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The Next Mayor - continued

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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 prize for all this Sturm und Drang is more than just getting to be town boss during the Olympics, when the world will camp out here, and pass judgment on us. Do we have a safe city? Do we take care of our homeless and mentally ill? Are we fun? Do we have a talent, an economic strategy, a global outlook worth showing off?

Robertson or Ladner will have a harder slog dealing with the enduring problems that face all Canadian cities. As provincial and federal governments shed responsibilities, it’s cities and their mayors who end up on the front line. Mayors used to deal mostly with the thorny questions of whether to allow Sunday shopping and how much to raise taxes to pave more roads. Now they’re expected to lead the way on climate change, homelessness, drug addiction, and ways to make their city appealing to the renowned “creative class.”

And they’re expected to do so while functioning in a system that hobbles them. The next Vancouver mayor has no way to get money except through the limited reach of property taxes and user fees. He’ll need a council that works like a Euro Cup winner behind him, since Vancouver’s mayor has none of the sweeping, almost presidential powers that American mayors do. (Canadian mayors typically have no more than one vote on council, the ability to veto the odd thing, and some extra staff.) And much of his success will depend on his ability to coax money out of other levels of government by convincing them it’s in their own interest to hand over the dough.

All this will demand a special mix of idealism, pragmatism, and relationship skills. The city has just seen what happens when a mayor fails to achieve that mix (which is about as charitable a description of Sam Sullivan’s tenure as you will hear), and in November voters must decide which twin, each with his own particular blend of idealism and pragmatism, should succeed Sullivan. Yet no one, not even their close associates, fully understands what these two candidates—one of whom seems to have a foot planted in both establishment and progressive camps, while the other comes from a green-capitalist movement that’s not fully aligned with any camp—might do if they got to run the city.

It’s the kind of mystery that makes one look to history for clues.

PETER LADNER AND his five brothers and sisters grew up in Shaughnessy, the fourth generation of Ladners. Their great-grandfather and his brother founded the community of Ladner; their grandfather started the blue-chip firm of Ladner Downs; and their father was a war hero and prominent lawyer. The Ladners are part of a set of establishment families—the Tuppers, the Flecks, the Killams, the Pottingers, the Owens—who socialized and intermarried and, in some cases, spent summers with each other.

Although born in 1949, Peter seemed to live a life from an earlier generation. “It was very Matthew Arnold,” recalls his friend Reg Tupper, who’s known Ladner forever and worked on every one of his campaigns. “Our childhood was filled with Edwardian resonances.”

Ladner was the good son, the good pupil, the good boy. He excelled at Shawnigan Lake School (a family tradition), won prizes for his piano-playing, and, as head boy, caned students who were deemed to need caning. “He automatically did what was expected of him, and he did it well. He always did the right thing,” says Tupper, who didn’t, and who left Shawnigan.

Ladner was the son of an establishment lawyer, but he was also the son of Janet Fleck, renowned in Shaughnessy as a free spirit. She was a dutiful corporate wife until her husband retired, but then she travelled to Europe on her own, studied medieval Portuguese, and became an expert on what happened to Napoleon after he died.

Her son inherited that unconventionality and curiosity. He pointedly did not become a lawyer. Instead, he studied anthropology and sociology at UBC, travelled to Cuba to see socialism in the flesh (ending up in a hotel with the FLQ), camped on the banks of an Arctic river, worked as an assistant to Deputy Attorney General David Vickers in the heady remake-the-world period after the NDP came to power in B.C. in the mid 1970s, bought land in the country near Duncan and built a house, and lived the rural life with chickens and a garden. He taught at-risk kids, organized an outdoor music festival, dreamed of becoming a planner, an architect, a park designer. Eventually, after almost a decade, he settled on journalism, that refuge of the chronically curious.

His first published story, an essay on eco-housing in the 1974 UBC Alumni Chronicle, is filled with the enthusiasm of a 25-year-old newly converted to saving the planet: “We may be sheltered now from the first rumblings of the shortage storm in the rest of the world,” he warned, “but sooner or later we will have to face up to the great Ecological Reckoning.”

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