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Campaigns worry about lacking interest in Vancouver city council by-election

A sign directing voters to the advance voting place for a by-election at City Hall in Vancouver, British Columbia on Oct. 10, 2017.

BEN NELMS/The Globe & Mail

A fiercely fought campaign that will decide who has pitched the most popular solutions to the city's housing problems comes to a close Saturday, as voters get their chance to choose one new councillor in a by-election.

With by-elections often serving as an opportunity for the angry and dissatisfied to send a message to government, it could mean the repudiation of Vision Vancouver's new, young candidate, 21-year-old Diego Cardona, as voters opt for someone offering alternatives to the party that has been in power for almost a decade.

They have many choices:

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  • The centre-right’s “let’s build much more” candidate, Hector Bremner, of the Non-Partisan Association (NPA).
  • The Green Party’s Pete Fry, who is urging that housing problems be solved by creating a citywide rezoning plan with more input from neighbourhoods.
  • Anti-poverty advocate Jean Swanson, an independent candidate whose calls for a rent freeze and a mansion tax have become popular memes.
  • Long-time champion for the homeless Judy Graves, the OneCity candidate who says the city needs to find a way to create more low-cost rentals, not freeze rent rates at the current unaffordable levels.

But the workers who have been running flat out to get their candidates elected worry that the vast majority of Vancouver residents don't even know there's a by-election on, making it impossible to tell who has the best chance of winning.

"The awareness level around the campaign is low. Our biggest challenge is punching through to voters," said Paul Nixey, communications manager for Vision Vancouver.

That lack of awareness partly stems from Vision's approach to this by-election. Vision, presumed to have the most money to spend, hasn't bought a single lawn sign and is not advertising anywhere in traditional media. Instead, campaigners are focusing largely on ensuring that supporters identified in previous elections get to the polls.

This deliberate effort to be publicly low key is having ramifications everywhere. One party's polling a little more than a week ago showed that almost 70 per cent of voters don't even know there is a by-election. Many of the parties are reporting that it's been difficult to motivate voters or even, in some cases, volunteers.

"It's unfortunate that, with so much at stake, so few people have come out to vote so far," said Tim Crowhurst, an NPA strategist with years of campaign experience.

Green Party campaign manager Jacquie Miller acknowledged that "we're experiencing more of a challenge mobilizing our volunteers, compared to previous elections."

Of all the campaigns, only Ms. Swanson's people seem happy at the momentum they believe they're experiencing.

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Ms. Swanson, who has spent decades advocating for the poor living in the Downtown Eastside, has brought out a crowd of hyper-motivated young people with her unabashedly radical stances and Occupy-style approach to campaigning.

"People are mobilized by these policies. I can tangibly see it," said Daniel Tseghay, a Swanson organizing committee member.

In spite of all that, many experienced political observers say, on and off the record, that the race is the NPA's to lose because it is the only party on the right-ish side of the spectrum.

"It's sort of been handed to them … given the way the non-NPA vote has scattered," said University of British Columbia political science professor Richard Johnston.

He said studies have indicated that, in by-elections where the new candidate won't change the balance of power, "there is a modest tendency to bring out negative voters."

Even Vision organizers acknowledge that they are hearing a lot of criticism as their campaigners go door to door.

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Asked if secondhand reports of canvassers hearing from people angry toward Mayor Gregor Robertson, the head of Vision Vancouver, were true, Mr. Nixey paused, before saying: "Sure." He then turned the focus toward Mr. Cardona's good qualities.

In spite of that natural backlash, Prof. Johnston said, the outcome is uncertain because this by-election has a confusing number of choices. "There's too many protest candidates," he said.

However, he acknowledged that the Green Party has an exceptionally strong identity, which could give Mr. Fry an advantage.

"They are a way of expressing discontent, which can come from a number of directions, including xenophobic white people," said Prof. Johnston, referring to the civic party's appeal to residents who are opposed to development in their neighbourhoods. "But people on the economic left tend to look on the Greens with disdain," he said. Those voters would be more likely to opt for Ms. Swanson or Ms. Graves as a protest vote.

Certainly, some people who voted in advance polling earlier this week were examples of the confusion that's resulting.

