Four years ago, Ken Sim came within 958 votes of becoming Vancouver’s mayor.
At the time, he was the NPA’s mayoral candidate.
Now he is leading a new party — ABC Vancouver — in another attempt at landing the job won by Kennedy Stewart in the 2018 race.
“I didn’t lose, I learned — there’s a big distinction,” Sim said in an interview last month from his party’s campaign office on Broadway. “You lose if you quit. I’m not a quitter.”
With Stewart seeking re-election, the rematch makes for some good political drama.
Sim seen as main challenger by mayor
And it’s been clear over the past year — via news releases, Twitter exchanges and interviews — that Stewart sees Sim as his main competitor in the Oct. 15 vote.
Stewart’s decision to focus on Sim comes despite the entry of city councillor Colleen Hardwick (TEAM for a Livable Vancouver), Mark Marissen of Progress Vancouver and the NPA’s Fred Harding into this year’s contest.
“I’m looking forward to a robust debate between two directions for Vancouver,” said Stewart in an October 2021 news release in which he welcomed Sim to another battle for the mayor’s chair. “A Vancouver that works for all of us, or a Vancouver where Sim turns back the clock to build a city for the few.”
Sim has no city hall baggage for Stewart to seize on, but the businessman’s decision to leave the NPA, failing to file his election expense report on time after the 2018 race and calling for the elected park board to be scrapped will likely pop up during the campaign.
Though ABC is a new party, Sim, who is the co-founder of Rosemary Rocksalt Bagels and Nurse Next Door, was able to convince three sitting councillors — Rebecca Bligh, Lisa Dominato and Sarah Kirby-Yung — to run with him this year.
The trio’s addition, which boosts the party’s profile, didn’t come as a surprise since the councillors were with the NPA when Sim ran in 2018 — a connection that led Stewart’s campaign team to brand ABC as “NPA lite.”
ABC’s four other council candidates are: retired Vancouver police officer Brian Montague, vice-president of the BC Care Providers Association Mike Klassen, Urban YVR publisher and UBC digital strategist Peter Meiszner, and Lenny Zhou, manager of engineering operations at BC Children’s Hospital.
The party’s campaign is focused on public safety, affordability and “sustainability.”
Sim and his party have promised to hire 100 police officers, 100 mental health nurses and introduce body-worn cameras for officers.
More firefighters will also be hired.
To promote its platform, ABC is spending some of the $1.6 million it has raised on advertising, with a big focus on what Sim and his team are describing as “Kennedy’s road tax,” saying there is documented evidence via a city hall memo that Stewart wants to tax road users who drive into the downtown core.
Stewart has refuted this, saying ABC has resorted to “US-style misinformation politics,” noting there has never been a vote to implement such a tax but that council — in a move led by ABC’s Bligh — has asked city staff to study road pricing.
Over the better part of an hour last month, Sim talked about the “tax,” the need for more police, whether he’s committed to a public statement that he wants to scrap the elected park board and other civic issues on his agenda.
The following is an edited and condensed version of that interview.
Why did you leave the NPA?
They took a very sharp turn. There was a misalignment in core values. I'm inclusive.
Are you referring to why Coun. Rebecca Bligh left the NPA in 2019 over concerns related to the board’s alleged move to the far right of the political spectrum?
That's one of the reasons, absolutely, yes.
Where do you place yourself on the political spectrum? Left? Right? Centre?
Those things are way too simplistic. The vast majority of people I meet have a bit of left, bit of right, and a lot of centre in them.
We're talking about municipal politics here. There's no left or right when it comes to safe streets, vibrant neighborhoods, getting a permit faster or having your garbage taken out — or loving the environment. These are not left versus right issues. I guess I would be right in the middle, if you took a blended average.
On the social side, I care about people. On the fiscal side, I think we need to be fiscally responsible. It's no different than running your household, right? If you're not fiscally responsible, you're in a lot of trouble.
A big plank in your campaign, so far, is to hire 100 police officers and 100 mental health nurses. You talk about fiscal responsibility, so how do you pay for new officers and nurses when the city’s budget continues to increase and taxes continue to rise?
We will be able to find one per cent, or $20 million per year, to reallocate. I'm very confident about that based on my 30 years plus experience ripping through budgets — having done forensic accounting and being a chartered account.
We make choices with our budget. We should be allocating our budget to our biggest priorities. Public safety is a priority — not just mine — but for most people in the city. When you have four random assaults every single day, when you have anti-Asian hate crimes up over 500 per cent, when you have serious assaults up 36 per cent, public safety is a priority.
So $20 million a year over four years for a total of $80 million?
Hopefully sooner than four. We have to hire people. But that's the goal. When we hit our goal, we will have 100 new police officers and 100 new mental health nurses within our first term.
I understand it’s council's decision to increase or decrease the Vancouver Police Department’s budget, but isn’t the hiring of nurses a provincial responsibility?
It is, but we're taking a leadership role. You cannot separate mental health and policing anymore. So we're taking a leadership role because we've waited long enough. We’re thinking out of the box. We're going to reprioritize some of the stuff in our budget.
