The Next Mayor

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 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.

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.”

By the 1980s, he was the editor of Victoria’s Monday Magazine, writing the kinds of stories you would expect from an alternative paper started in the heyday of the counterculture, and provoking the mayor of Victoria to sue him for libel after Ladner, in one of his characteristic bouts of spontaneous frankness, suggested that the mayor had been less than truthful on an issue. He lost that round to the mayor, in a precedent-setting libel case the judge shut down after Ladner apologized to the mayor in the middle of the trial, on his lawyer’s advice. In the mid ’80s, Ladner planned to come to Vancouver to start an alternative paper to compete with the Georgia Straight, but his partners bailed and he found himself starting a business newspaper instead. He stuck with that one for two years and then started another, Business in Vancouver, with partner George Mleczko and the financial backing of about 40 people, including his father and several friends.

And so the student with a passion for sustainability found himself telling the business establishment the news of the day and going to Board of Trade lunches. He kept his other self going, though: he went to the Vancouver Folk Music Festival every year, sang and played guitar in amateur groups, hung around with people who still talked about social change and the environment, and acted, in almost every way, as if the ’70s had never ended.

Ladner hadn’t thought about going into politics. But then-mayor Philip Owen came to one of BIV ’s public events and, in his speech, talked about him as a possible future mayor. “That floored me,” remembers Ladner. In subsequent years, people often suggested that, with his personal and family credentials, he’d be a good candidate for mayor. Ladner, who’d been contemplating starting a sustainability-consulting firm, began to think that a faster way to get businesses to go green would be to get into a position to make decisions.

Finally, in 2002, he ran for city council, scraping across the finish line with 40,000 votes (while the rest of his party was wiped out) because of his ability to appeal to voters outside the NPA’s usual base. Over the years, however, he perplexed those supporters with his lack of initiative and his adherence to the party’s conservative lines. To traditional NPAers, meanwhile, he seemed low-energy and low-profile, hesitant to take strong stands. He was more inclined to fire off snarky shots based on his last conversation than to study 100-page policy documents. And his tendency to lapse into micro-naps during meetings was noticed by all.

On council and as a council representative on regional bodies, Ladner has initiated small, niche ideas that disorientingly blend David Suzuki and Vancouver’s famous disorder-loathing mayor of the 1960s, Tom Campbell. He put forward proposals to encourage community gardens, and he led the way to cut off grant money to the Downtown Eastside Residents Association because he didn’t like their ties to the Anti-Poverty Committee. He championed a Paris-style communal bike system and made numerous motions to take action against riffraff like panhandlers and street hawkers.

In most of his five-and-a-half years on council, he let the mayor take the lead on the big stuff—to the point where his supporters, increasingly concerned about the state of the party, were ready to abandon him. Almost at the last minute, Ladner challenged Sullivan and beat him, but that regicide has left the party fractured.

Ladner’s personal positions are just starting to emerge in the campaign. But his dual-life history suggests where he’s likely to go: he’ll be the business-community mayor when it comes to money (don’t spend it) and the housing market (don’t regulate it) and drugs (don’t be seen to be encouraging their use). He’ll push the idea of cleaning up the Downtown Eastside and, in fact, he says he wants to see a higher proportion of market housing there. And he’ll be hot about technology, the thing that revs him up these days: the 311 phone system, smart cards, fully automated transportation. But on other issues, he’ll be the idealistic sustainability mayor, pushing for carbon-neutral this and bikes and gardens that. Nothing that would incur the disapproval of the business community, though. And, above all, nothing too drastic.

GREGOR ROBERTSON STARTED to think about going into politics shortly after Gordon Campbell and the Liberals were elected in 2001. He wanted, in that phrase that it’s hard not to put quotation marks around, to make a difference. He was encouraged by people like former NDP premier Mike Harcourt and former NDP MLA John Cashore. He had, he says, “a revelation that politics matters, that it’s actually the only way that we collectively solve huge-scale problems.”

Like the Ladners, the Robertsons have a history of achievement. Gregor’s great-uncle was a judge, and his father was a lawyer with Russell & DuMoulin. Norman Bethune was his grandmother’s cousin, and the family was infused with stories about the Canadian doctor relative who became a hero in Spain, where he provided medical treatment to the Republican side in their civil war, and then in China, where he did the same for the Communist Army fighting Japan. (Robertson, whose middle name is Bethune, visited China as soon as the borders opened to regular foreigners in 1986.)

But his family was of its era, and that wasn’t the Edwardian. His mother and father divorced when he was six, and Robertson and his brother moved around a lot. The two boys spent six years living in the San Francisco Bay area with their mother and her new husband, then came back to Vancouver when Gregor was 15 to live with his father and his new family.

Robertson wasn’t the brilliant and verbal student that Ladner was. He got good marks but had to work hard for them. And he chose to go not to the higher-up-the-hill high school closest to his North Van house but to the more middle-class, even tough, Carson Graham. By his own admission, he never fully belonged to any group. He was sort of (but not really) part of the sports crowd because he played rugby and soccer, and of the music crowd because he played in the band. And then there was the instrument he played: the tuba, symbolic of the earnest and possibly dorky nonconformist.

His willingness to doggedly pursue the unfashionable and idiosyncratic has been a constant. Robertson went to Colorado College in the States, where a lot of B.C. boys go to play hockey, not because he got a hockey scholarship but because of its unusual program structure, which had students focus on one subject at a time in depth.

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.