Some were very decided.

Ian Weniger, who arrived at city hall Tuesday on his bicycle wearing a bright red Jean Swanson "Rent Freeze Now" T-shirt, was committed to the candidate whom he believes can use city council as a "platform to advance momentum," just as Seattle's socialist council member, Kshama Sawant, has done, he said.

Anson and Daphne Frost were also firm in their conviction that Vision needed to be sent a message.

"We just can't stand their attitude," said Mr. Frost, describing himself as an "old Vancouverite" who is appalled at the party's focus on bike lanes while the city's building permits department takes two years to process a renovation. The couple indicated they were most like to vote for the NPA.

But others were more conflicted.

"I'm disappointed with Vision but it was a toss-up between Swanson and OneCity [Ms. Graves]," said Krisztina Kun, a freelance web developer who was among the 2,000 who lined up at city hall to vote.

Tracy Ho and Bobby Chavarie also said they were torn between the two women. "Both are very strong on housing," Mr. Chavarie said.

One factor that could affect both turnout and people's votes is anger that the provincial Liberals fired the Vancouver School Board. Voters are also choosing a set of nine trustees after more than a year of having the school district run by an appointed provincial trustee.

"It's egregious what the provincial government did," said Mr. Chavarie, one of several people that night who said the same. "It's important to make sure there's progressive people there."

On the other side, the Frosts were motivated to vote for the school board in exactly the opposite way. "It was a disaster the way Vision members behaved. We feel strongly about change," Anson Frost said.

All of that means it has been impossible for even the savviest political analysts to figure out which candidate will end up as the most appealing to the public.

In the end, many say, it will depend on which candidate's supporters are the most committed to showing up at the voting booth.

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Who's running

Here are the most prominent candidates running in the by-election to replace Geoff Meggs, who left his Vision Vancouver seat on city council to work as Premier John Horgan's chief of staff. Candidates in reverse alphabetical order.

Jean Swanson, Independent, endorsed by Coalition of Progressive Electors

Key message: Freeze rents for four years; institute a mansion tax and use the money to create low-cost housing.

Key criticism by others: Freezing rents is not something the city has power over.

Campaign finance: Has raised about $36,000 and released donor list.

Prominent endorser: Former NDP MP Libby Davies

Judy Graves, OneCity

Key message: More than just activism is needed at city hall. Vancouver needs someone who knows how the city works and can get things done. Also proposing a mansion tax, but advocating for a lot of new construction of rentals.

Key criticisms by others: Policies are too soft; she's too much of a one-issue candidate; insiders will never advocate for radical change.

Campaign finance: Has raised about $33,000 and released donor list.

Prominent endorser: Former NPA mayor Philip Owen

Pete Fry, Green Party

Key message: Green Party puts the public first, so he supports a citywide plan and more say by neighbourhood councils. Also, the only party with elected officials that didn't take money from developers.

Key criticisms by others: The party aligns itself with NIMBY resident groups and fear-mongering about foreigners.

Campaign finance: Close to raising the $40,000 set as a goal; has released a donor list.

Prominent endorser: University of British Columbia professor Patrick Condon

Diego Cardona, Vision Vancouver

Key message: As a refugee and former child in foster care, he will fight for marginalized communities. Also push to have six housing units on every single-family lot and advocate for more co-ops.

Key criticisms by others: He's 21. And, if his party wanted to do any of these things, why hasn't it in the last 10 years?

Campaign finance: Vision acknowledges it is spending more than the $35,000 of the other parties, but won't say how much. No donor list released.

Prominent endorser: Former B.C. children's watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond

Hector Bremner, Non-Partisan Association

Key message: Vancouver needs to change the zoning in the city to allow more housing types and more building.

Key criticisms by others: He worked with former provincial housing minister Rich Coleman, whose policies led to Vancouver's problems. And he's and oil and gas lobbyist.

Campaign finance: Organizers saying they're not spending as much as Vision Vancouver, but no numbers or donor list released.

Prominent endorser: Former B.C. Liberal attorney-general Suzanne Anton

Video: No more ‘hollow words’ on Indigenous reconciliation, Horgan says (The Canadian Press)
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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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