Depending on who you speak to, it's anywhere between $250 and $330 million that the city spends on non-city services downloaded [by the provincial and federal governments]. We're going to reallocate some of those monies to do it. We're going to prove out the case. And then we are going to work with our provincial and federal partners and say, ‘Look, this has positive results.’ We need the province and the feds to step up.
Where does $80 million over four years come from to pay for 100 officers and 100 nurses? In other words, what will be cut?
Like I said, we are going to go through the budget with a fine-tooth comb. I have complete confidence we're going to be able to find one per cent in the budget. There's a lot of dumb spend at the city.
There’s an ongoing debate in the city about reallocating some of the police budget for social services. So explain to citizens why 100 more police officers are needed in Vancouver. What’s driving the need?
I hate to sound like I'm repeating myself, but when you have four random assaults in the city every single day, and people don't flinch anymore, it has become normalized. That's a big deal.
People don't feel safe in a lot of our neighborhoods now. I hear this every single day. It's not just the Downtown Eastside, or Chinatown. It's Yaletown, it's the West End, Strathcona. These are significant issues. Anti-Asian hate crimes are up over 500 per cent. Serious assaults are up 36 per cent. The list goes on and on and property crime is up.
The reporting I’ve done since the pandemic was declared in March 2020 shows property crime — break-ins to homes, businesses and cars — has decreased significantly. That trend was based on statistics collected by the Vancouver Police Department. Is the data not accurate?
According to our numbers, it was up something like 121 per cent. People have actually stopped reporting them. People have just given up. They don't report these property crimes anymore. I've had lots of conversations at street level where people are not reporting their windows being broken anymore, and they can't get insurance anymore. That’s a big problem. When you look at anti-Asian hate crimes, those numbers don't include every time someone gets verbally accosted because not everyone reports it to the authorities.
You’re on record of wanting to scrap the elected park board, but your party is running candidates for park board. Please explain.
So if you asked us last year, we 100 per cent wanted to get rid of the elected park board because it was ineffective.
I'm being generous with that comment. You have [homeless] people dying in parks, coyote attacks, spending a couple of million dollars on toilets, we lost the aquarium, the list goes on. But I believe leadership is when the situation changes, you pivot.
So the parks have actually gotten worse. Kits pool was closed, and it's just opened up now to limited swim times. The side of the building at the Aquatic Centre fell off. We think that Vancouverites deserve parks now. We can't wait two to three years for legislative changes to the Vancouver Charter [to cede jurisdiction to city hall].
We believe the provincial government is going to be preoccupied [with the NDP leadership race], so it won't get the full attention that we need from them. Our infrastructure is crumbling, and we have to jump in now. So we pivoted. We are running a bunch of incredibly talented candidates with diverse lived experiences that are going to help us reshape our parks.
You say that Vancouverites deserve parks now. I’m not sure I understand — isn’t there already a lot of parks in the city?
Yeah, but we have crumbling infrastructure. We can't wait three years to fix or replace community centres. I mentioned the Aquatic Centre, Kits pool. There's a whole subculture around Kits pool. I know this because I used to swim in Kits pool in the mornings, at 5:45 a.m. to seven o'clock. There's a whole community there, so they can't wait three years.
Vancouver, with the exception of Cultus Lake and Minneapolis, is the only city in North America that actually has an elected park board.
So to be clear, if your park board candidates are elected, do you plan to keep an elected park board?
The goal has always been to improve our parks. So the goal is to improve our parks. Period. Full stop.
Let's talk about your plan for affordable housing. What is it?
Well, the big one is, we're going to speed up the permitting process. And then we're going to support initiatives that actually help us bring more housing to the city faster. So, for example, the Broadway Plan — you will see that all three of the ABC councillors voted in favour.
So you personally support the Broadway Plan?
We support the Broadway Plan. It ticks a lot of boxes.
You talk about speeding up the permitting process for builders and generating more housing starts. But is it going to translate to affordable housing?
Well, I think it should be attainable housing. So it's going to hit all different segments. The example I like to give is the UBC property trust model. They’ve created housing for students, people that work out at the university and market housing. So it's a blend. It doesn't have to be 100 per cent affordable housing. You need to provide the whole spectrum of housing, and that's what we intend to do.
So you're heavy on the supply side?
Anyone who tries to argue against supply versus demand is kind of like arguing that you don't believe in gravity, right? Doesn't matter if you believe in gravity or not, if you jump off a two-storey building, it's really going to hurt, right?
So when people across the city are saying they can't find housing, when you have a lineup of 40 people trying to rent a place, when people are leaving the city in droves because they can't make it work, you have a supply issue. We don't have enough supply. And so providing more supply is one thing, but we also need to speed up the permitting process. When you make that process better, you actually decrease the cost to build. And when you have more supply, it decreases the costs to rent or to buy.
Do you support the decriminalization of drugs?
Well, we already have de facto decriminalization anyways. So, yes, we do support decriminalization. What we need to do, though, to make it effective is we have to make sure that we have all these other supports in place. Because decriminalization on its own doesn't work. So what other supports are in place? Treatment, recovery, prevention, harm reduction.
