Shauna Sylvester's prospects rest on Vancouver voters realizing that the NPA has no chance of winning a majority

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      Could Vancouver's mayoral race be paralleling what Victoria residents witnessed in 2014?

      Back then, the NDP machine was backing the incumbent Victoria mayor, Dean Fortin.

      He was being challenged on the right by former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister Ida Chong and on the progressive side by a very green rookie councillor and backyard chicken farmer named Lisa Helps.

      The NDP machine went into overdrive to push people to vote for the somewhat charismatically challenged Fortin.

      Victoria NDP MLAs Carole James and Rob Fleming and NDP MP Murray Rankin signed a letter urging their supporters to reelect the mayor.

      The public was repeatedly warned that if they didn't back Fortin, the hated B.C. Liberals would take control of city hall.

      Voters were basically told that they had to swallow the Fortin medicine, no matter how awful it tasted. They had no choice.

      According to the NDP brass, a vote for Helps, who was working on her PhD in history, would ensure that one of Christy Clark's friends would become mayor.

      In fact, the B.C. Liberal, Chong, ended up in third place, well back of the leaders. She attracted just 13.4 percent of the vote.

      That's because Chong was a dull candidate who didn't catch on with the public.

      The nearly equally drab Fortin fell short by 89 votes as the far more interesting Helps became the second woman to be elected mayor in Victoria's history.

      Victoria is not a B.C. Liberal city, not in the least. That was demonstrated by the Helps victory.

      Her campaign received a boost from Green party members, students, and those fed up with heavy-handed police tactics during the Fortin era.

      Many voters admired Helps for her consistent and principled criticism of the Johnson Street Bridge replacement, which ended up costing a fortune.

      Helps's victory also reflected the growing might of the Green forces in Greater Victoria area.

      By that point, the region had already elected Green Leader Elizabeth May to Parliament and B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver to the legislature.

      Kennedy Stewart is trying defuse enthusiasm for electing the city's first female mayor by appearing at campaign events with high-profile New Democrats like Jenny Kwan and Libby Davies.

      Stewart runs frontrunner campaign

      What does all this have to do with Vancouver in 2018?

      Four years later, the NDP machine is telling people on doorsteps that progressives have no choice but to get behind its candidate, the rather colourless Kennedy Stewart.

      Unions are sending the same message to their members.

      Stewart is running a classic frontrunner's campaign against a very green SFU professor of public practice, Shauna Sylvester, and a divided centre-right.

      In my view, Sylvester is a stronger candidate than Helps because she's harder to smear as a flake.

      But polls are being used to push people to vote for Stewart, even though the public has no idea who might be financing these surveys or whether these responses simply reflect Stewart's higher name recognition.

      In this election campaign, Stewart has skipped mayoral debates at the Latin Plaza, in Shaughnessy, and at other locations. Sylvester is showing up everywhere she's invited to speak.

      Stewart also appears to be trying to turn this onto a one-issue campaign around housing, while tipping his hat to the opioid crisis and proposing some democratic-reform measures.

      That's typical for a frontrunner. It keeps things less complicated. There are fewer chances of making mistakes.

      Appearing at too many debates can muddy the waters because the candidate has to answer questions about other topics. It's harder to control the message in front of an unruly crowd.

      Sylvester, on the other hand, has issued detailed policy papers on wide variety of topics, most recently the arts. She's also made campaign promises around small business, seniors, transportation, the opioid crisis, and climate change. These are issues that should not be overlooked during an election campaign.

      Rather predictably, the NDP machine is bringing up the NPA bogeyman. It's warning progressives that a vote for Sylvester will only help the billionaires' favourite candidate, Ken Sim.

      Unions are sending a similar message to any members who might like the idea of Sylvester as mayor.

      Coalition Vancouver mayoral candidate Wai Young represented Vancouver South in the Conservative majority government headed by Stephen Harper.

      Fragmented right gives progressives more leeway

      In fact, it appears that Sim's coalition is disintegrating.

      Parts of the NPA have fractured into the harder-right Coalition Vancouver, under former Conservative MP Wai Young, and the millennial-oriented Yes Vancouver, headed by former NPA councillor Hector Bremner. A right-wing party, Vancouver 1st, is headed by a Mandarin-speaking former cop, Fred Harding.

      Sim, like Chong, is a fairly dull pro-business candidate running for mayor in what's become mostly a Green-NDP city.

      On election night, I would be surprised if he ends up in the top two after the votes are counted. Sim could even wind up in fourth or fifth place.

      That's because people need to be motivated to vote for a mayoral candidate.

      Sim hasn't mustered the passion to get people out to the polls, unlike Young. Bremner has also shown more fire in the campaign than Sim, as has Harding.

      Given the divisions on the right, there's virtually no chance that the NPA will capture a majority on council in this election.

      Independents who appeal to traditional NPA voters—such as former NPA candidates Erin Shum and Rob McDowell, and former police board member Wade Grant—will also siphon away a fair number of votes.

      The centre-left side of the spectrum is better organized. It's running far fewer candidates than the combined Coalition Vancouver-NPA-Yes Vancouver-Vancouver 1st group that formerly made up the NPA. There's no civil war on the left.

      Plus, the NPA made the colossal error of running too many candidates for council. This means it won't be concentrating its support around those with the best chance of success.

      Rather, NPA votes will splinter among eight candidates, just like 2011 when it only won two seats on council.

      It's conceivable that the only NPA candidate still standing on October 20 will be incumbent councillor Melissa De Genova. Coalition Vancouver's Ken Charko and Morning Li may have a better chance of getting elected to council than five or six NPA candidates.

