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Election 2022: Why Mark Marissen wants to be mayor of Vancouver

Marissen on his top priorities: ‘Housing, housing and housing’
Mark Marissen has a long history of working behind the scenes in federal political campaigns but has stepped forward to become Progress Vancouver’s mayoral candidate in the Oct. 15 election.

If Mark Marissen has learned anything about election campaigns, it’s not to trust public opinion polls or what political pundits are saying about a candidate’s chances come election day.

“If you recall, I managed Stephane Dion’s campaign and I was married to Christy Clark,” he said this week from his office on Granville Street.

Marissen, who is Progress Vancouver’s mayoral candidate in the Oct. 15 civic election, was referring to the underdog Dion’s victory in the federal Liberals leadership race in 2006. Marissen was his campaign manager.

In 2013, various polls and political analysts predicted Clark and her BC Liberals would be crushed by then-BC NDP leader Adrian Dix in 2013, which didn’t happen.

“So this idea that I think that polls with six weeks to go before the election have any bearing to what the election is…well, my experience in life is that they don't have anything to do with each other at all,” Marissen said.

First-time candidate

A poll released Sept. 8 by Research Co. showed that 35 per cent of decided voters favoured Mayor Kennedy Stewart of Forward Vancouver over Ken Sim of ABC Vancouver (30 per cent) and Colleen Hardwick of TEAM for a Livable Vancouver (17 per cent).

Marissen was trailing at 13 per cent, with Fred Harding of the NPA at four per cent.

Unlike his competitors, despite his decades of involvement in politics, this is Marissen’s first time as a candidate, a move he explained was one of not only desire but also necessity.

“I've found that trying to get folks to agree to run that have the skills required is becoming more and more challenging every day,” said Marissen, who helped found Yes Vancouver in the 2018 race. “And so I thought, ‘Well, why don't I just do it?’ It's kind of as simple as that.”

But he is not doing this alone, having secured six council candidates in his bid to unseat Stewart and win a majority, which is an ambitious goal for a new party when considering the power of incumbency; all 11 members of council are seeking re-election.

Morgane Oger

Progress Vancouver’s council candidates are: former provincial NDP candidate and tech entrepreneur, Morgane Oger; the executive director of the South Vancouver Community Policing Centre, Mauro Francis (who recently left the NPA); actor and educator David Chin; small business owner Asha Hayer; film production industry worker May He; and education worker Marie Noelle Rosa.

Marissen will be rolling out planks in his campaign as the election draws closer, but has already made commitments around housing (136,000 homes over the next decade), the state of downtown (hiring a night commissioner) and the Downtown Eastside (temporary spaces for tenters), creating more bike lanes and pushing for a higher shelter rate for people on social assistance.

He also wants to double the number of food trucks in Vancouver.

He was recently endorsed by former BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver.

Marissen discussed these issues and others from his Burrard Strategy Inc. office inside the Vancouver Block Building on Granville Street, which also serves as the party’s campaign headquarters.

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

There’s got to be more to your reason for running than not finding another person to become Progress Vancouver’s mayoral candidate.

There are a whole bunch of reasons. My experience has been mostly in federal politics. My experience in provincial politics was because of Christy [Clark]. But I didn't work in provincial politics or anything like that. I see that there's a big role for understanding how we work with all three levels of government. Given our housing crisis, and also given issues in the Downtown Eastside and other areas, we need somebody that really understands how Ottawa and Victoria work. And I think I understand it better than the other candidates.

When you meet a person on the street and tell them you’re running for mayor, and they want to know your credentials for the job, what do you say?

I tell them I've worked in public life my entire life. Some examples of what I did when I was advocating on behalf of clients [as a paid lobbyist] is I worked for the Canada Line to secure the federal funding for that. That’s no small matter. I also worked on the Millennium Line and the Evergreen Line on public consultation. I worked for the airport in their fight with Toronto and Montreal and the rents that they were being charged by the federal government and helped save them a billion dollars over 40 years.

I also worked with the West Coast Express to challenge the CPR on the track rates that they were being charged and successfully got their rates reduced by 30 per cent. That kind of work is pretty applicable to the kind of work that you would be doing as a mayor. Actually, the only people that think this kind of work is a strange background to run for mayor are journalists and hardcore political people. The average person views this as very understandable.

You’re running enough council candidates to form a majority at city hall. But you must have given some thought to the fact you could be elected mayor and not have a majority, making it difficult to move your agenda ahead. How would you deal with that?

You’ve got to find common ground. For example, I agree with [COPE city councillor] Jean Swanson on the idea that we need some kind of a mansion tax. I support a progressive tax. We would explore progressive taxation options and have a surtax on the top one per cent of values of homes. The work that some of the ABC Vancouver councillors are trying to do on moving the dial on fixing the permitting issue, I’m supportive of that, too.

What are your top three issues in this campaign?

