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In the homestretch of Vancouver's mayoral race, Ken Sim has become the odds-on favourite

When I teach journalism, I tell students: Declare your conflicts. We all have them. The audience needs to know.
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.

When I teach journalism, I tell students: Declare your conflicts. We all have them. The audience needs to know. So in writing about the Vancouver mayoralty race, I declare these:

•Ran for mayor in 2014 for the Non-Partisan Association, finished second, have fond memories of the party’s team at the time.

•Know the person who succeeded me as NPA’s candidate, Ken Sim, now running his own ABC (A Better City) Party with some of that NPA team and those donors.

•Also know his rival, Colleen Hardwick, NPA councillor with her own party, TEAM for a Livable Vancouver.

•Good relationship over the years with another candidate, Mark Marissen, with (you guessed it) his own Progress Vancouver party.

•With all three, shared many enjoyable policy talks. Don’t see any socially.

I have met NPA candidate Fred Harding only a couple of times and not for any extended discussion.

The person I know least, incumbent Mayor Kennedy Stewart, is actually the person I worry about most. I can’t bring myself to recommend his re-election for two principal reasons.

The first has been his pandemic performance. I concede it would have been frightening to lead the city at the outset of COVID-19. But while other mayors rolled up their sleeves, Vancouver’s rolled up the carpet. He pretty much quarantined.

He panicked – wrongly, it turned out – and predicted the collapse of city finances that in fact would generate a surplus. (It didn’t dissuade him from property tax increases three and four times inflation each year.) He even scoffed at the initial provincial offerings to communities by his NDP brethren as some sort of “poisoned chalice.”

He deepened our restrictions by taking an eternity to get simple restaurant patios approved. He did nothing to pressure the Park Board into loosening its no-booze grip on parks or to create more municipal spaces for people to see each other outdoors when we couldn’t indoors.

He abided his ideology and fortified the public service by four figures during his term. As he always has, he left businesses to fend for themselves, treating them as a source of revenue and not a source of prosperity or identity. The city discontinued its economic recovery task force. He didn’t think attracting business was as important as attracting federal or provincial funds. It says much about his term, considering predecessor Gregor Robertson, that business has never felt more distant from city hall.

But a second, serious issue has been his indifference about the increase in casual vandalism and violence. What else is a city leader but a protector of the public and its secure streets? Property and a sense of personal safety aren’t a community’s to ruin.

Most mayors who witness a violent surge would denounce it immediately, convene authorities to launch a no-nonsense response to combat it, catcall senior governments to weigh in and direct a campaign to make people feel safer and retailers less susceptible. It’s admittedly a tall order, but even if it didn’t work, he’d at least fail trying and be forgiven for it.

Instead, Stewart’s main gestures during this period were to a) decry the police force as systemically racist, and b) contend with the force on its budget proposals. He recently proclaimed Vancouver a safe city, news to victims recovering from random attacks and store owners who had started their days with smashed windows. Only when it became politically crucial to his candidacy did he backflip and profess police support, incorrectly claim he’d given them the resources they’d sought and use the “I’m only one person” alibi to absolve himself of responsibility.

If it is unfair that every shattered storefront and beaten bystander attaches to him – his poll declines suggest so – it is because he chose early not to demonstrate leadership but to demonstrate more sympathy for the perpetrators than the victims, more effort to achieve a safe drug supply than safe streets.

Of course, it is always easier to call for change than to choose the changer.

Marissen has been smart and successful at developing campaign strategy for others but has gotten lost in presenting his own. He has been hampered by limited resources and inexperience now that he is onstage instead of behind it. This race might be a first step, though.

Hardwick is the most studious challenger and the one who most vividly speaks her mind. But in aligning her urban planning ideas with a go-slower, if-at-all cohort, she became the anti-density, anti-development candidate. It isolated her from the orthodoxy – one she disbelieves – that more affordable homes are possible if only neighbourhoods would consent to build, build, build. Unless her party elected a majority of its slate – and we’d all take that bet – her position would isolate her from council and from senior governments of all stripes.

Which leaves Sim, who benefits from the strongest supporting cast of council candidates and by far the strongest funds to tackle the mayor across airwaves and with an organization on election day. Since his narrow loss in 2018, Sim has been focused on Saturday. Polls suggest it is working.

His party has the most adventurous platform and, like everyone’s, would require that improbable majority council to implement it. Mostly the plan is grounded in common sense with broad appeal. Even on his second run, Sim is an enigmatic leader. He would need new muscles to contend with the bureaucracy (it would not take kindly to him) and develop independence from the high-powered donors who brought him there (it might expect things of him), but he certainly would be the best mayor to benefit from likely swings to the right in Victoria and possibly Ottawa. Councils everywhere will need to watch nickels and dimes, and Sim has shown steeliness in business that would work well at budget time.

I think I learned the central campaign question when I asked someone working with him why she was. Her response: “Who else is there?”

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.