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The first quiet debate between Robertson and Ladner

September 26th, 2008 · 14 Comments

The first official debate between Vancouver’s two mayoral candidates is due to take place next Wednesday, hosted by Langara at the Vancouver Public Library. But a select group got to see the candidates in action together for the first time this past week, when Lambda Alpha hosted an event at the Vancouver Club. Not a debate exactly, but a chance to see the two together talking about the same issues.

This gathering of people whose passion is land economics was closed to media, but that means little in Vancouver’s small and gossipy world, so I’ve heard reports from several people who were there or had friends there. By all accounts, no matter which side people are rooting for in the election, they thought that Peter Ladner came off as the knowledgeable and polished one on most issues. That came as a surprise to some, who haven’t been impressed by his performance at council for the past six years. “He did better than I thought,” whispered one audience member to another. Another told me, “He was everything I didn’t expect him to be — intuitive, engaging.” But a third said that, although Ladner knows all the issues, he came across as very dry and too focused on details.

In contrast, Gregor Robertson, according to several, came across as someone who was delivering a set speech. He did it well and the inevitable Obama comparisons came up, because he tends to use that kind of inspirational language and cadence, but they also said they didn’t hear anything new and there weren’t a lot of specifics or ability to respond to detailed questions. (Robertson also didn’t show up to the event until the last minute, so he missed out on the 45 minutes of pre-dinner crowd massage that Ladner took full advantage of.)

The two men seemed to focus on almost the same issues, said my many spies: affordable housing, homelessness, crime and safety, the city’s finances. But Ladner always had more specifics at hand. Some were surprised that Robertson didn’t know about actions the city has already taken when it comes to affordable housing. On the other hand, Robertson talked more about the city needing to play a stronger role in the region on all kinds of issues.

A couple of interesting questions from the crowd that says as much about their interests as the candidates. Someone wanted to know what was happening with United We Can, the recycling depot on East Hastings that’s used by the homeless/binner community as a major means of support. It drives certain people in town crazy because there’s always a motley crowd on the sidewalk out front conducting a combination swap meet and flea market. (Robertson was quite familiar with it, showed he has contacts with the business; Ladner had more information on the new sites the city is trying to help UWC find.)

They were also asked about their favourite development projects in Vancouver. Robertson, not surprisingly, named the flagship of the previous COPE/Vision council: Woodward’s, with its combination of market and social housing, stores, the Simon Fraser University contemporary arts space and more. Ladner named Collingwood Village, interestingly, saying it was an exemplary example of a diverse and transit-oriented development in a modest-income neighbourhood. (He didn’t say it but he could have pointed out that it was an early example of EcoDensity before a certain mayor decided that the city needed to have a policy called EcoDensity.) He also pointed to Bing Thom’s Sunset community centre and Jim Hancock’s sail-shaped buildings on the Coal Harbour waterfront as buildings he liked.

It will be interesting to see how these two men do when they’re finally out in public. From everything I can see, they are both still having their rocky times. Ladner varies in his delivery, sometimes very on (as he was on Wednesday with the Lambda crowd) and sometimes more flattened sounding. Robertson also goes up and down in how he delivers his message.

There are moments in this campaign (such as it is, being conducted almost invisibly while the American and Canadian national campaigns roar overhead) that remind me of the Jennifer Clarke/Larry Campbell dynamic. Clarke could talk policy rings around Campbell, who stumbled frequently in his first few weeks as he learned about transit policy, city finances, and you name it on the fly. But no matter how competent and knowledgeable Clarke was, she couldn’t make a dent in Campbell’s campaign. People liked his one-liners and what seemed like no-nonsense talk. Most of them didn’t have the knowledge themselves to be able to figure out whether he was talking through his hat or suggesting something feasible.

Gregor Robertson doesn’t have anywhere near Campbell’s quickness, but he does have a certain intense and heartfelt way of speaking. So all of us media types are watching intently to see if that will prevail over Ladner’s Clarke-like, Hillary Clinton-like reminders that he has the expertise and the background and the policy know-how. Hopefully we’ll be spared any TV ads with phones ringing at 4 a.m., suggesting that only one candidate has the background and expertise to know when to order out the snowploughs in an emergency.

By the way, I am one of the journalists who will be questioning the two mayoral candidates during the Langara debates. Any suggested questions?

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