Housing, housing and housing. That’s the top one. The second one is addressing what's going on downtown. Basically, a thriving downtown is a safer downtown. There's a whole bunch of things that have to go into that. And the third is just cleaning up the micromanagement of city hall so that we can deliver not just on housing, but also for small business and for everything else. For some reason, the paralysis at city hall just keeps on getting worse.

I’ve heard you say you want more multi-family housing to be allowed around schools, transit hubs and playgrounds, and have seniors housing in all neighbourhoods. But I’d like to hear more about your plan for affordable housing.

Well, for one thing, just allow it. Let's start with that. There's a number of schools right now whose projections are that enrolment will decrease, some as much as 30 per cent. One of the smartest ways to get people back into those schools is to build housing that young families can afford. A lot of these family-oriented developments are actually much better and safer than many traditional neighbourhoods.

You take a multi-family building that has, let's say, 20 different townhouses in it and it's all fenced off. Then quite often the kids all play with each other inside the complex. So if we can get more of that kind of housing around schools, it's just logical. The idea that if somebody wanted to build that kind of housing around schools right now that they'd have to go through all the hoops and have city council involved, well that just doesn't work in the 21st century.

You also want to see more housing built on city-owned land, correct?


But isn’t the city already doing that through the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency and other initiatives?

We just want to get a lot more aggressive about it. We need more housing for young families and seniors, but also for first responders and other working people in our city. That way we can maximize the number of people that work here who can also live here. It's a pretty important thing for the climate as well. This is a little different from building the temporary modular housing.

I think that we need all that, too. But we're talking about actually building a more comprehensive kind of housing on city-owned land. We need to build much more variety of housing so that we can accommodate a much greater variety of income types. Otherwise, we're just going to be a city of just the rich, and the very poor.

Isn’t Vancouver already there — a city of the rich and very poor?

No, it's not already there. I mean, it's getting there. I'm not giving up. I should certainly hope that the City of Vancouver is not giving up. This is a fantastic city, we can accommodate more people. Paris has six-storey height restrictions for most of their city, and they have four times as many people living there. They have wonderful neighbourhoods. Our city was built to accommodate the car and to hold people hostage to having to drive a car.

Luckily, we've got enough areas in Vancouver where you're not forced to have a car. But I want to maximize that. That could make a huge dent into affordability. If I know that I don't need to have a car, that's a thousand bucks or so a month. So I want to focus on building the kind of housing where people aren't forced into having a car.

Did I hear right that you don’t have a car?

No, I don’t. I got rid of mine about eight months ago. Don't need it. Yeah. I live [in Mount Pleasant]. I'm near the Canada Line. You can rent cars when you need them for stuff. It also has allowed me to really get to know the city better as a pedestrian and transit user. I have a bike, I walk and I take transit. And of course, I take cabs if I need to get places pretty fast.

You’re pro-bike lane, too?

For sure, I'm Dutch [laughter]. I am pro-bike lane. I think one of the reasons why there's not as many people on their bikes in Vancouver is that people worry about their bikes getting stolen, which is why we should have secure locking facilities throughout the city. That would really get more people on their bikes. I’ve talked to so many people who would love to ride a bike downtown or go to work, and not have to worry about getting their bike stolen.

Please elaborate on what you mean by “a thriving downtown is a safer downtown.”

Our downtown has seen better days. I’ve got a few things to say about this. One, is to just find as many different kinds of family-friendly activities that don't cost much money that can happen downtown on weekends, and that sort of thing. The other is for our nightlife and just what's happening at night. We’re the second most dense downtown after Manhattan in North America. So what they're doing in larger cities like Amsterdam is to get somebody in charge of the nighttime economy and culture and everything.

I would like to create a commissioner for the nighttime economy and culture that would be elected by all of the stakeholders involved. So business improvement association people, resident associations, entertainment folks, restaurant people. This model really works well in places like Amsterdam and other places. That person's first job would be to revitalize Granville Street.

We'd like to dedicate a couple of blocks to being pedestrian-only, similar to what you see on the North Shore with the Shipyards. That's a beautiful public space. We’ve just got to really turbocharge our downtown. People that come here from other places are really quite often surprised by how little we've got going on, especially given that we've got 100,000 people living on the peninsula.

If you were mayor today, what would you do about the desperate scene we see along the Hastings Street corridor with unhoused people, many living with a mental illness, a drug addiction, or both?

The first meeting that I did when I was thinking about running for mayor was I sat for half a day with the folks at Strathcona listening to folks living in the tents there. That was probably the most instructive meeting I've taken this whole campaign. Subsequently, I think I visited about 15 different SROs. I learned there's a number of SROs where people would much feel safer and feel healthier in their tents. Listening to stories after stories about the state of what these SROs are like — it's disturbing for us in a first-world country.

The reason why we have the tents is because we haven't built housing that we need. Things are happening, but they're just not happening quickly enough. I support city hall's request to the senior levels of government to buy off the private SROs. But what I think we really need is a revamped Vancouver Agreement, where we have the federal, provincial and municipal governments working with a unified strategy, and a unified funding model. One of the first things we have to do is an audit of how all the current spending is taking place. And we need to get more housing and public housing built.