      Keep in mind that the NPA hasn't won control of city council since 2005. Back then, it was in a much stronger position and was running candidates with higher public profiles, such as Peter Ladner and Suzanne Anton. There was no civil war on the right.

      All of this means that in 2018, centre-left and left-wing voters have greater liberty to vote for whomever they prefer for mayor. A progressive majority appears to be in the bag.

      My guess is that after this election, the de facto mayor of Vancouver will really be the leader of the Vancouver Greens, Adriane Carr.

      She's likely to receive at least 20,000 more votes than whoever becomes mayor. This will make her the most important civic politician in the city. And if her three Green candidates are elected, they'll likely form the largest contingent on council.

      Also keep in mind that the mayor only has one vote of 11 on council.

      While he or she has a bully pulpit in the trappings of the mayor's office, this person is somewhat powerless without control of council.

      That's another reason why in this particular Vancouver election, it's safe to vote for Sylvester if she's your preferred mayoral candidate.

      It's not going to throw council into the hands of the NPA. Under the extremely unlikely chance that Sim wins, he would be a toothless mayor, anyway.

      But Sim's still a useful foil for the NDP machine to pry votes away from Sylvester, who has a long history of advocacy for progressive causes, including international development and tackling climate change.

      Lisa Helps won the 2014 mayoral election in Victoria with the support of women, students, Greens, and those who were disgruntled by the policies of incumbent Dean Fortin.

      Feminism can motivate voters

      We all know that the union leaders want an NDP mayor in Vancouver. Premier John Horgan and his chief of staff, Geoff Meggs, also want an NDP mayor.

      What premier wouldn't want one of his minions heading the largest city in the province?

      But no one is putting a revolver to voters' heads and forcing them to support Stewart. We still have a secret ballot in this country.

      Here's something that the NDP doesn't want to discuss in this Vancouver election: its problems with housing activists on the left who are displeased by Stewart's actions when his federal constituents were being kicked out of their apartments in Metrotown.

      These activists, many of whom are traditional COPE supporters, are not likely to rally to the Stewart cause. They would have been more likely to support the candidacy of Vancouver Kingsway NDP MP Don Davies, had he entered the race.

      Moreover, the last thing that left-leaning federal Liberals want to see in Vancouver is an NDP mayor beholden to the unions who put him in power.

      So it could be argued that Sylvester, not Stewart, is the better bet to grow support in the next couple of weeks to beat back any challenge from the right and particularly Coalition Vancouver's Young.

      I'll close by raising the issue of feminism.

      Vancouver has never had a female mayor in its 128-year history.

      Given the momentum of Coalition Vancouver, the city's first woman in the mayor's office could conceivably be Young, who's a Harper Conservative.

      If you've made it this far and that's something that troubles you, consider this: Sylvester has demonstrated that she's absorbed the lessons of feminism.

      It's reflected in her collaborative campaign, willingness to listen, and nonhierarchical approach to politics. Sylvester has demonstrated feminist principles of leadership as the former director of the SFU Centre for Dialogue and as the former executive director of SFU Public Square. She's also never been a Harper Conservative.

      Helps's feminism, which was reinforced by her academic scholarship, played a key role in her narrow victory in 2014. She offered the prospect of a more open approach to governing in 2014 and had a demonstrated track record of listening to Victoria residents. It remains to be seen if feminism will influence the outcome of the Vancouver election.

      With less than two weeks to go until Vancouver's election day, expect the NDP machine to intensify its warnings that a vote for Sylvester will only help Sim get elected.

      But it's arguable that the left's attempt to coalesce the vote around Stewart has an equal chance of helping Young get elected as the city's first female mayor. This is particularly so if Sylvester's appeal is broader than that of the NDP's favourite son.

      If the public isn't motivated to vote for Stewart—just as they were not motivated in large numbers to vote for Fortin—there's a risk that the Vancouver mayor's office could come under the control of a Harper Conservative. These things are always inconceivable until they happen.

      Over the next 13 days, expect to see current and former NDP politicians appear alongside Stewart at campaign events. NDP MP Jenny Kwan and former NDP MP Libby Davies have already done this. The supposed frontrunner is going to need more help like this to get across the finish line in first place.

      The Stewart campaign will be particularly eager to have high-profile NDP women appear beside him. Who's next? Darlene Marzari? Mable Elmore? Ellen Woodsworth? That could defuse public enthusiasm for electing a true feminist as Vancouver's first female mayor.

      Conversely, the Sylvester campaign might want to aim for an endorsement from one of the city's better-known male feminists—former mayor and former NDP premier Mike Harcourt. Now, wouldn't that be a coup? He was the first premier in history to create a ministry of women's equality and his leadership style was distinctly collaborative and nonhierchical.

      In the end, though, the voters will decide who's going to become the next mayor, not the NDP machine or high-profile endorsers.

      If the public feels that Stewart reflects their hopes and aspirations, he should have no trouble winning in a landslide, given the general ideological disposition of Vancouver and his high name recognition.

      But no amount of brow-beating will do the job if voters are just not inspired to support him.

      Pay no attention to the polls. They're often wrong anyways. Follow your heart in the ballot box when voting for mayor and let the chips fall where they may.

      This is the one election when there's not much danger in voting for your favourite candidate, rather than against the candidate or party you hate the most.

      It's a luxury that we rarely enjoy in elections.

      That's because this time around, the right wingers will never control city council after the election, no matter who becomes mayor of Vancouver.