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Friday, November 03, 2006

Vancouver: A mayor's journey from hero to zero

It's not too late for Mayor Sullivan to show some compassion in the case of the Falun Gong protest site although the court date is fast approaching. That would be one way to regain some respect from Vancouverites.

Globe and Mail by GARY MASON: (VANCOUVER) October 29 - Nine months ago he was the toast of the world. Now it's hard to find anyone saying nice things about Mayor Sam Sullivan.

Reviews of the mayor's first year in office are starting to come in and they're not kind. He's being called feckless, wishy-washy, a non-item.

In one recent magazine profile he was compared to Howdy Doody, Uriah Heep, Columbo and Karl Rove in a wheelchair.

It's not looking so good for the little guy.

While there may not have been an expectation that Mr. Sullivan would accomplish a lot in year one, there was the hope he'd at least articulate a vision, demonstrate in some meaningful way the direction in which he planned to take the city.

So what has been the mayor's most talked-about policy decision so far? Probably the move to force Falun Gong protesters to take down a shack and signs in front of the Chinese consulate.

His shining moment, to this point, came at the 2006 Winter Games in Italy in February when he accepted the Olympic flag from the mayor of Turin, the first quadriplegic mayor to ever do so. The international media coverage of the event was saturating.

It's been downhill since.

The mayor would insist his most important policy initiative is something called eco-density. It's all he talks about. The problem is that no one knows what he's talking about. Apparently, it's a plan to jam more people into Vancouver by building up but no one is quite sure what that is going to mean for them or their neighbourhood.

Probably the biggest problem facing the mayor is homelessness. Given that you would have thought he'd turn to one of the few experienced members of his young Non-Partisan Association council team to grapple with the issue. Instead, he gave the file to a council rookie, Kim Capri.

Earnest and well-meaning, Ms. Capri made all the wrong headlines recently when she talked about having the homeless live in social housing units smaller than the 400 square feet mandated under city bylaws. Ms. Capri said she envisioned units perhaps half that size, ones she described as "cruise-ship style."

Many found the comment insulting and insensitive. Around city hall they're now calling her Kim Antoinette.

The people you would expect to be supporters of a mayor representing a right-of-centre party -- developers, business types -- are among his harshest critics. Influential developer Peter Wall recently said Mr. Sullivan has been a non-entity to this point.

And then there's condo king Bob Rennie. A supporter of Mr. Sullivan in the past, Mr. Rennie, who has amassed a large fortune selling real estate in the city and who is regularly referred to by cronies as The Mayor because of his wide circle of influence, is not a fan of the real mayor.

Mr. Rennie is one of the few to utter publicly what many have been saying in private: Sam Sullivan should be judged by what he's done as mayor, not by what he's done as a mayor in a wheelchair.

While that might sound harsh, there is definite constituency out there who believe Mr. Sullivan has made his wheelchair part of his arsenal. That it has helped him create this image of a guileless innocent, not one to be considered a threat of any sort.

If people are reluctant to really go after him because of his handicap, or better yet, if they underestimate him because of it, all the better. His weakness becomes his strength.

While Mr. Sullivan's "act," as some have called it, frustrates his political opponents there are few who are willing to challenge him about it on the record. Except Mr. Rennie.

"I think the wheelchair thing is belittling to Sam," Mr. Rennie said.

"He needs to start being the mayor rather than the wheelchair mayor. So far from him it's been complete mediocrity."

Kennedy Stewart, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University and one of the keenest observers of civic politics in Vancouver, also believes Mr. Sullivan's first year on the job has been a bust.

"It's been inauspicious to say the least," he said in an interview from London, England. "There's been a lot of wheel spinning in the first year. And then some of the things he's done like saying he's going to legalize heroin without consulting anyone makes him a laughing stock."

Prof. Stewart believes Mr. Sullivan needs to turn things around quickly if he wants to avoid further problems.

"If he continues down the road he's on you might see a push from inside his party to have someone else stand for the job next time around," Prof. Stewart said. "There wouldn't be a shortage of people interested in being the Olympic mayor."

Poor Sam. Where have all his friends gone?

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