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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

After he graduated with a degree in English, he and Amy, whom he’d met at college, fixed up an old wooden sailboat (the fulfillment of one of his teenage dreams inspired by reading and watching The Dove) and sailed it to New Zealand. They worked on farms there, which eventually prompted them to come back to Vancouver and buy a farm themselves in 1991 east of Fort Langley, using their profits from the boat sale and money from Robertson’s mother. Twenty years after most hippies had moved back to the city and got jobs, suburban boy Robertson and his wife started an organic farm, learning how to do things through trial and error and a subscription to Small Farmer’s Journal.

At the time, Robertson was dealing with personal tragedy. One day in 1991, shortly after his first daughter was born, his father vanished from his North Shore home. It was four years before his father’s bones were found in the forest on Mount Seymour, in an area where he liked to walk. “There are people who’ve decided this or that is what happened,” says Robertson (who, when he won the Vision nomination, thanked his wife, his stepfather, and his father looking down from above). “It was suicide, or it was diabetic shock, or it was a bear. But there is no proof. It’s a total, absolute mystery”—one he’s come to accept as a part of his life that will remain unknowable.

Four years after they started the farm, during a period in which Robertson found himself spending much of his day repairing equipment, it was time for another offbeat, no-one’s-really-doing-this-yet project. With high-school friend Randal Ius, he started Happy Planet, the juice company. Ius was the guy doing sales and marketing, while Robertson handled the recipes, production, and distribution from the Strathcona plant. It was the less visible, back-end job, which has led his critics, including Ladner, to hint that his business creds aren’t as solid as he makes out.

The juice company established, the Robertsons decided to move their family because they wanted the kind of small-community experience for their kids that living in an isolated corner of the Fraser Valley wasn’t providing. In 1998, they sold their farm (for less than they could have got on the open market) to a group of people who still run it as the Glen Valley Organic Farm Cooperative. And they moved to Cortes Island, the most famously new-agey of B.C.’s Gulf Islands. It didn’t last. In 2005 the family moved to Vancouver after a family vote won by the two older Robertson children, who wanted to go to a high school that wasn’t a boat ride away, and by their father, who had spent most of the previous four years in the city with his business.

In 2004, Robertson had started gearing up to run in Vancouver-Fairview, where he lived, and in 2005 he won, attracting attention as a symbolic new-style New Democrat. But he didn’t shine brightly in his early years. Instead, he struggled to make effective points in question period, to focus on key issues, and to get media attention. He bemused his NDP colleagues with his focus on appearances. He studied the way MLAs looked on the cameras that record legislative sessions. He would review the tape, then freeze a frame to point out to colleagues some dubious behaviour: falling asleep behind the Speaker, say, or worse.

And he had a tendency, still present, to get obsessed with sometimes minor causes, pursuing them well beyond anyone else’s interest level. (Liquefied natural gas, anyone?) Eventually, with the help of a savvy constituency-office team, he got better at homing in on salable issues, and became an advocate for evicted renters and SkyTrain-afflicted Cambie businesses, which drew him into the orbit of city politics.

Besides the green-business thing, his many fans see him as personifying niceness and sincerity and an almost religious (though he’s not) commitment to acting on what he believes in. “He has principles and integrity and he’s a team player,” says Andrea Reimer, the former Green Party school trustee and Western Canada Wilderness Committee executive director who is one of Robertson’s inside-circle friends and campaign organizers. “But layered on top of that, every time he’s presented with the difficult choices, he makes the right one.”

Reimer describes him as someone who’s not detail-oriented but pulls together teams to help him develop strategy. And she admits that his tendency to think through, with excruciating thoroughness, the impact of any decision can mean slow going. It also means that once he’s finally made a decision, there’s no reconsidering it—a characteristic some might call principled and others dangerous.

His run for the mayoral nomination has set off hostilities in the NDP back room. Some are bitter about what they see as his decision to make a career move for himself after the party invested heavily in him. Others asked why he should stick around after he’d been treated like nothing more than a pretty face, not allowed to sit at the NDP grown-ups table.

Robertson’s life suggests that he’d be the kind of mayor who would pick a few key initiatives and bull away at them. Because he’s a communitarian, they’d mostly be things that involved buy-in from the affected groups: a Downtown Eastside plan developed by everyone there, a creative-city plan that small business and arts groups would get behind, an affordable-housing plan that developers would be willing to be part of. It’s an approach that can be long and tedious, especially on contentious issues.

And then there’s always that loner, independent side. As those who know him will tell you, he listens. And then sometimes, after a lot of listening, he decides to go with his own idea, no matter what anyone thinks, because he believes it’s the right thing to do.

The right thing is what Ladner’s supporters are counting on getting from their candidate, too. But it’s got a different twist. Ladner is not a big-vision kind of guy, says his most kindred-spirited fellow NPA candidate, Michael Geller. But he’s what Vancouver needs. “I think Peter has what it takes to grow into an elegant and dignified mayor.

I don’t think I’d be worried about him saying or doing the wrong thing.”

Who’s the right man for Vancouver? It’s a tricky question—one we’ll answer on November 15 one vote at a time.


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