Anton's mission

Dubbed a 'complainer' by her critics and a passionate political fighter by her supporters, NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton hopes to resurrect her party and oust Gregor Robertson from the mayor's chair in November's civic election

The morning begins with news the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the Insite drug injection site on East Hastings can operate indefinitely.

Mayor Gregor Robertson issues an expected congratulatory news release followed up with a press conference outside his office at city hall.

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Not to be outdone, NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton ensures the media receives an email to get her take on a landmark decision that opens the door for more injection sites in the city.

She agrees its good news, too.

But as Anton sits in a quiet corner of the NPAs spacious downtown campaign office the same morning, its evident she doesnt want to spend much time discussing the ruling. I dont want to get too hung up on the drug issue because there are many issues in the city, she says, but acknowledges the breaking news story.

She goes on to saylike Robertson didhow Insite has proven to be a valuable component of the healthcare system and sayslike Robertson didthe facility saves lives.

The common ground between the politicians is fleeting. It only takes the former Crown prosecutor a few moments before she pokes holes in Robertsons work on the drug front and suggests the mayor allowed the citys so-called four pillars drug strategy to crumble.

Its a familiar pattern from the NPAs lone representative on a city council dominated by Robertson and his Vision Vancouver team, which all but wiped out the NPA in the 2008 civic vote. As Anton demonstrated this term, she voted with Vision for a separated bike lane on Hornby Street and to quash gambling expansion next to B.C. Place Stadium, only to later attempt to distance herself from those policies. In doing so, Vision accused her of flip-flopping and chided her for complaining about policy instead of offering solutions. In one debate, Vision ally COPE Coun. David Cadman described Anton as a one-trick pony.

To her credit, she has stood alone for three years in what can be a nasty and petty council chambers to argue, scrap and unsuccessfully attempt to get motions passed. She had an easier time when she served as a member of NPA mayor Sam Sullivans administration from 2005 to 2008. That council introduced a controversial program aimed at curbing street disorder, proposed drug treatment for longtime addicts and allowed for the construction of laneway houses.

Now as the partys mayoral candidate, Anton is touting a downtown streetcar network, promising to return city budget surpluses to taxpayers and to cut at least $1 million in ineffective Vision Vancouver pet projects such as backyard chicken coops and wheat field programs.

What were hearing is that people think that Gregor is on a goofy, not very important agenda, says Anton, who also wants a moratorium on separated bike lanes. A lot of people feel that Gregor and his team dont represent them.

But with various polls released this year showing respondents are generally happy with Robertson and Vision, its clear Anton and the NPA have some work to do.

The party aims to raise more than $2 million to combat and match the expected multi-million dollar campaign Vision has embarked on to win re-election Nov. 19.

Anton and the NPA could also use some drama in what is, so far, a lucklustre campaign season; no intense mayoral nomination contests, no burning issues, no scandals can translate to voter apathy and another three years of Vision. So, does she really have a chance?

Im using the poll of the street and the street is very, very friendly to me and to our NPA team, Anton says. I know we are making progress. I can just tell. You can sense the mood.

Closely watching Anton and the NPAs campaign is Terri Evans, a Simon Fraser University political science instructor who manages the urban studies program.

Though she recognizes there is still more than a month to go before the election, Evans says she is unclear what exactly Antons team stands for in this campaign.

The party, in a clever play on its initials, will say it is focused on neighbourhoods, prosperity and accountability. Which translates loosely to community consultation, tax relief and cuts to the mayors budget.

But Evans says the NPA must create a clear and cohesive vision because right now I know more about what she stands against as it relates to Visions vision.

Adds Evans: Im just waiting to see if the NPA will do anything thats not reactive and more proactive in putting forward their agenda.

A reputation as a complainer is not what Anton set out to achieve this term. But she blames Robertson for breaking a promise of leading a more collaborative council as reason to grind away.

Furthermore, Anton says she was omitted from chairing any council committees and conveniently disregarded when she wanted to give her two cents on the citys economic strategy and green plan before it got to council. I was stonewalled at every turn, she says. Its too bad Gregor didnt follow through with the undertaking he made during his campaign to take petty politics out of city hall. I heard him say that at every campaign stop.

She catches herself after the comment to say shes not whining about her treatment at council. She flashes what has become a predictable smile to give her time to think what to say next. I say vote for Suzanne and youll get a streetcar, she responds through the smile when asked what the public should make of the complainer tag. Im serious, Im serious, Im serious. Streetcars are so city building. People like them so much, people love riding the streetcar. Its wonderful for neighbourhoods, wonderful for tourists.

