Vote for Mayor Squishy

By Gene Miller, November 2014

Who the hell thought up Ida Chong? And other insider tips...

I had to tear myself away from the online Daily Beast’s hilarious header: “Christian Right-Wingers Love Porn!” to address the sobering topic of local politics, as we dodder toward the mid-November municipal election. For our sins, the Province has lengthened the municipal term of office by 33 percent—from 3 years to 4. Shame they didn’t make it 40 years for mayors (as it is now in Saanich), to see if we even noticed or cared.

Still, the upcoming City of Victoria mayoral contest is a sharp rebuke to my cynicism. Tossed into the election soup this time are contenders representing ideological, stylistic and civic direction challenges to the regime of the “Dean Team” which, tellingly, appears to have strategically tiptoed off the stage to the sound of “Dean Who?” To listen to the street buzz, the incumbent’s post position is by no means an assured advantage. I wonder why…

Recent issues of Focus have provided readers with carefully researched publisher’s “progress reports” about the Johnson Street Bridge project (which I here dub “Pont More Than eNeuf”). As a reader, you know in detail the professional, managerial and, above all, political miscalculations—speculative pricing by suppliers and service providers eager to land a job; magical political thinking about the bridge price tag, based on a quarter-baked design; and chest-beating mayoral assurances of careful oversight in the face of fictive, ever-ballooning cost projections—making this the biggest, so-sad-it’s-funny clusterfuck in Victoria’s history and exposing mayor and council (excluding dissenting councillors Ben Isitt and Lisa Helps) as the Gang Who Couldn’t Grab Their Asses With Both Hands.

It’s a principle in nature that some endeavours, like horribly flawed marriages, the ill-fated 1980s McPizza and our replacement bridge, are conceived with a dark energy, a doom-cloud, making it a certainty that if something can go wrong, it will. After a mid-September report that the Chinese supplier had fabricated Swiss cheese, not steel, for the bridge superstructure, I was just waiting for a bulletin that a truck dumping gravel at the construction site had accidentally tipped its load into the water, crushing and killing a baby Orca. 

Always, in the recaps and post-mortems, it seems obvious what could or should have been done differently. Instead of using judgment, the decision-makers were breathing new-bridge ether and drifting off to happy-land. The projection of prudent oversight was actually pure theatre and atmospherics, but no one—the Emperor least of all—yelled: “The Emperor has no clothes!” 

Mayor and the majority of council appear never to have hit the pause button long enough to reflect: “We’re public stewards. Should we be committing the City and taxpayers to extensive new public debt, especially during a painful recession? Should we be adding debt when we already have vast un- or under-funded infrastructure obligations? And if we truly believe we can justify additional debt, to what other important, if less sexy, City priorities might spending be directed?”

With some frequency this past summer, I have caught the view from the top of Beacon Hill and watched that old tub of a Black Ball ferry, the Coho, slowly plying its Victoria-Port Angeles route. The dated and hull-bruised Coho may look a bit like a stumble-bum boxer, but who can fault the repair-and-refurbish mentality of the Coho’s owners, especially after exposure to the nutty, crack-fuelled, shiny-new-toy fever-dreams of Victoria’s political leaders? Announcing the new bridge plan, Mayor Fortin pledged in 2009: “We will continue to make thoughtful, prudent decisions as we proceed through this process.” 

This was, of course, not just inelegant English, but pure vapour. A great line for a t-shirt. Or a political epitaph.

A 2008 Delcan Engineering report commissioned by the city and released in 2009, noted: “A 40-year maintenance program with corresponding costs was established for both the repair [old bridge] and replacement [new bridge] options in order to allow a life cycle comparison…There is no significant difference between the total life cycle costs of the two options over the 40-year period.”

From this, mayor and council could have understood that it was perfectly feasible to buy 40 more years of refurbished, functioning bridge for a stated renovation cost of $23.6 million. By my napkin math, this option would have saved us taxpayers a folly surcharge likely north of $40 million—assuming no further surprises. 

It will be interesting in the upcoming civic election to see if, to ruin a metaphor, a mayor who lives by the bridge dies by the bridge. But the really entertaining municipal election back-story centres around this question: Who the hell thought up Ida Chong?

Lurking somewhere in the sunless verges of the local right-of-centre political landscape is Mark Mawhinney, Victoria’s embodiment of Patrick Buchanan, Richard Nixon’s long-ago dark and skulking fixer. Mawhinney has spent his time as a local political operator cheerleading for right-wing personalities and agenda, and is now braiding the frustrations of some of Victoria’s business types and the local aspirations of provincial Liberals into the doomed mayoral cause named Ida Chong. 

