NPA Prospects

November 1, 2011

In the waning days of summer, everyone in town is outdoors, exulting in one last burst of heat before the arrival of another long, tedious winter. But not Francis Wong, in his banker’s suit. And not Gabby Kalaw, younger and more casual in khakis and runners. They’re spending this Sunday afternoon trolling the Southlands Country Fair in Vancouver’s horse-country enclave. The two neophyte politicians approach a cluster next to the jumping ring. They introduce themselves around and encourage everyone to vote for them in the fall. Some people they meet aren’t quite sure when the election is, or what parties are running, or even which election is under discussion. Others are a little savvier. “You’re with Suzanne Anton?” asks one elderly woman. “I’m supporting her.” Another quizzes them after Kalaw launches into a spiel about cutting fees for park users. “So you’re going to raise taxes, then? How are you going to pay for these parks?”

Wong and Kalaw and their fellow NPA candidates are building their base slowly, one plea at a time, amid crowds of natural-born supporters like these at the Southlands fair and at Kerrisdale Days and TaiwanFest and also in less secure territory like the PNE and the Victory Square block party and the Pride parade. At Burrard and Georgia, newbie Joe Carangi mounts a solitary picket on lunch breaks from his lawyer job, waving a placard at preoccupied downtown-office crowds. This—plus $2 million, some attack ads, and an aggressive marketing campaign deploying all the modern forms of social media—is how a 74-year-old political party goes about raising itself, one more time, from the near dead.

But will all this effort be enough for Vancouver’s venerable Non-Partisan Association? In spite of all kinds of improvements, like multi-ethnic candidates and mobile-phone technology and enlightened positions on homelessness, the party that says it isn’t a party still plans to stick to the strategy it formed in the Great Depression. That strategy has swung the city in its favour a half-dozen times since the Dirty Thirties. The NPA survived rebels like Tom Campbell, who briefly out-right-winged it in the 1960s; Art Phillips and his team of urban reformers in the ’70s; Mike Harcourt’s 1980s coalition of lefties and independents; and what looked like a stake through the heart from Larry Campbell and cope in the 2000s. But how in November, facing the still-young Vision Vancouver—that new political entity patched together out of the existing firmament from the left (homelessness), the right (tax breaks for business), and the green (bike lanes, chickens, electric cars, clean-tech jobs); a party whose mayor the cameras love; a party that has managed to generate respectable polling numbers in spite of riots, repeated mocking of its more mockable green efforts, and a $1-billion Olympic financial disaster on its hands—how in the world can they hope to pull back from the brink one more time?

Kerrisdale Arena is at the heart of NPA-voting southwest Vancouver. Behind it lies the track, painted a brilliant blue, that launched Suzanne Anton into politics. In 2002, Anton, a soccer mom who had left her job at the Crown prosecutors’ office three years earlier, wanted better playing fields. She won a seat on park board, and from there it was only one step to council in 2005, and—thanks to an election that wiped out every councillor but her—another unlikely one to the lonely road she now walks as the NPA’s sole representative on council and, after the party rejected aspirants who were even less well known than she, candidate for mayor.

Standing by that Kerrisdale field, Anton doesn’t talk so much about what she wants for the city. Instead, she’s focused on what she doesn’t want. “The positive that will happen when people elect me is I will not be doing those things that Gregor Robertson is doing,” she says. Her voice takes on an urgency, as though there will never be enough time for everything she has to say. “I will focus on what’s important: transportation, public benefits, keeping taxes low, keeping all costs down.”

This stubborn oppositionism is well within NPA tradition, though Anton—with her bare legs, low pumps, and sporty print shift—seems light-years away from the Non-Partisan Association created in a quick office meeting in November 1937 by nine (male, of course) pillars of the Vancouver business establishment. They announced their existence at a news conference in the Italian Room of the Hotel Vancouver—their mission to create a political vehicle that could prevent the then-surging Canadian Commonwealth Federation from taking over council. The Canadian Commonwealth Federation (outgrowth of the social-gospel movement, and predecessor of the NDP) was making uncomfortable gains as the Depression wreaked havoc. The power brokers realized that a carefully herded bloc of voters from the working-class East Side could, thanks to a recent switch from the ward system, end up electing council. Their solution: band the local Liberals and Conservatives together, claim the new group was above partisan politics, rail about the dangers of politicians in the grip of radical ideology, and campaign on the slogan “Sane Businesslike Administration.”