Twice during the hour-long interview with the Courier, Anton used a pen and paper to sketch the route a downtown streetcar would take from Granville Island to the waterfront.

The idea for a streetcar is not new, with council on record in 1999 as wanting such a system. Since then, the cost has ballooned significantly, with a 2006 estimate coming in around $100 million.

An advocate of public-private partnerships, Anton says her plan could become a reality with the right involvement from the private sector. I just think there will be an insatiable demand for the streetcar, she says, peering at her diagram.

Her position runs counter to what she told the Courier in 2006 when her focus was on improving conditions at the Commercial/Broadway transit hub. Thats our Port Mann Bridge, she said then, referring to the congestion that occurs on the bridge that links Coquitlam and Surrey. I really dont know that we can devote a lot of money to the downtown streetcar without solving our Broadway corridor issue.

Her explanation for the change in priorities is that building a streetcar network and easing the transit hubs chaos can be done simultaneously.

That, of course, requires the provincial government to get on board and build the SkyTrain extension along Broadway to at least Arbutus, possibly the University of B.C. The provincial government, however, has said many times the transit priority in the Lower Mainland is building the so-called Evergreen line from Coquitlam to Lougheed station in Burnaby. Thats fine, Anton says, but how will all those new riders from Coquitlam be accommodated when they get to the Commercial/Broadway transit hub?

Nine years ago, Anton wasnt talking transit.

Her concern when she ran successfully for a park board seat in 2002 was getting more playing fields for sports teams, indoor tennis courts and tracks.

As a former parent advisory council chairperson and president of the Kerrisdale Soccer Association, the Prius-driving mother of three adult children volunteered in the community for many years.

Her popularity soared in 2005 when she ran for a council seat and received 60,586 votes; only Sam Sullivan placed higher that year in his successful bid for mayor. She credits her popularity to her previous work in the community and her affiliation with the oldest civic party in Vancouver.

But, Anton says, shes keenly aware voters make huge swings in their preferences from election to election, as recent history shows. COPE won a landslide in 2002, the NPA rebounded with Sullivan in 2005 and Robertson and Vision/COPE dominated in 2008. The wind blows in, the wind blows out, she says.

Antons skill in questioning rival politicians and pulling information from city staff is rooted in her 13-year career as a Crown prosecutor.

From 1986 to 1999, she prosecuted thieves and crooks for a variety of crimes, including robberies and assaults in the Downtown Eastside.

Visitors to her office back then were young police officers Jim Chu and Doug LePard, whose names are now familiar to most citizens. So its funny, here we are all those years later, Jim is the chief, Doug is a deputy chief and Im running for mayor, she says, adding that she attended UBC law school with former VPD deputy chief Bob Rich, who is now chief of the Abbotsford Police Department.

Watching Antons career progression literally from the sidelines, where he coached one of her sons soccer teams, is developer Robert Macdonald who has always been impressed with Antons work ethic and thick skin in what can be a tough go as a politician, particularly as the lone NPA councillor. Shes done very well under difficult circumstances, he says, pointing to exchanges shes had with Vision councillors in chambers. I know Raymond Louie and I know Geoff [Meggs] and sometimes they just go after her and theyre so incredibly mean.

Ultimately, he says, its Antons love for the city and her fellow man that carries her through one-sided political battles.

That might sound goofy but you wouldnt do all this if you didnt love your city and love your fellow man, and give up so much time, says Macdonald, who believes Anton is justified in her so-called complaining. If it sounds like shes whining, maybe it loses some of its effectiveness. But I think she has every right to complain over some of the things that this council has done because some of them are just idiotic and just unbelievable.

He cites, as examples, the citys lawns-to-wheat field program and allowing backyard chickens, which Vision contends are inexpensive and minor initiatives in its three-year term.

Macdonald owns Macdonald Development Corporation and considered seeking the NPAs mayoral nomination but backed off because of health issues.

Instead, he is taking the lead in the NPAs fundraising drive and not looking back to the previous election, which saw Sullivan replaced by Peter Ladner in a mayoral nomination battle that divided the party. Theres no infighting, he says. Everyone is getting along and everyone is pulling on the same oar. Its a completely different movie this time.

If elected Nov. 19, Anton will become the citys first female mayor. Dont forget to put that in your article, she says at the close of the interview.

Is that a big deal since B.C.s premier is a woman, the citys police chief is Chinese and the former mayor is a quadriplegic?

Yes it is, she says. It is a big deal. People are not going to vote for me because Im the first woman mayor, theyre going to vote for me because they like my platform. But its time that we had somebody other than a white man for mayor.

mhowell@vancourier.com

Twitter: @Howellings

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