I digress to give you some of the political flavour: Mawhinney grouses on his blog site that US President Obama never ran a business, even though he was seeking to become the “CEO of the largest economy in the world.” 

Of course, as I write, US corporate profits are at record highs, the country’s adding 200,000 jobs per month, unemployment is below 6 percent, US GNP growth is the best of the OECD countries, the dollar is at its strongest levels in years, the stock market is near record highs, gasoline prices are collapsing, there’s no inflation, interest rates are the lowest in 30 years, US oil imports are declining, US oil production is rapidly increasing, the deficit is rapidly declining, and the wealthy are cleaning up. But Mawhinney, operating in some nuance-free universe reserved for Republicans (theirs and ours), whines that Obama never ran a business. 

No wonder that the city’s braying right-wingers believed there was need for a mayor who would pound the table, pledge to reduce business taxes, and enact the rest of the intellectually monosyllabic political agenda the Right so dearly loves.

Rumours swirled for several months—Ida’s in, she’s out, she won’t do it without a war chest of $120,000, she’s considering it, she’s studying her options, she’s thinking about it—as Chong did her Hamlet routine through the long summer. A former staffer, reflecting on her days as a provincial minister, told me: “Nice lady. Can’t make a decision.” Ultimately, Government Street pub owner Matt MacNeil, abetted by the Chamber’s Frank Bouree and some other usual suspects, extracted a commitment from Chong and, in a truly bizarre example of cross-border juxtapositions, recast Chong, a Saanich resident, as the Oak Bay business mafia’s mayoral hand puppet for Victoria.

You may remember that Chong was the object of a recall initiative during her provincial term when her government badly bungled the Harmonized Sales Tax, defeated in a province-wide referendum. She penned an extraordinary apologia in the Georgia Straight online, brimming with self-pity and paranoia, claiming that the leaders of the recall initiative were NDPers imported from elsewhere and sent to destroy her. Chong was subsequently decimated in Saanich-Gordon Head by the Green Party’s Andrew Weaver in the last provincial election.

I contend that neither experience nor ideological zeal are assurances of good civic leadership. If experience and political seasoning produce not consistency but misadventure, what’s the real value of so-called political maturity? And ideological politics at a local level is a guarantee that time and energy will be wasted in conflict. 

Which takes us to Victoria councillor and mayoral hopeful Lisa Helps. If I could wand-wave, Helps would walk away with this election. At an early stage in their quest for a suitable right-wing standard-bearer, some of the above-mentioned business types met with but rejected Helps, finding her self-willed, not a party automaton, and possessed of a vision and political playbook of her own—cut from the same material as Vancouver’s highly popular mayor Gregor Robertson and Calgary’s wunderkind, Naheed Nenshi. It’s likely that Helps, in that meeting, also threw water on the Wicked Witch by using words like “community,” “access,” “citizens,” “fairness,” and “social equity.” 

Unwittingly, they gave her a great endorsement: they found her “squishy.”

She’s obviously right-minded (not Right-minded) on social and community issues, and comfortable with the skills and valuable contributions of enterprise. She voted against the new bridge, for God’s sake! If you need a label, she’s a progressive. She’s post-ideological, post-all of the political noise that adds nothing to the delivery of effective civic management. She’s also the antidote to Victoria’s legendary, but outmoded, genius for inertia.

Helps has well-considered positions about almost everything relevant to the delivery of responsive, adroit, competent local government. Importantly, she intends to author a major culture change within City Hall, moving it from a place whose body language perpetually says “No”—a stance that takes up a tremendous amount of the City’s energy and capacity—toward a culture of partnership.

I finish with almost a postscript: ex-CFAX broadcaster Stephen Andrew’s last-minute entry into the mayoral fray. Andrew is self-bannered as a “real choice for Victoria Mayor,” into which I read all of the oompah-pah that, in a thousand other elections, has promised much and delivered little. While I know and respect that Andrew has, in past, been a successful journalist, we’re not electing gregarious radio interviewers in November, but political leaders.

Give me Mayor Squishy, please.

Gene Miller is currently co-writing 50 by 20 with Rob Abbott. The two are also about to launch 50x20.com—a companion website dedicated to championing exceptional North American sustainability initiatives and accomplishments.