so clearly coming from behind.

Half the voters in the city don't know enough about Ms. Anton to have an opinion about her, according to polls, even though she has been the party's only councillor for the past three years. She's leading a team of candidates who are almost all political rookies. And there are few issues where the NPA can demonstrate it has a wildly different policy approach.

So the party's strategists aren't bothering to spend much time on Ms. Anton's own story: mother of three, committed environmentalist, long-distance bike rider, soccer mom who got interested in politics at age 50 as a way to get better playing fields.

Instead, they focus on the mayor and on hot-button issues. Those aren't necessarily the issues that involve the most money or the biggest policy decisions but the ones that generate the most visceral reactions. As campaigners have found in recent years, elections are won by candidates who find the emotional topics that galvanize voters.

"Gregor will lose if the public decides they want a change," says another NPA former campaigner. "But there will be a lot of apathy on the part of some, thinking, 'I don't want Gregor but I can't be bothered going to vote.'"

The challenge for the NPA and Ms. Anton, in a city where only one in three eligible voters casts a ballot, is to find the issues that make people mad enough to vote rather than discouraging them from doing so – always a risk with negative campaigns.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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