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Mayor-elect Kennedy Stewart promises housing crisis ‘in better shape’ by 2022

Stewart says will treat NPA councillors as ‘independents’ in approach to governing at city hall
Independent mayoral candidate Kennedy Stewart won a tight race Saturday, defeating the NPA’s Ken Sim by 984 votes. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Will Vancouver still be in an affordable housing crisis when the next civic election rolls around in 2022?

It was a question the Courier put to Kennedy Stewart Monday, two days after he narrowly defeated the NPA’s Ken Sim by 984 votes.

“We’ll be in better shape,” he said. “You can’t promise that it’s going to be completely solved, but what I want to do is show clear progress on that file. I’ll do that by being much more transparent, and to make sure the city sees what efforts are being made, seeing where we’re succeeding and seeing where we’re not succeeding.”

His answer was one of many he gave during a 15-minute telephone interview, in between phone calls his staff was managing to set up with Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The following is a condensed and edited version of the interview.

Your victory wasn’t declared until well after midnight Saturday, did you get any sleep yesterday?

“I didn’t, and I really didn’t last night, either, so I am looking forward to some sleep sometime this week.”

Why do you think it was such a close race?

“There were essentially 21 candidates splitting the vote and just adding to the confusion. And I didn’t have a party brand, the NPA did. And the other thing is, when the [financial] numbers are out, I bet they outspent me five or six to one during the campaign period. That’s probably part of it.”

You say you didn’t have a party brand, but you’re a former Burnaby NDP MP and heard accusations during the campaign from opponents who described you as “the NDP mayoral candidate.”

“A lot of [the NPA’s] attack ads were that I was Vision 2.0, and they were also saying I was NDP. They tried to attack me with all that stuff, but the independent [brand] seemed to hold up OK.”

But certainly, you did nothing to distance yourself from the NDP and said at a news conference last week that you were “a proud New Democrat.”

“I never will [distance myself from the party]. I mean I’d been an NDP MP for seven years. So it would be kind of disingenuous for me to do that.”

Critics are saying the NDP is now leading city hall. What do you say to that?

“It’s the NDP values I take with me, but I am taking my role as an independent mayor [to city hall]. That’s what I campaigned on. So that’s how I’ll act at city hall. I will try to work with all parties. In between media calls [today], I’m trying to talk with all the councillors just to get a sense of where they want to take the city, and see how I can help them—on things we agree on—achieve those things.”

As you’re aware the NPA’s Ken Sim and his party were critical of your platform. Now the NPA has five councillors on the 10-member council. What’s going to be your approach in governing a council where half of the members are not on your side?

“It’s to treat people as independents. The NPA, although they all have the colour purple [of the party] on their signs, they actually run fairly independent campaigns. When you look at their individual websites, they have different priorities. In the past, they may have voted as a bloc because of the Vision Vancouver majority, but now they have a chance to govern—they actually have a chance to get things through, if they can cooperate, too.”

Eight women were elected to council Saturday. I’m not sure that has ever happened before in Vancouver…

“I was pushing forward with equity issues in the House of Commons. It was a big thing for me. So I’m looking forward to maybe building some policy around women’s issues.”

You won Saturday, but you only received 28.72 per cent of the vote. What do you say to those residents who didn’t vote for you?

“There’s the [60 per cent of] folks who didn’t vote at all in the election. I’m going to have to get to know them more, and give them different ways to participate in the policy process. Electronic petitions, for example, in the House of Commons—that’s one way I was able to bring people who aren’t usually involved, into the political process. So I’d like to bring that into the city. For the rest of the folks that voted—but  not for me—there  was a lot of agreement, for example, around building rental housing on city-owned land. Ken Sim campaigned on that, Shauna Sylvester did. So I do think there’s a lot of agreement about what people wanted done, even if there was disagreement around who they wanted to do it.”

Last week you announced your plan for your first 100 days in office. You said it includes taking action to clear the backlog of building permits, hiring a renters’ advocate, setting up an “emergency task force” in the Downtown Eastside to tackle the opioid crisis, introduce conflict of interest rules and create a lobbyist registry. The Courier reminded readers of your plan in a tweet Sunday, which prompted current Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer to point out that “the good news for him was most of them are already done, underway or under jurisdiction of the province.” So what do you say to that?

