Mea culpa: I thought progressive candidates would fare far better than they did in Vancouver election

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      Last week, it seemed to me that there was no chance of the NPA retaking control of Vancouver city council.

      The party had fractured all over the place since the 2014 election. 

      The right wing moved over to Coalition Vancouver. And some of the federal Liberals in town were coalescing around Yes Vancouver and its mayoral candidate, Hector Bremner.

      Vancouver 1st was an even more right-wing party chipping away at the NPA's centre-right conservative base.

      I felt that people with a greenish bent and women hoping for the first female mayor in the city's history could safely vote for independent Shauna Sylvester.

      That's because there was no chance that the NPA burghers on the West Side of the city could prevail in an NDP town—or so it seemed after the 2017 provincial election—or a federal Liberal town (as it seemed after the 2015 federal election).

      Given the divisions on the centre-right, I didn't believe that the NPA had enough gas in the tank to elect many council candidates.

      To me, the math didn't work.

      Yet last night, progressive voters very nearly lost control of city council to the NPA even as the centre-right party was thrashed in the races for park board and school board.

      Only four of the Vancouver and District Labour Council's slate of 10 recommended council candidates were elected.

      The VDLC's recommended mayoral candidate, Kennedy Stewart, won by fewer than 1,000 votes.

      Why was I wrong about the council race? (It's not the first time I've been wrong. I also misread the 2013 provincial election. Like most others, I expected Adrian Dix to become premier.)

      I thought the COPE council candidates would do better, with possibly Derrick O'Keefe getting elected. I expected that Yes Vancouver would attract more votes. I didn't anticipate that OneCity's Brandon Yan would fall as far down as 17th place in the council race.

      What do they all have in common? These candidates and Yes Vancouver were targeting millennial voters hammered by the housing crisis. It's likely that the turnout of millennial voters was far lower than the percentage of baby boomers who showed up to vote.

      I also thought all four Greens would be elected. Three won, but David Wong ended up in 12th place.

      I surmised that Vision Vancouver's Heather Deal might make it back onto council, thanks to the VDLC nod and her support in the arts community.

      I thought enough federal Liberals on the West Side would vote for Vision's Catherine Evans that she might also make the jump from park board to council.

      And I guessed that this might just leave two NPA candidates in the top 10.

      This year's NPA council vote totals weren't that high.

      In fact, they were dreadful compared to those achieved in 2014.

      Melissa De Genova led the pack with 53,324 votes—the only one among the seven who received more than 50,000.

      De Genova had 63,134 votes in 2014, so she lost nearly 10,000 supporters and still came third in the council race.

      In 2014 with just 4,963 more votes cast, every single one of the eight NPA council candidates exceeded De Genova's total this year.

      The lowest number in 2014 for an NPA council candidate was the 53,965 votes won by Rob McDowell.

      Melissa De Genova (right) saw her vote total fall by 10,000 as former political allies Erin Shum (left) and Wai Young (centre) each ran in opposition to the NPA in the 2018 election.

      NPA candidates won far more support in 2014

      In second place this year on the NPA slate, Colleen Hardwick had 47,811 votes. In 2014, that would have been good enough for 17th place, just ahead of Green candidate Cleta Brown.

      The 10th-place finisher this year, the NPA's Sarah Kirby-Yung, had 43,646 votes. That would have ranked her 19th in 2014.

      That year, the NPA's Elizabeth Ball topped 67,00 votes and George Affleck received 68,419 votes.

      So I was correct about the NPA vote plummeting. It crashed badly.

      And I was close to being right on the turnout, estimating that 174,200 would vote, based on 40 percent of the 2017 number of registered voters. In fact, 176,744 people voted, down from 181,707 in 2014.

      So what gives? Why did the left fare so poorly this time around?

      Here are some theories:

      * The anti-Chinese backlash in Vancouver, triggered by high housing prices, manifested itself in Yan and Wong receiving fewer votes than candidates on their slates who didn't have Chinese surnames. A curse that once afflicted candidates with Indian surnames now seems to be hurting candidates with Chinese surnames who run for progressive parties. 

      * The NPA might have secured a couple of extra seats on council when it switched one of its council candidates, Kathy McGarrigle, to the park board slate. It shortened the number of council candidates to seven, enabling it to better concentrate its vote.

      * This had the opposite effect on park board, where the NPA fared the worst. That's due to running a slate with six candidates for seven spots. COPE's John Irwin was elected to park board in seventh place over an NPA candidate and the Greens' Wong lost a council seat because of the McGarrigle switch. She also lost.

      * Stewart and Bremner weren't strong enough mayoral candidates to persuade millennial voters and tenants to get out to vote in large enough numbers to take back their city from home-owning, aging baby boomers.

      * Many federal Liberals were encouraged by MP Joyce Murray and others to elect Shauna Sylvester as the first woman mayor, but they also threw some votes toward the women running for council with the NPA, giving them a boost over male NPA council slate members.

      * There was some plumping going on. Progressive party supporters voted for their own candidates and a can't-lose progressive like Adriane Carr, but didn't want to help an opposing progressive candidate if it might thwart their own from winning.

      * Vision Vancouver fell harder and farther than any incumbent party in the city's history. The wipeout was worse than what happened to the NPA in 2002 and 2008.

      * Progressives are deeply divided in Vancouver between the anti-establishment, Jeremy Corbyn–style COPE and the more establishment-oriented OneCity, which sees itself as a less doctrinaire, bigger-tent party for millennials.

      * Environmentally minded types who aren't as keen to view politics through a class lens are deeply divided between the more anti-establishment Greens and the more establishment-oriented Vision Vancouver. Each has a business-friendly wing.

      * COPE has an interest in beating back OneCity from arising as the voice of the left in Vancouver. And the Greens have an interest in shutting down Vision Vancouver as the political voice of green-minded voters in the city. Some in the Greens see Vision Vancouver as a party of elitists.

      These differences account for the relatively low vote totals secured by progressive candidates, with the exception of Carr and her Green comrade, Pete Fry.

      So in essence, it wasn't so much the fact that the NPA nearly captured control of council as the progressives nearly squandering it.

      And it occurred because of long-standing feuds that mostly raged away from the eyes of the media.

      OneCity council candidate Christine Boyle alluded to this, rather obliquely, in the final week of the campaign when she publicly urged progressives not to plump.

      Plumping may have cost David Wong and Heather Deal seats on council. Plumping may have helped the NPA's Lisa Dominato, Rebecca Bligh, and Sarah Kirby-Yung get elected to council.

      Only two NPA candidates were elected to the seven-member park board and only three NPA candidates were elected to the nine-member school board.

      Job 1 for mayor-elect Kennedy Stewart will be to try to bring about more unity to the progressive side of the slate to prevent a debacle from unfolding in 2022 if the NPA and others on the right get their act together. His pleasant personality might help him in this regard.

      The obliteration of Vision Vancouver could make that easier for him because there are only going to be three parties in the room: COPE, OneCity, and the Greens. Stewart has long held Vision Vancouver in disdain. I can remember him once telling me, as an academic, that it would be like TEAM in the 1970s—rise for a decade, at most, then disappear.

      If the Greens, COPE, and OneCity cooperate in 2022 and agree to run a total of 10 candidates for council, there's reason to believe that a progressive slate could sharply reduce the NPA seat count the next time around.

      So it's possible that the five council seats captured by the NPA might be its high-water mark. And it occurred with the NPA running a mayoral candidate with less civic political experience in Vancouver than anyone since Bill Vander Zalm headed the ticket in 1984.