The slogan for the current contest—“Suzanne Anton and the Commonsense Team”—has barely evolved. Yet the city’s two main parties are nowhere near as diametrically opposed as they used to be, back in the days of Industrial Workers of the World vs. The Capitalists. Both now hover around a fiscally prudent, socially progressive, pale-green centre. Mayor Gregor Robertson, the founder of an organic-juice company and dedicated bike commuter, may have impeccable green cred. But Anton is no slouch either: she’s driven to the arena in her Prius (from her $2.2-million house nearby—but still), hasn’t used a plastic bag in years, is an enthusiastic proponent of increased housing density and organic composting, and spends part of every summer on long-distance cycling trips with her accountant husband, Olin. (The two met while on a group hike on the West Coast Trail in 1977 and struck a spark when he offered to carry her pack across a particularly treacherous log.)

The debate now is often about how aggressively to pursue change: cautiously and incrementally, with limited government intervention? Or boldly, with status quo-jolting experiments funded by public money? For both parties, the sell job demands a rallying of diverse forces: candidates, money, organization, strategy, the political environment, and mistakes made by the other side. As the campaign warmed up in September and October, it became obvious that, on these scores, the NPA was only halfway there.

Norman Stowe is tickled about the office space the NPA has nabbed. The size of a small warehouse, newly painted in brilliant blues and reds, it’s in the centre of town, beneath the Shore Club and the St. Regis Hotel on Dunsmuir. “This is one of the nicest ones I’ve ever worked in,” says Stowe as he shows off the space. A thermometer drawn on one wall shows a target of 50,000 identified voters; this day in mid September, the temperature is at 2,884, but rising daily. Banners featuring Renaissance portrait-like images of candidates hang from the ceiling. The space, and Stowe’s presence in it, speak to a level of funding and organization the party lacked the last time it went into battle.

There’s also a more robust core of high-powered key volunteers. Stowe, whose Pace Group communications company is legendary for its ability to get high-profile contracts, is one. He’s overseeing the actual campaign. Another is developer Rob Macdonald, spitting mad about a government that he calls a “dud.” For the first time, Macdonald has thrown himself into helping the NPA, donating this office space and, in his position as fundraising chair, wrestling large sums of money from the city’s wealthiest businesspeople. His efforts are more than matched by Peter Armstrong, founder of Rocky Mountaineer, a silver-haired Paul Bunyan-sized man whom friends and opponents alike describe as “really nice.” Armstrong has been raising money for years, first for federal parties and, most recently, for Kevin Falcon’s failed bid to lead the BC Liberals after Gordon Campbell. This is Armstrong’s first time venturing so publicly into civic politics, and he’s bringing many of the city’s heavyweights, who usually confine their generosity to federal and provincial campaigns. According to Armstrong, they include people from mining and forestry and other nontraditional sectors for civic campaigns, people able to hand over more than a few paltry hundreds in support of a sane and businesslike administration.

Armstrong is aiming to raise at least $2 million for the party—double what it raised and spent in 2008. With a war chest already in hand, the campaign has been able to hire Campaign Research Inc., the company that helped Toronto Mayor Rob Ford perform the essential task of hunting down likely supporters using a high-powered blend of face-to-face conversations, tele-forums between candidates and thousands of listeners, and every known form of technology and social media. The sacks of cash are also helping to pay for an advertising campaign that started early and went for the throat, with the sound of chickens clucking in the first radio ad as a voice mocked Vision Vancouver’s “back yard chickens and front yard wheat fields.” It was negative and it focused on oddly petty things: a little local-food experiment that cost a few thousand, a rent bank that isn’t even close to being a reality. It’s the kind of attack that strategists are increasingly inclined to say works. Pollsters on both the right (Greg Lyle at Innovative Research) and left (Vision’s house pollster Bob Penner at Strategic Communications) say effective campaigns these days look for emotional hot buttons—the small, sometimes irrational stories and issues that make voters mad or euphoric.

