Note: These columns were written and submitted prior to Ian Campell withdrawing his name as Vision Vancouver's mayoral candidate and news that Andrea Reimer is mulling a run for the mayor's chair under Vision.
As longtime colleagues and adversaries at city hall, Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer and NPA councillor George Affleck have played a significant role in running and shaping Vancouver. Both have also decided not to run for office this election to pursue other opportunities with, presumably, friendlier work hours and a lower volume of angry emails and tweets from disgruntled constituents. So, as the Oct. 20 election looms, and gets more unpredictable by the day, we thought who better to ask for their reflections, insights and advice on the highs, lows and importance of municipal politics.
I have always been a bit of a nerd about local politics. When I was a kid — I’m talking 11 years old — I would watch city council meetings on the local cable channel to see what was going on and what the mayor and councillors were debating. By the time I was a teenager, I had already put on my list of life goals that I would one day run for political office. In fact, I might have entered politics earlier if friends, family and even strangers had not talked me out of it.
When I was around 17, a school board-related issue crucial to my age group made me so mad that I was motivated to run for school board in Langley, where I grew up. But what I mostly remember was personally polling anyone who would listen about the idea of running for office. I had already been on student council every year so to me, at that time, the leap to school board seemed logical. But my polling sadly proved otherwise. The general consensus was that I was too young and my opinion on the matter at hand was not serious enough or important enough to justify my lofty goal of electoral victory.
Dashed by others telling me what I should NOT do, I let the idea go. But it bothered me for some time; in fact, I decided soon after that, when I was regretting my decision not to run, I would always push forward and take chances, even when people said it was impossible.
So, my list of life goals became a serious to-do list. Including running for office, I wrote that I wanted to run my own business, write a book, test my skills in comedy performance, travel the world and learn guitar amongst other things that have been added and taken away. Thus far, I have achieved everything on my 17-year-old-boy goal list barring one thing — I’ve mastered only two chords on the guitar. There’s still time to learn a third, right?
This preamble about life goals and people telling you what you can and cannot do is really the start of my first ever, and perhaps last, advice column.
When the Courier’s Mike Howell asked me to write something down about being in office that would be helpful, but remain non-partisan in the truest sense, and provide tips to the growing list of possible elected representatives, I was honoured but also challenged. Being partisan and political is something that comes very naturally to me. It is not that I am intentionally trying to be a s*** disturber; it comes from a passion for the job and for our city.
So, let’s start with this: If you are running for office, I want to commend you for stepping up and taking the risk, no matter your political stripes, because to give your time, energy and knowledge to this city will, I hope, make Vancouver better for the future. How you succeed, of course, depends on many factors but let me provide my perspective that I hope is somewhat helpful to you.
Before political life, I worked as a journalist for some years and part of that job meant that when you would come into the office each day and were assigned a story, even if you knew very little about it, by the end of the day you had become a kind of expert. You would do your research, analyze the pros and cons, interview experts and then provide a balanced story for the reader/listener/viewer to better understand the issue at hand and to further debate at the water cooler, in the coffee shop or at the dinner table.
Being a politician requires many of the same attributes of a journalist, with a dose of theatrics, a dollop of bravado and, if you can muster it, some diplomacy thrown in for good measure.
There are generally two kinds of people who get into politics: the policy wonk and the retail politician. We are often one or the other, but rarely both. My advice — try to be both.
Retail politicking is a performance piece with soul. It’s quite often what will get you elected or make you stand out. It’s often clichéd in our minds by photo opportunities of politicians kissing babies, shaking hands, eating innumerable rubber chicken dinners, walking in parades and more.
But don’t discount the retail politicians. It’s that grassroots engagement where one learns or gets a sense of what people are saying about the place they live and how it’s governed. It’s the stuff beyond policies and procedures. It’s the basis of what truly makes an elected person a conduit of the people’s moods, which should be a big part — but not all — of how you make decisions once elected.
The policy wonk is another matter. The best way to define this person is someone who loves the science of governmental administration and doesn’t usually want to run for office because… well, to be frank… they are not often people people. However, so much of what you do in municipal government is perfect for the policy wonk because, while civic politics may seem very, very glamorous to an outsider (cue laugh track), about 80 per cent of your time is spent reading big reports, asking questions of staff, and then incorporating and understanding the historical context of a decision, along with its potential impact on the future.
But to be effective in office, once you have done your homework, read the reports from the city’s talented engineers, planners, social services staff, lawyers and so on, you must also incorporate the public’s interest as a whole in your decision making.
Credit can be given to many un-elected leaders for building a great city like Vancouver. But the role of our city’s elected council is key. Every four years a new council is elected and given a mandate to provide general direction to staff about where the city will be going and what the priorities will be. Staff should then, for that term, come back to council with reports that are intended to match the council’s wishes, and therefore the people’s.
It’s kind of circular — the role as an elected civic leader is to provide direction, empower staff, have them come back with the policies and procedures to achieve these goals and then council gives the work the stamp of approval for implementation.
The world, and certainly Vancouver, does not need any more divisive, ego-only, wedge-issue politicians. To win a seat in office, sure, it’s helpful to be appealing to the electorate. But once elected, please just do the work.
In Vancouver, more than 600,000 people are relying on their elected council to build the city as whole, for all of us. So, respect the staff. Respect the people. And find your inner nerd to do the job as best you can. And don’t forget that voters are an intuitive bunch — never discount how they may be feeling. They are usually bang on. And equally important: know when your time is up and enjoy a graceful exit. And if at all possible, avoid Mike Howell’s email requests to write a column at the end of your time in office.
George Affleck is a two-term city councillor and former journalist. Affleck founded and remains president of Vancouver-based marketing firm Curve Communications.