“I think Andrea’s done a lot of good things on council, and I wish her best of luck on her new endeavours. Now that the baton is being passed to a new group, it will be different without a majority and I think we’ll get different policies. I had a great talk with Gregor Robertson last night, and he was explaining to me more of the details of what they had been doing. I do recognize that some of this is underway, but I don’t actually think it’s as ambitious as the platform I set out.”

You mentioned you spoke to Gregor Robertson. What kind of advice did he give you?

“He kind of terrified me because he said there’s one word that’s going to keep you awake, and that’s ‘earthquake.’ And those are the kind of things you always have to keep in mind, and that it goes beyond politics, and that’s the welfare of the city. We had a lot of seismic activity off the coast just last night. I’m an old boy scout and that is the motto—be prepared. I also look forward to more advice. I also ran into [former premier and mayor] Mike Harcourt and [former Surrey mayor and Conservative MP] Dianne Watts [this morning], who were passing on their wisdom, because they’ve also worked with fractured councils. Actually, to follow the advice of my mother, it’s to ‘give everybody a job.’ I do think that’s what I’ll have to do on council, is to try to make it that everybody feels included as possible and not worry about what political stripe they represent. ”

What else did you and Gregor talk about?

“The importance of the region. We have a whole bunch of new mayors in the region. Doug McCallum [in Surrey] has signaled that he doesn’t want light-rail and that he wants SkyTrain, and that’s something I’m supportive of. But we’ll have to talk with the other mayors. In some ways, I’ll be the face of Vancouver and I intend to make my presence in Ottawa felt to make sure that Toronto and Montreal don’t scoop up all the money,and that our region actually gets its just desserts from the federal government. So they’ll be a lot of talking, which is great because I’m a Maritimer, and I love it.”

Should residents assume that because you were endorsed by OneCity and had good things to say about the Greens and Jean Swanson from COPE, that they’ll always be on your side with everything you try to implement?

“I would not assume that. We’ve sketched out our broad policies and I think the devil’s always in the details. So that’s where we’ll have to compromise. We just saw in Victoria that the speculation tax brought in by [NDP Finance Minister]Carole James that she had to adjust it based on what [Green Party leader] Andrew Weaver wanted, and Andrew Weaver also had to make adjustments. So I think that’s what we’re going to see on this council—is constant adjusting and adjustments, and compromise, which I think is a better type of governance, anyway, rather than just ramming things through.”

You have said that Saturday’s election would be the last time that voters in Vancouver will vote in an at-large system. What do you mean by that?

“We’re having a referendum provincially on proportional representation. We need to wait for those results, and see what the results are in Vancouver. If there is a vote for proportional representation in Vancouver, then I would move forward with trying to bring proportional representation to the city. If it doesn’t go that way, then I would try to bring neighbourhood constituencies to this city. Both of them require provincial approval.”

So, a ward system?

“Yes, a ward system, but sometimes people are more familiar with provincial and federal constituencies.”

But the city had a referendum on a ward system more than 10 years ago, and a majority of voters rejected the idea. So what makes you think voters would want it this time?

“There won’t be a referendum because I’ve clearly stated in my platform that this is the last at-large election and I’ll do everything I can to change it. That will take negotiation from council. Knowing that proportional representation is very important to the Green Party, then we should start with that. If we can’t get that, then we’d move to wards. I mean, look at [the new] council—with the exception of Pete Fry, it is entirely white. We know from the U.S. experience, that is the bias outcomes of at-large systems. With a ballot that’s a mile long, and the lack of visible minority presence on council, that should be a clear indication that this electoral system is past its sell-by date.”

So your number one reason to get rid of the at-large electoral system is what?

“For me, it’s that it’s shown in many, many U.S. court cases to be racist. It’s very disproportional, too, in that one party can win all the seats with 40 per cent of the vote, which happened in 1996. It’s very biased against ethnic minor groups, and that’s not acceptable in this day and age.”

Stewart and the 10 newly elected councillors, including re-elected incumbents Melissa De Genova and Adriane Carr, will be sworn in Nov. 5.