January 2, 2009
The most heartwarming aspect of being at Grant Park in Chicago on November 4 wasn't the sight of a jubilant young black family shouting, "Obama's on the money!" (Mom, Dad, and two adorable girls were selling souvenir greenbacks bearing his face that nearly convinced me to part with five bills of my own, proving that capitalism was not defeated that night.) It wasn't even seeing tens of thousands of people wearing T-shirts of a face as iconic as Che Guevara's. (Best slogan: "A black man is running and it ain't from the police.") Or the frisson of hope that history might possibly change this night, from eight years of terminally bad news to something actually good.
No, the most heartwarming aspect was being part of a crowd that had an all-white Harvard contingent standing alongside young black men in will.i.am-style hip-hop attire for perhaps the first time in their Ivy League lives, breathing the same air as the young president-elect who strode onto the stage to unite them with grace and humility.
It was difficult to summon the same enthusiasm for an election in Vancouver (impossible in the federal non-event that preceded it); nonetheless it was fascinating to observe themes of what might be called the Obama Effect course through the municipal campaign, reaching a peak on election night, November 15. If the central issue in both campaigns was change versus status quo, Gregor Robertson of Vision Vancouver was the obvious change candidate, and the Obama comparison, though hyperbolic, was used to maximum political advantage. While both Robertson and the NPA's Peter Ladner supported Obama, it was Robertson who capitalized on the parallels. On the night of the U.S. election, at the bar where Vision supporters gathered to watch the results, Robertson leapt onto a table to congratulate Americans for bringing their country back. "Now we're going to do that here in Vancouver," he added. "For lots of the same reasons." Robertson was also the prettier candidate with the Tom Cruise looks, the polite one attacked for his lack of experience by a more seasoned rival. (Rather than a Harvard law degree and a world-class intellect, however, Robertson holds an English degree from an American college and has been criticized as having more beauty than brains-and, yes, his personality is by all accounts genuine and nice.)
Robertson's one-dollar blunder-buying a one-zone transit ticket for a two-zone trip, the fine for which he initially refused to pay and then did-was akin to the furor over Obama and the flag pin, which he initially refused to wear and then did. Both fires burned out swiftly in the face of a far larger blaze: the global financial crisis that hit the
McCain-Palin campaign and then Vancouver itself, as real-estate anxiety descended upon a city built on a building boom. Not only did city hall's secretive $100-million loan to save the Olympic Village coalesce that anxiety into a potent symbol (an Olympics potentially falling apart, a city caught in its own scandalous mortgage crisis, the realization that real-estate prices could fall further), but it placed Ladner, who defended the city's lack of transparency, in the position of allying with the previous administration even as he tried to distance himself.
On the night of the election, I found myself in the B.C. Ballroom of the Hotel Vancouver for the Vision victory celebration, surrounded by members of the cultural-creative class like David Beers, editor of the online Tyee newspaper. Beers saw resonances of the Obama/McCain divide in this year's municipal wedge issue. "Homelessness has become our war in Iraq and made us suspect a moral failing at the heart of our beautiful construct. The NPA spoke to it, but they had to wear it, like the Republicans had to wear the war."
Social issues, which speak to Vancouver's own warm heart, gave Robertson the change message he needed, just as the DTES did for Larry Campbell in 2002. We don't have quite the cause for complaint the Americans do, but we have suffered from our own success. Homelessness has become an issue that is lapping at the trouser hems of the middle class, most of whom can buy a first home only by assuming a mortgage that exceeds their life expectancy or else struggle to find rental housing that doesn't look like its previous tenants ran a meth lab. Taking cues from Obama, Robertson pounded the housing issue while promising to create the world's greenest city in the kind of uplifting, if vague on specifics language that led Obama to describe himself as a "Rorschach test" capable of channelling broad-based hope for change.
The Grant Park demographic that night in Chicago was not so much black or white as it was young. And youth, rallied by an innovative web campaign modelled very much on Obama's-as well as by a policy that allowed 15-year-olds to nominate candidates, if not vote for them (many of those gathered at the Hotel Vancouver were clearly chauffeured by parents)-helped make Vision the largest civic political party in Canada. In the crowd was Max Stern, a suit-wearing 14-year-old from Point Grey Minischool. Stern joined more than a thousand volunteers to work the phones and knock on doors after comparing the NPA and Vision web sites and admiring Vision's emphasis on homelessness and transit issues. He explained his lapel apparel, an Obama pin next to three for Robertson, by saying: "I want it to be a winning streak," and then tempered his enthusiasm with a dose of realpolitik: "I don't think Gregor could pull off a stadium speech behind bullet-proof glass."
"There is far more that unites us than divides us," the mayor-elect said in his acceptance speech as he informed his four children that they would not, in fact, be getting a new puppy. Speaking of turning Vancouver into the greenest city on Earth, of ending homelessness, of making housing affordable, he ended on another echo of Grant Park. "To create change you must stay involved."
However inconsequential municipal elections may appear on the global scale, they have a way of crystallizing issues. The question for both campaigns is, Now what? Candidates who run for change have a burden of expectations, said Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, well before the revelry headed down the street to the Shark Club. "The challenge is to find the frontier of the possible. Can they mould the movement instead of getting elected and going back to the back room, which is always predetermined?" Enjoying a proletarian beer, albeit one that cost nearly an hour at minimum wage, he paused. "Both of these elections were about whether we can stop stepping over bodies, and make the world work again."