The two-person mayoral races that have dominated city politics for more than a decade officially ended Sunday with COPE overwhelmingly endorsing Meena Wong as its candidate for mayor in the Nov. 15 election.
The 53-year-old mental health worker and longtime community organizer will battle Mayor Gregor Robertson and NPA challenger Kirk
LaPointe for votes in a multicultural city that has never had a female mayor or one of Chinese descent.
“I can’t believe that,” Wong told the Courier by telephone Monday. “And we call ourselves a progressive city?”
Almost 200 COPE members endorsed Wong at the party’s nomination meeting held Sunday at the Japanese Hall in the Downtown Eastside. Party members also nominated eight council candidates, including former councillor Tim Louis and First Nations’ activist Audrey Siegl.
Though a mayor’s race attracts several candidates, many of whom are typically unknown and members of fringe parties, the contest for the city hall throne in Vancouver has historically been between the NPA and COPE.
That changed in the 2005 election when a split within COPE led to the newly created Vision Vancouver, which unsuccessfully ran former COPE councillor Jim Green against the NPA’s Sam Sullivan.
Despite the split, COPE ran so-called coordinated campaigns with Vision in 2005, 2008 and 2011. But in all three campaigns, COPE opted not to run a mayoral candidate, effectively endorsing Robertson as the party’s choice for mayor.
In running Wong, this is COPE’s first mayoral candidate since 2002 when Larry Campbell and COPE almost annihilated the NPA in an election night knockout that showed COPE’s political might.
Subsequent elections saw COPE’s standing on the civic scene diminish as Vision won majorities in 2008 and 2011. The Green Party also elected Adriane Carr to a council seat in the 2011 election.
Wong now has the formidable job of bringing the party back to its mainstream status by winning seats on council, park board and school board. School trustee Allan Wong was COPE’s lone elected official until he joined Vision Vancouver in December 2013.
“One community at a time,” she replied when asked how she will rebuild the party.
Though Wong believes COPE can draw votes from people who voted previously for Vision and the NPA, particularly those interested in an affordable housing plan, she pointed to her profile in the Chinese community as a factor in boosting COPE’s vote.
Born in Beijing and fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin, Wong worked as an interpreter, outreach worker and got her start with COPE in 2005 as the party’s point person to mobilize the Chinese vote.
Even with that experience, Wong acknowledged, voting patterns are more complex than voters simply casting a ballot for someone of the same race or similar backgrounds.
“I don’t think it’s automatic — I don’t believe in automatic,” said Wong, who previously ran unsuccessfully for a COPE council nomination in 2008 and was the NDP’s candidate in Vancouver-South in the 2011 federal election. “I believe that people will look at who I am and what I stand for. But there’s a section of the [Chinese] community that doesn’t participate particularly well in the electoral process. We have to make people more politically literate.”
Simon Fraser University’s Terri Evans, who is the program manager of urban studies, said she doubted COPE would pull votes from Vision or the NPA in the Nov. 15 election. That’s because COPE’s politics are a lot further left of centre than Vision and the NPA, Evans said.
“I’m not sure that they can capture sufficient numbers to make that swing,” she said.
But Evans said Wong’s entrance into the race will bring new ideas and debate on issues that will challenge the points of view expressed by
Vision and the NPA. She pointed out media attention historically favours the mayoral race, so COPE will gain from that coverage.
That coverage, she added, could hurt the Vancouver Greens, which decided not to run a mayoral candidate or endorse Robertson, LaPointe or Wong. The Greens also decided not to seek an alliance with COPE or other parties.
“But COPE has a lot of work to do to let people know what they are still a relevant party,” Evans said. “They were pretty much on their death bed until this latest renewal.”