But money, anti-chicken ads, and high-powered campaign managers can only get you so far. If the NPA is going to defeat the comfortably entrenched Vision, it needs more. After all, the political environment isn’t good. There’s a Liberal government in Victoria, usually a guarantee that Vancouver voters will swing left, just as an NDP government nudges them right. And though Vision has made mistakes—enough to mobilize some Rob Macdonalds on the right and to strengthen cope on the left—there’s been no lasting damage. Unless the NPA can lob a surprise grenade that lights a real media fire and puts the mayor on the defensive (a position he handles with surly awkwardness), the NPA’s repeated attacks risk becoming boring and annoying.

Which brings us to Anton and her fellow candidates, a group that even NPA insiders wring their hands over. “Some of them shouldn’t have been allowed to run for council,” says one. “They should have been told to start at park board and get some experience.” A few, like former councillor Elizabeth Ball, community advocate Sean Bickerton, and political blogger Mike Klassen, have demonstrated community or political experience, but most have not. A couple come trailing messy stuff. Ken Charko, a landlord and the owner of the Dunbar Theatre, has a list of people who’ve sued him or his companies. Carangi, the placard-waving lawyer, has a breadcrumb trail of petty violations—honking too loudly, failure to produce a SkyTrain ticket. Not career-ending, but not what voters might expect from a party whose claim to fame has always been that it chooses strong candidates. As for Anton, there’s not a speck of dirt in her background. Rather, she comes across as a genuinely nice, hard-working woman uncomfortably trying to channel Karl Rove, loyally obeying orders to just keep pecking away at the mayor.

Michael Francis watches all of this with more than passing interest. Tanned, gracious, and good-looking at 70, he’s been through it all before. Four decades ago, when he was a 30-year-old accountant, it became his job to bring the NPA back to life after the new party in town, team, captured a city grown tired of sane business and unwilling to go to cope, descendant of the Canadian Commonwealth Federation. Like Vision, team brought together some ndpers and some Liberals. Like Vision, it was an activist group determined to make noticeable change. Like Vision, it was fronted by a charismatic (and telegenic) leader—Art Phillips. It was focused on giving power back to neighbourhoods, introducing residential living into the central city by building on South False Creek, saving heritage buildings that were getting felled like trees. The party did all that, and then fell apart.

“Two elections later, we were back in control,” remembers Francis, over luncheon salads amid the discreet hum of the dining room at the Vancouver Club, where he’s been a member for decades.

Back then, Francis had to create a few magical illusions to revive the NPA: send out news releases making the party look more lively than it really was, convince the perpetual hedge-their-bets developers that they should throw some money to the other side “just in case.” That done, the NPA stayed in control, electing Gordon Campbell and then Philip Owen, broadening the party’s reach in southeast Vancouver, attracting candidates from the Chinese and Indo-Canadian communities.

“And it will be the same this time around,” says Francis, whose family members—from brother-in-law Owen to nephew Paul Barbeau (a former NPA president) to son-in-law Matthew Taylor (another NPA president)—have been the core of the party for decades.

Insurgent movements like TEAM and Vision don’t get what politics in this city is all about, Francis says. They think it’s about ideals and reform and missions. They don’t understand that the NPA has been able to rule for so long because it perpetually attracts people who want to make connections with the city’s most powerful. An election campaign allows a 25-year-old to work alongside a Rob Macdonald or a Peter Armstrong. “The core of it is upwardly mobile yuppies. It’s just their home, and there’s lots of them.”

The NPA has always been driven by people who want the city to be well run, Frances says, the way they want their homes and cars and businesses to be run—unobtrusively, without flash, without spending unnecessary money. This attracts the majority of voters—people who are (like them) serious, who pay attention to civic issues, who go to the polling booth on election day. Those voters don’t stick with the reformers. Even the reformers can’t stick to themselves, says Francis. “Six years from now, there’ll be no Vision. They won’t be able to perpetuate themselves."

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