Downfall: How Christy Clark lost the NPA mayoral nomination
How did Christy Clark blow it? That's a key political question in the wake of her surprising defeat in the recent NPA mayoral-nomination race on September 24. Prior to the meeting at the Marriott Pinnacle Hotel, the effervescent former deputy premier had signed up 2,400 new members, more than twice as many as her opponent, NPA Coun. Sam Sullivan. It's no wonder that three days before the meeting, Vancouver Courier columnist Allen Garr opined: "the smart money is still backing Clark". He even filed a column in advance of the nomination meeting offering advice to Clark on how she should campaign if she won. Yet Clark still managed to lose, albeit by fewer than 100 votes out of some 2,500 cast. Here are 12 factors that contributed to her defeat.
Late entry into the race: Christy Clark's first blunder came when she announced her candidacy long after Sullivan had secured the support of most of the NPA's candidates for council. Many of these new would-be civic politicians brought their own supporters to the meeting, who gravitated to the Sullivan camp.
The Marissen factor: Clark's husband, Mark Marissen, heads Prime Minister Paul Martin's B.C. political machine, which has a well-deserved reputation for hardball tactics. Witness the demolition of former cabinet minister Herb Dhaliwal's political career for supporting then-prime minister Jean Chrétien. The Marissen machine's list of victims included former four-term city councillor Lynne Kennedy, a much-loved figure within the NPA. Kennedy, cochair of the current NPA campaign, sought a federal Liberal nomination in 2004 against incumbent MP Hedy Fry. Kennedy was crushed, and then complained about dirty tricks to the media. Fry's campaign manager was federal Liberal vice-president Mike Hillman, who was also Christy Clark's campaign manager. Kennedy spoke warmly about Clark's mayoral bid, which suggests a truce. However, NPA members with ties to the federal Conservatives (see below) had some extra motivation to defeat Clark.
The Gordo factor: Clark continually popped up as a B.C. Liberal media commentator alongside the NDP's Joy MacPhail before the provincial election. Clark followed that up with a cloying interview with the premier on CKNW Radio a few days after the B.C. Liberals won the election. Then one of the premier's closest cronies in Vancouver, insurance broker Marty Zlotnick, personally recruited Christy to run for the NPA mayoral nomination. Yes, that's the same Marty Zlotnick who was Gordon Campbell's business partner in the development of the Georgian Court Hotel in the early 1980s. The same Marty Zlotnick who organized annual fundraising dinners for Campbell while he was mayor of Vancouver. The same Marty Zlotnick who orchestrated a massive B.C. Liberal fundraiser earlier this year at the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre, with the premier as the keynote speaker. Zlotnick, a golfing buddy of the premier's, told the Straight on September 22 that Campbell never encouraged him to recruit Clark as a mayoral candidate for the NPA, nor did Campbell take sides. But in politics, perception is more important than reality, and the perception among some was that Clark was the premier's choice for mayor. Clark reinforced this by bringing May Brown, a federal Liberal and Gordon Campbell supporter, to her first public campaign event in Kerrisdale. This enabled Sullivan to claim with some credibility that federal and provincial Liberal organizers were trying to take over the Vancouver Non-Partisan Association.
The Hamish factor: Christy famously quit provincial politics to spend more time with her son, Hamish. Four months after leaving office, she was back campaigning for a Vancouver mayoral nomination, even though she didn't even live in the city. She repeatedly claimed it was easier being mayor than a provincial cabinet minister because you get to see your kid at night. Anyone who follows municipal politics closely knows this is nonsense. Big-city mayors travel to Ottawa to negotiate with the feds, meet their counterparts in various locations across the country, and spend countless hours at night presiding over public hearings. Vancouver's mayor is also expected to sit on the TransLink board and spend a lot of time at the Greater Vancouver Regional District. With her flimsy excuse, Clark conveyed the impression that she didn't understand the job of mayor.
The race card: On paper, Clark was in fine shape. She had the support of the Young Liberals, the premier's closest pals, and many prominent Indo-Canadian political leaders. Everyone believed that federal and provincial Liberals were backing her campaign too. Unfortunately for Clark's campaign, the media never seriously criticized the Sullivan camp's use of racially charged code words, such as "truckloads of Indo-Canadians". As a result, Sullivan's campaign enjoyed a relatively easy ride. Nor did the media ever discuss Sullivan's failure to bring any South Asian candidates forward for nominations to council. He claimed during the 2004 plebiscite on wards that this was a high priority. Sullivan's supporters, such as NPA Coun. Peter Ladner and NPA park-board commissioner Suzanne Anton also never publicly criticized the "truckloads" comment. Perhaps it's no surprise that some South Asians disparagingly refer to the NPA as the Non-Punjabi Association.
