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The Next Mayor

Because the leading candidates, Gregor Robertson and Peter Ladner, have so much in common, voters will have their work cut out for them this Saturday
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Two of a kind Both Gregor Robertson (top) and Peter Ladner claim to personify a new style of politics that blurs easy left-right distinctions. Andrew Zbihlyj
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Because the leading candidates, Gregor Robertson and Peter Ladner, have so much in common, voters will have their work cut out for them this Saturday

The conversation has been meandering in a relaxed, graduate-seminar kind of way on Peter Ladner’s shaded front porch in Kitsilano. His wife, Erica, deadheads in their sunny, hedged garden while he talks about the cool things that “intelligent cities” are doing with technology. Then Ladner’s voice shades ever so slightly into his dismissive head-boy tone, the tone he’s been told to avoid in the race to become the next mayor of Vancouver. I’ve asked how he differs from his rival and eco-politician twin, Gregor Robertson.

Well, he says, Gregor’s run just one small business. He hasn’t been immersed in the business community like I have through my paper, Business in Vancouver, and my political work. I’ve been a member of the Downtown Vancouver Association. The Board of Trade. He has no experience with the city. Or Metro. Or TransLink. He doesn’t know the issues. I’ve been studying them for years. And, well, Gregor, he’s an outsider.

“ I was actually kind of shocked last night,” he says. “I was at the Iona [Campagnolo] thing and Gregor was there and it dawned on me that Gregor doesn’t really know all these people. I knew half the people in the room. And everybody was there. Tons and tons of people,” says Ladner, a descendant of one of Vancouver’s most prominent families, whose motto could be what he says next: “I know quite a few people.”

The next day, I experience a near replay with the other aspiring mayor. Robertson, who often seems wrapped in a thick blanket of Sister Moon niceness, leans forward in the Gastown coffee bar where we’ve met up between his many meetings. Asked the same question about Ladner, Robertson undergoes a distinct vocal shift from his usual agonizing, Jimmy Stewart–length pauses: Peter’s a decent guy and he’s done a commendable job of raising environmental issues in his business newspaper. But, adds Robertson, Peter hasn’t ever committed to doing anything personally.

“ I’ve been willing to take risks on my values. I don’t know where and how he’s done that. You either lead on issues and actions with your actions, or you talk about ’em. Mine is a values-based business. Business in Vancouver reports on business of the day, which is a useful function, but it’s not a leadership voice. It’s kind of like middle management versus entrepreneur.”

Robertson seems puzzled, even a little hurt, by Ladner’s suggestion that he didn’t know people at the Campagnolo event: “I don’t know why Peter would throw that out there.” The event was a tribute to the former lieutenant-governor’s work with the Land Conservancy, something Robertson and his wife, Amy, have been connected to for almost a decade. They even worked with the conservancy to help protect 17 hectares of forest they own on Cortes Island.

Observers have made much of the doppelgänger nature of this mayoral race: two extremely white guys, both with lean, athletic builds, both from pedigreed Vancouver families of British heritage, both known to bike to campaign stops, both talking about their passion for sustainability and the need to create affordable housing, both claiming that their business background will ensure that they make pragmatic decisions. Our municipal versions of Tony Blair or Barack Obama claim, in their low-key, almost diffident styles, that they represent a new politics that cuts across old left/right divisions and that combines business savvy with a determination to save the planet for their children (four apiece).

There are obvious differences, of course. Ladner, 59, is cool and cerebral and embedded in the city’s right-wing Non-Partisan Association party. Robertson, 43, is the epitome of nice and heartfelt, and was until recently an NDP MLA. Some people will no doubt skip the subtleties and vote their traditional right or left. But for other voters, this mayoral campaign—arguably, with 2010 looming, the most important in the city’s recent history—will become a psychology experiment in the fine-tuning of perception.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO the American photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark created dozens of portraits of identical twins, each set dressed in matching outfits and posed in matching stances. When I first saw the work, I was perplexed: it seemed like no more than a cute trick lifted from Diane Arbus and supersized. But then I started to notice the subtle differences between apparently identical doubles. By the time I came to the end of the gallery, the differences had become glaring, more noticeable than the similarities. Two middle-aged men wearing baseball shirts smiled, but one looked indefinably sadder. A couple of preteens stood in exactly the same campy fashion pose wearing the same minidress, yet one was clearly the awkward, less popular girl and the other the Lolita in the making.

Robertson and Ladner similarly blur differences and similarities—they’re not the sort of polarized opposites we’re used to seeing vie for City Hall. Even their parties are becoming more complex as they reconstitute around them. Robertson’s race for leadership of Vision Vancouver was supported by new groups, particularly young people. (Ladner admits that his own children and their friends are more inclined to be Vision-oriented.) One significant set was under-45 NDPers who have decided that the hierarchical provincial party is not going to make inroads under Carole James in the next election. So they’ve turned to the civic scene and see Robertson as the embodiment of a more fluid, new-left party that’s both Green- and Liberal-friendly. (Robertson began his political life as a Green Party member.) Ladner is also heading up a party in transition, a party—weighted toward federal Liberals—that, he says, he embodies. “I am the NPA,” he tells those who like his progressive side but are dubious about the company he keeps.

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