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There were balloons and tables full of people from various corners of the city – residents of inner-city Strathcona, private-club members from the west side – all listening to a speech about making Vancouver a united, safe city once again.

It was another meal at the Floata restaurant in Chinatown, one of several banquet halls that have become gathering places this month for mayoral candidates. With less than a year to go before the Oct. 15, 2022, vote, civic election campaign season in Vancouver has begun.

The Floata dinner this month was the unofficial launch of that campaign, with Ken Sim and his new A Better City party inviting 400 people to come, eat and listen for free.

This past Monday, it was Mayor Kennedy Stewart at the Pinnacle Hotel Waterfront delivering the message to about 100 people that Vancouver is slowly improving, thanks to his fight for better housing, drug policies and climate efforts. That morning, he had reannounced a plan his team has developed to allow denser housing – developments with as many as six units apiece – on 2,000 residential properties as one more way of tackling the city’s housing crisis.

And Thursday it was Mark Marissen at the legendary Fraserview Hall, site of many a political banquet, as the long-time federal and provincial political consultant looks to mount a mayoral bid with another new civic party, Progress Vancouver.

John Coupar, the park board commissioner, was appointed in April as the Non-Partisan Association’s candidate.

As a result, former NPA councillor Colleen Hardwick is expected to run for mayor under a new banner, the TEAM for a Livable Vancouver party.

Along with the five known mayoral contenders, seven civic parties have already joined the long-distance race, including the Vision Vancouver party that dominated council for 10 years before being wiped out in 2018.

And while Surrey, the region’s second-biggest city, doesn’t have quite as many mayoral candidates or parties as Vancouver, there are definite signs that there will be challengers to Mayor Doug McCallum.

This is all very new. In the past, election campaigns didn’t usually get rolling until May or June before a fall election, and mayoral candidates sometimes weren’t revealed until September. Conventional political wisdom is that the general public doesn’t pay attention to an election until about eight weeks before voting day.

There are a couple of simple reasons for this early activity in Vancouver and Surrey, experienced political strategists and observers say.

“You’ve got two mayors who are eminently beatable,” said Norman Stowe, who runs PR firm Pace Group. He has worked on campaigns in both Surrey (Dianne Watts and Surrey First) and Vancouver (the NPA). “You’ve got the two biggest cities and the two most vulnerable mayors. People don’t like what they’re seeing in their communities – and they don’t like their character.”

Mr. Stewart, a former NDP MP, was Vancouver’s first mayor in three decades with no party affiliation, garnering just 28.71 per cent of the vote in a fractured field in 2018. Since then, he has struggled to work with a council that currently consists of four parties and three independents.

Mr. Stowe and others also talk frequently about the other factor driving early campaigns: the change to campaign financing rules that has banned corporate and union contributions and limited individual donations to $1,200.

“It’s hard to raise money like that,” Mr. Stowe said. “The days of million-dollar-plus campaigns are over.”

That puts smaller parties on a slightly more equal footing, which encourages more people to vote for them, although they still have to contend with the decades of branding of established parties. That, in turn, creates a more confusing situation in a province where people have to vote for an entire council instead of just one ward councillor, as happens elsewhere.

Voters in the province’s two largest cities have typically relied on a short list of party brands to figure out which team to support. But when the brands come and go and there are many to choose from, votes start flying every which way.

All of which means that Vancouver and Surrey residents may be facing yet another plethora of choices next fall – and the possibility that the current mayors will sail to a second minority victory – unless other mayoral candidates in those cities unite in some way.

That’s one more reason the campaign season will be long, as the “let’s get rid of the current guy” challengers get to work.

At the moment, they’re all working on crafting their pitches, along with raising money and putting together a slate of councillors. Many say that team will be chosen or announced in the spring.

Mr. Sim’s speech focused on creating a “15-minute city” where people can get to everything they need – grocery store, school, community centre, park – with a 15-minute walk or bike ride from their homes, an idea that has become popular in some European cities and the general community of city planners. And he talked about the need for a safer city, a hot-button topic in some neighbourhoods, where residents feel public disorder and crime have skyrocketed during the pandemic and under Mr. Stewart.

Mr. Coupar, the mayoral candidate for the once-powerful Non-Partisan Association, talks extensively about the need for better services – more community centres, parks and pools – and faster replacement of the city’s sewers, which currently dump sewage overflow into local waters during heavy rainfalls.

Mr. Marissen’s message: “A more ambitious housing program, rather than waxing nostalgic about the way the city used to be.” And a more intense effort tackling the opioid crisis.

Ms. Hardwick has established a strong track record of expressing doubt about the need for massive amounts of new housing and redevelopment – a message that is sure to resonate with homeowners in some neighbourhoods – and insisting on doing a better job of managing the city’s money. She says the TEAM party has already started work on policy.

Mr. Stowe said each of those challengers to Mr. Stewart has something valuable to offer.

Mr. Marissen is a superlative political organizer, he said. Ms. Hardwick has the most solid policy ideas. Mr. Sim is the best organized and has the most money. And someone who hasn’t declared her candidacy yet but is rumoured to be interested, Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung, has the strongest community ties.

Mr. Coupar has the brand name of the NPA behind him, Mr. Stowe said, but that will only work among voters who haven’t read anything about the NPA board’s more right-wing members and their controversies.

If all those people came together to challenge the mayor, they could prevail.

“But that won’t happen if they split three or four ways,” Mr. Stowe said.

In Vancouver, beleaguered voters are going to be faced with a year of speculation about who the contenders might be on the left-progressive side.

Although Mr. Stewart is the only declared mayoral candidate there, that may not last forever. Vision Vancouver hasn’t ruled out the possibility of running someone, although “we’re also talking to Team Kennedy,” Vision organizer Ange Valentini said. Former Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer also said she is being asked on a regular basis about running for mayor and hasn’t ruled it out. She believes another candidate on the left might emerge because of concerns that Mr. Stewart doesn’t appeal to a big enough group.

There’s also constant chatter about whether the Green Party, where long-time councillor Adriane Carr routinely tops the polls, will run a mayoral candidate. Ms. Carr has always shied away from that, and Councillor Pete Fry, though a strong presence at council, said he doesn’t feel he’s ready for that.

It will be up to Mr. Stewart to convince voters that he has a team he can accomplish things with – and persuade some council candidates to be part of that team.

He says he’s working on it.

But for now the mayor doesn’t have that, and it’s something he needs to solidify, said Marcella Munro, a political strategist who worked with Vision Vancouver for years.

“If I were him, I would start early. So far, he hasn’t pulled together the progressive side. He would be in a better state if had built a coalition,” said Ms. Munro, now a principal at PR firm McMillan Vantage in Toronto.

“There’s a sleeping giant there, but it takes the right person, someone who can galvanize a chunk of the progressive vote with a chunk of the liberal vote.”

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