The female jinx: No woman has ever been elected mayor in Vancouver's 119-year history. The NPA's Philip Owen easily defeated COPE's Libby Davies and Carmela Allevato during the 1990s. COPE's Larry Campbell trounced the NPA's Jennifer Clarke in 2002. Vancouver voters appear comfortable electing strong women to city council but have so far balked at making them mayor. There are presently only five female mayors in the entire Greater Vancouver Regional District.
Media relations: Sullivan's campaign manager, Colin Metcalfe, was constantly on the phone to reporters, spinning a David-versus-Goliath tale for anyone to hear. Sullivan was always available for interviews, usually answering his own phone. The pair often claimed they were running their campaign on a small budget out of a Yaletown coffee shop, neglecting to mention how much they paid for newspaper ads, T-shirts, and other campaign paraphernalia. Gordon Gibson, a Fraser Institute fellow and media commentator, helped the campaign with an article praising Sullivan for his stance against wards. Meanwhile, Clark remained in a bubble during the 10 days leading up to the cutoff point for memberships, refusing to discuss policies with the media. This might work in federal and provincial politics, but it looks pretty silly at the municipal level, where candidates are expected to be accessible.
Super endorsements: Midway through the campaign, Metcalfe put on a dazzling multimedia show at the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre, featuring an emotional video of Sullivan's life story. For this event, the Sullivan campaign featured endorsements from former NPA mayor Philip Owen and his rival, former NPA mayoral candidate Jennifer Clarke, which guaranteed plenty of media coverage. Former NDP MLAs Bernie Simpson and Tom Perry, both former supporters of Mike Harcourt, jumped aboard later in the campaign, conveying the supposed nonpartisan nature of Sullivan's appeal. Near the end, former Socred deputy premier Grace McCarthy gave the campaign another boost by publicly declaring that she helped launch Sullivan's political career. McCarthy, who once headed a potent political machine, had steadfastly remained out of partisan politics for many years. That changed with her endorsement of Sullivan. Christy Clark, on the other hand, chose not to bring out any big names, preferring instead to highlight pictures of herself surrounded by Young Liberals. Despite all of her political experience, Clark violated a key principle of public relations by not finding respected third parties to speak on her behalf. Metcalfe, on the other hand, trumpeted Sullivan's endorsements in full-page newspaper ads in the two days leading up to the nomination meeting.
NPA rule change: The NPA changed its bylaws since the last election to prohibit people living outside of Vancouver from voting in nomination races. That prevented Clark from bringing in supporters from across the region to kill Sullivan's mayoral campaign.
Federal Conservatives: Banker and ex-city councillor Tung Chan, a former NPA president, was one of several Conservatives backing Sullivan. Sullivan's chief scrutineer, lawyer George Cadman, is another federal Conservative. As a former president of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, Cadman has many friends within the NPA. Bob Ransford, cochair of the federal Conservative campaign in B.C. in 2004, was another key Sullivan operative. Metcalfe was the Conservative Party's chief media spokesperson in B.C. during the 2004 federal election. For all four, Sullivan's victory was sweet revenge for Stephen Harper's humiliating losses in Vancouver and the inner suburbs.
The futility of running in Vancouver: As a cabinet minister, Christy Clark alienated Vancouver school trustees, teachers, and parents by funding only the first year of a two-year pay hike for teachers. The school board had no choice but to make cuts elsewhere in the system. "She would never meet with us as education minister," outgoing COPE school board chair Adrienne Montani told the Straight. Even NPA trustees criticized Clark at the time. Clark also refused to meet with a parents group called Save Our Schools, which included former NPA school trustee John Robertson. Not surprisingly, Robertson voted for Sullivan for the NPA mayoral nomination.
Hubris: It took a lot of nerve for Clark, a Port Moody resident, to declare that she wanted to become mayor of Vancouver, especially when it involved steamrolling over a popular Vancouver-born quadriplegic who creates charities to help the disabled. There is a lesson here for Vision Vancouver mayoral candidate Jim Green. Be careful how you tread around your soft-spoken opponent in a wheelchair. He shows a lot of spine on the campaign trail.