You’re also in line with what COPE Coun. Jean Swanson has advocated for — providing temporary designated spaces around the city for unhoused people. That, as you know, would be controversial with some residents and business owners.

We've floated it very clearly as a temporary measure. But to deal with the tents along East Hastings is to have some designated places in the city, with proper washrooms, facilities and showers and everything, where you can pitch your tent. And then there's somewhere for people to go so that we don’t have the situation we have right now. It could be in a number of places, but it has to be carefully thought through. But anything is better than what's happening now. This is the legacy of just not doing the investment that we needed to do in our city and in our country.

One of your opponents, Ken Sim of ABC Vancouver, has promised to hire 100 police officers and 100 mental health nurses. So where do you stand on policing? Are you a defund guy? Do you want to increase the number of police officers on the streets?

I believe that we need to make sure that our police are adequately resourced, but a lot of these issues are not issues that the police can solve, and neither should they. My reaction to Ken Sim’s 100 police and 100 nurses was what I called bringing a squirt gun to a forest fire. I don't understand where he would get these nurses, for example. And in fact, it would probably make more sense to have 100 conflict resolution people. That seemed like a gimmick.

There are issues around the widening gap between rich and poor. There's issues around mental health. There's issues around coming out of COVID. So it’s a very complicated issue that just doesn't get solved by saying you're going to pull a random number out of the hat to go hire police officers. I'd be curious if that was a number that even the police had asked for? I don't know, but we shouldn't be governed by gimmicks.

OK, but if a police officer stops you in the street and says, ‘Hey Mark, you’re running for mayor, what are you going to do for this department?’ Are you going to hire more police? What are you going to do?

Well, we will do what the evidence tells us to do. And if the evidence was to point to the fact that we do need more officers, then of course. But we also need to look at this from a much more holistic approach.

Do you support decriminalization of drugs? Kennedy Stewart, as you know, has pushed for this with Ottawa.

If I had my one chip with Ottawa, I'd use that chip for the housing — not for preaching to them about something we’ve already got [de facto decriminalization]. Who's received a criminal record for having done drugs in Vancouver in the last 10 years? I don't think there's a single person. I support decriminalization  — don’t get me wrong, but that wouldn't be the thing that I would lead with.

You’ve been tagged by some critics and others as right-wing. Where do you place yourself on the political spectrum?

Centre-left. Almost anybody that knows me would think this. It's really actually quite funny when I started the campaign, it was just some British Columbia NDP types who would characterize me as a right-winger. Everybody from the other side of the mountains —because I've worked in national politics most of my life — were extremely puzzled by this. I think people make assumptions because I was married to Christy. But Christy and I don't agree on everything, and she would be the first to say that Mark is to the left of me.

How has being the ex-husband of a Liberal premier helped or hindered your campaign?

We aren't married anymore. I have a lot of respect for her, and she has been helpful to me in my campaign. I have disagreed with her on a number of issues. Over the years, I've mostly focused on how and where I agree with her when I've talked about things publicly. And I think I'll keep that as a practice, except for when it has something to do with the running for mayor.

I'll give one example of that. I was very opposed to her transit referendum. I did not agree with it. I told her at the time. I'm my own person, and I have my own views. And she knows that. I think most other people know that as well. I think to assume that people think the same because they might have been married to each other 15 years ago doesn't make a lot of sense. We are all unique human beings.

For those of us who are passionate about politics, running as a candidate — especially for mayor — allows you to speak with your own voice, and take much more personal responsibility and accountability for your own actions and your own views. [Editor’s note: Marissen and Clark were married when Clark made an unsuccessful bid to become the NPA’s mayoral candidate in 2005].

How do you distinguish yourself from your competitors?

Well, on housing, we haven't seen what Ken Sim has said yet. But we do know what he said last time [in the 2018 race] was that his solution was essentially to have more basement suites. So that's a pretty big difference. Colleen is just ‘doctor no.’ So she's the opposite of me. Kennedy Stewart has said a lot of good things, but he hasn't delivered on any tangible regulatory changes in the last four years.

I think he's come up with the Vancouver Plan, but he hasn't changed any zoning bylaws or anything for the way that we do this stuff. And Fred Harding, I don't know what he stands for. So I would say we're the most pro-housing party. Probably 90 per cent of our housing stuff is in sync with OneCity. But they're focusing much more on social housing. We need social housing, but we need housing of every kind.

How do you prevent Kennedy Stewart from winning a second term at city hall?

More votes [laughter]. I mean it’s as simple as that. I just need more votes. But hold him to account. Ask people: ‘Do they feel that Vancouver is better off four years later?’ Has Kennedy improved housing? Improved public safety? Our nightlife — has it improved? Improved our tax burden? On all of these things, I think he gets a failing grade.

But is that a fair assessment when all cities around the world were rocked by the pandemic in March 2020?

Everybody else had to keep working. So I don't know if that's really an excuse. It definitely made for more challenges. Everyone around the country and around the world were facing these kinds of challenges.

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