Do you support a safe supply of drugs for users?
Yes, we do. If administered by professionals, like the health authorities, absolutely.
Let’s go back to one of your top priorities — sustainability. That’s a vague term. What do you mean by that?
Well, it's pretty far-reaching. We can talk about the environment, we can talk about economics, we can talk about property taxes.
When property taxes go up 25 per cent over a three-year period under the current administration, and they're projected to go up another 10 per cent, that's not sustainable. It's not sustainable for property owners, it's not sustainable for businesses that are looking to start up a business here or currently exist here. It's not sustainable from an affordability perspective. If you own a home, if you rent a home, or if you buy a cup of coffee in the city, it’s getting more expensive. So when you go buy a cup of coffee or you buy a loaf of bread or you buy a hot dog or hamburger, those costs are embedded in that. And that's not sustainable.
A statement on your website says residents are frustrated with Kennedy Stewart “worsening the affordability crisis by costly increasing fees and taxes.” So are you suggesting that if you're elected mayor, and get a majority, then you're not going to increase fees or taxes?
We're going to be looking at things differently. We're going to look at how we make things more efficient. So to give an example of what Kennedy wants to do is his road tax — Kennedy’s road tax.
What's 'Kennedy's road tax?'
They’ve actually spent a bunch of money, almost a couple of million bucks on having a road tax. So if you want to drive into the downtown core — and they've extended the downtown core to include north of 16th Avenue — you'll have to pay between five and 30 bucks to come into the downtown core.
When you say "they" spent a bunch of money, who is they?
The City of Vancouver.
I covered the council debate on road pricing and it was your own councillor — Rebecca Bligh — who wanted staff to give it a further look and see what was feasible. Charles Gauthier, who was head of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association at the time, thought that was a good idea and argued it has to be a regional system, if implemented. So I don’t know where “Kennedy’s road tax” comes from?
Well, Kennedy supported it and councillor Bligh actually said, ‘Hold on a sec, let’s study this one because it can’t be a Vancouver-only thing.’
But there was no vote on whether Vancouver was going to have a road tax.
No, I'll get the details for you — the play-by-play. But you know, when you're thinking of spending a quarter of a billion dollars on the infrastructure to impose this road tax, and it's not even going to go to protecting the environment — because electric cars are going to get charged this tax and the money is not going into funding better, more environmentally friendly solutions like transit — it's problematic. So those are the type of things that we're not going to do.
So to get back to my question — if you win a majority with ABC, are you going to increase fees or taxes?
No, you’re not going to increase taxes or fees?
That statement wouldn’t be factually correct. What we would do, for example, is have the auditor general audit what's going on at the park board. And up until that time, there won’t be any more increases in any fees related to park board.
When we speed up the permitting process, we get more projects built faster. That will give us the ability to get those fees into the system faster. When we support things like the Broadway Plan, when you're building more density — we call it smart density because it's on a subway line, it all makes sense. When you have more units over the same square footage of real estate, you have the ability to increase your tax base, and you have the ability to cap taxes. Or if we do our jobs incredibly well, you can have a situation where you can actually decrease individual taxes. Instead of let's say, four-storey buildings, now you have 15 storeys. So everyone's paying taxes, and maybe you have a situation where every individual unit holder actually pays less taxes. And that gets us back to sustainability.
So to be clear, come the annual budget debate in December, are you telling me that there will not be a property tax increase? Or will there be?
Our intention is not to freeze property tax increases in our first year. We have to look at the situation. We're going to look at all the line items. And then we're going to say, ‘Do we need that this year?’ And if we do, I think great, let's do it. And then what? Do we need more of it?
For example, in the police budget, not only do we need it, we probably need more of it. In the first year, we are going to inherit a bunch of collective agreements, a bunch of contracts. We haven't dug through the financials because we actually don't have access. We have access to the public documents that are over 700 pages, but we don't have access to the line-by-line detail.
Don’t your three councillors have access to that information?
Right now, the city councillors haven't gone line by line in that great of detail. I can't comment for the other councillors how detailed they've gone into. I used to be a forensic auditor. So that's the level of detail that we're going to be bringing. What I can commit to is when we're in office, not only myself, but a whole team of individuals are going to go through it line by line.
So how do you prevent Kennedy Stewart from being elected for a second term?
We win the election. We're in it to win it. The thing is I represent so much more than just one individual. I'm just one part of a movement. And that movement has gotten huge. So I think the better question would be, ‘How do we transform our city?’ Not my city, how do we transform our city? Look, there are so many people in the city who are incredibly brilliant, who have identified problems or opportunities, and they have solutions for them, but they've never been listened to. And that's how we're different. We're going to listen to people, and we're actually going to use those ideas. In fact, 99 per cent of our platform is actually coming from people in the community.
You must have given it some thought that if you are elected mayor, and don't win a majority, that it will be difficult for you to implement any of what you just told me. What do you say to that?
We're very confident we're going to win a majority.