Late in the summer of 2005 someone called me on my cell – I won’t say who. I am congenitally unable to not answer the phone so without wanting to I took the call.
That’s how I ended up managing the first Vision Vancouver campaign in the fall of 2005. It was, in hindsight, one of the best campaigns I’ve ever been involved with – up there with the Provincial Campaigns of 1991 and 1995.
The campaign team was fantastic, the energy determined and the issues real and important. And we had an amazing group of candidates led by Jim Green.
I have seen some lousy candidates in my day – Jim was the opposite. Strong on policy, pretty dutiful – as long as a break for pool and a beer was included in the schedule – and most of all, absolutely determined to win in the service of a better community.
He really believed that. He did think a better community could be achieved through political engagement. It wasn’t about self-aggrandizement. He believed a councilor or a mayor could make a lasting difference in their city.
And he was full of ideas – ideas about public art, about community engagement, about public space, about development and most of all about housing.
Jim’s ideas were thought out. He understood early on that greater density equals more money and therefore it can also mean public goods. Unlike a lot of politicians he was always looking to link the two in very practical ways.
He told me once he learned this when he started developing social housing for DERA in the eighties. Then he started to think beyond housing to training and job opportunities, green space and art, public performances and community organization.
Woodward’s is his legacy. It’s where you can see his vision most clearly with its social housing, market units, small businesses, an education institution and performance space. But my mind’s eye is drawn to the beauty of the buildings themselves with the iron-work, wood and intimate interior spaces. That’s Jim too, caring about the aesthetics of the place.
The 2005 campaign was not just a great experience. It was a really rotten campaign as well. In fact I’ve never been involved in a dirtier, nastier campaign. We spent way too much on libel lawyers to defend against unconscionable smears against Jim.
I remember one day where a person linked to the Sullivan campaign called a press conference to announce some hideous and completely untrue allegation against Jim. The presser was in Victory Square across from our office and I wandered across.
Journalists crowded around listening intently to made up allegations with no basis in fact. The “community activist” holding forth was reading from sheets of paper she pulled out of an envelope. Looking closely I could see the logo of Reputations – Sam Sullivan’s press relations firm – on the envelope.
Another day, another dirty trick.
The big trick of the campaign was of course the candidacy of James Green. As I write this, my inbox is flooded with stories about Harper’s robo call scandal, faking calls from Elections Canada to siphon off votes from opposition parties. In 2005 we had to deal with a fake candidate, whose only purpose was to confuse voters and siphon off votes from Jim. Same kinds of people, different campaigns.
To this day we don’t know who paid for James Green’s campaign even though it cost Jim Green the election.
Most of us were crushed. I don’t really know how Jim took it. Whenever I ran into him he would say he was doing fine. Maybe, maybe not. What I do know is that Jim continued to pursue his vision.
While Sullivan frittered away his mandate with one ill-judged initiative after another, culminating in the lockout of 2008, Jim got Woodward’s built. He got more social housing built. He championed the arts. He kept on making a difference.
I look back on the 2005 civic election and still think “What if Jim had won? What kind of city would we have now?” But that’s probably the wrong question. Jim was relentless in pursuing his vision for the city whether elected or not.
The real question is how can we continue to learn from Jim’s work – its vision and practicality – in order to move the vision forward.
And am I glad I picked up that call in the summer of 2005.