Parsing the Vancouver mayoral candidacies of Ken Sim, John Coupar, and Mark Marissen

Does it even matter who wins if the Greens, OneCity, and COPE end up with a majority of seats on council?

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      This morning, I didn't want to be writing about the Vancouver mayoral race—18 months before voters go to the polls.

      But I've been forced into it by the declarations of three mayoral candidates who hope to dethrone Kennedy Stewart on October 15, 2022.

      It's tempting for some on the left to look at Stewart's three rivals as right-wing clones, all in the back pocket of developers. But that would be a mistake.

      Sure, each represents certain interests on those who don't traditionally vote Green or NDP. And none of them has ever been an outspoken advocate of expanding labour rights, dramatically lifting the minimum wage, or freezing people's rents.

      However, there are key differences, which reflect the interests of some of their primary backers.

      Ken Sim

      Let's start with businessman Ken Sim, who's going to be the frontman for a "movement" called A Better City Vancouver. Sim prides himself on being able to engage in "authentic conversations" as a result of his communications training through the Landmark Forum.

      He's been backed in the past by Vancouver's most famous Landmarkian, lululemon athletica founder Chip Wilson. His company owns developable land in False Creek Flats, Gastown, Granvdview-Boundary, Kitsilano, and Mount Pleasant.

      In addition, Sims has enjoyed the backing of another wealthy Vancouverite, Peter Armstrong, who used to bankroll the NPA in a big way. 

      How might this influence Sim's approach should he become mayor? He already gave an indication when he ran for mayor in 2018 with the NPA. He wanted to preserve single-family neighbourhoods, anchoring his rental housing policy on the creation of more secondary suites. 

      He's far less likely than Stewart or Marissen to support densification to allow more rental buildings over vast parts of the city currently the preserve of owners of houses.

      There won't be any apartments approved on Drummond Drive or on the Crescent in Shaughnessy if Sim ever wields power.

      After all, he received an endorsement in 2018 from the Shaughnessy Heights Property Owners' Association.

      An independent councillor who ran with Sim back in 2018, Rebecca Bligh, also received an endorsement from this homeowners' group. She too has ties to Wilson and you can expect her to join the Sim slate.

      If A Better City won a majority on council, here's what I think would happen: a rewriting of the Downtown Eastside area plan to make it easier to build condos along with a clampdown on rezonings in neighbourhoods like Dunbar and Shaughnessy. If I'm wrong, A Better City can let me know by stating this in its platform.

      A Better City might also try to undo a fairly radical Vision Vancouver policy to turn First Shaughnessy into a heritage conservation area, which irritated the local homeowners.

      John Coupar

      So what about Coupar? He talks a better game on environmental issues than Sim or Marissen, who's had ties to the fossil-fuel sector.

      Coupar, a former president of a net-zero-emission courier company, would present himself as the modern incarnation of a former mayor, Philip Owen, a patrician best known for advancing harm reduction.

      But like Owen, you couldn't expect Coupar to support separated bike lanes along arterial routes, which is where the city might be headed should there be a more progressive mayor. Coupar would also likely retain the status quo in single-family neighbourhoods, like Sim. That's because they're both playing to the same base: equity-rich homeowners.

      Sim and Coupar will talk a lot about how small businesses are being crushed with high property taxes. But don't expect them to make a dramatic shift by putting a much larger burden on homeowners.

      They'll claim that they can cut the size of government with better fiscal policies without offering specifics. After the election, the public would learn whether this will come through the closure of library branches, the sell-off of city assets, sharp cuts to arts and culture, slashing housing programs, or cutting back on measures to address the opioid crisis.

      Coupar has also shown a penchant for law and order. That was demonstrated in his party's approach in the past to cannabis and his response to tent cities in Vancouver parks. If he were chair of the police board (as the mayor is), it's unlikely he would support any defunding of the VPD.

      Mark Marissen

      In some respects, Marissen is the outlier among the three. He actually supports densifying single-family areas of Vancouver. He doesn't have a problem with four-storey buildings with a commercial component in vast swaths of the city dotted with houses. Imagine that—tenants living in a purpose-built apartment on Southwest Marine Drive west of Angus Drive!

      His passion for creating more housing units will make him far more popular than Sim or Coupar with developers, whose interests often collide with homeowners.

      Some of the developers were okay with Kennedy Stewart for a while. That's because he was supporting rental-housing projects where they had never been approved before.

      But that was during a period when the sale of homes had slowed considerably. Now, the market's red hot yet Stewart keeps trying to position himself as the renters' mayor.

      Stewart also failed to stop the council from requiring a one-to-one replacement on the loss of rental units in commercial zones. That really bugged the developers. They can look to someone like Marissen to try to remedy this.

      Marissen is a federal Liberal who, like many other Liberals, is deeply passionate about supporting the inclusion of diverse voices in the body politic. He thinks Canada has benefited enormously from immigration.

      But he also thinks that municipal governments need to do far more to accommodate a growing population. That's so we can enjoy the fruits of immigration without unnecessarily driving up housing prices, resulting in the scapegoating of people from other countries.

      In this regard, he stands in contrast to Coupar and Sim, who will talk a good game on multiculturalism and diversity. But they won't advance housing policies to create sufficient room for newcomers, both internationally and from other provinces, to settle here. 

      Marissen also closely tracks other factors that affect the housing market, such as millennial household-formation rates and migration from rural to urban areas. He's a housing nerd.

      He can also deliver an eviscerating soundbite in the media with the best of them.

      But is he kind enough to be mayor of Vancouver?

      It sounds like an odd question. The reality, however, is that voters have tended to choose nice guys as their mayors in recent elections. Female voters, in particular, won't want a jerk as their mayor.

      Owen, Gregor Robertson, and Stewart all showed a certain grace on the campaign trail that Marissen hasn't always demonstrated. He can be cynical and sarcastic in his putdowns of those he disagrees with.

      In the next 18 months, expect Marissen to try to brand himself as a nicer guy. He's smart enough to know that this will be necessary. And because he used to be married to former premier Christy Clark, he can expect this to be thrown in his face on a regular basis, particularly at all-candidates meetings.

      In the meantime, Coupar will probably try to rebrand himself as having more charisma and gravitas whereas Sim will have to show that he actually understands the policies passed by previous councils. Right now, he's seen as a lightweight by some of those backing the other candidates, notwithstanding his ability to deliver pat answers to almost every question directed his way.

      In the end, does it matter?

      People think that being mayor of Vancouver is a big deal. But it's not if you don't have a majority on council.

      That was on display recently when Stewart and four members of council recently lost the vote on rental protections in commercial zones. The progressive faction, augmented by the NPA's Colleen Hardwick, emerged victorious.

      On that occasion, Green councillor Pete Fry appeared to be the most influential member of council. His amendment, which passed, has set the stage for a new density-transfer program that could have long-term ramifications on the city.

      The reality is that Vancouver has what's known as a "weak-mayor" system. Whoever occupies the top office is not the chief executive like the mayor of U.S. cities like Seattle, Chicago, and New York.

      In strong-mayor systems south of the border, the mayor has the power to appoint and dismiss department heads without seeking the approval of council.

      That's not the case in Vancouver, where the city manager is the de facto CEO and the mayor has only one of the 11 votes on council.

      Here's the upshot: if the Greens, COPE, and OneCity don't field a mayoral candidate yet win six seats on council, it doesn't matter a fig who's the mayor of Vancouver.

      So let the race begin.