Coping with COPE’s ouster

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site  |  November 21, 2011  |  Circulation: 100,000 average monthly readers

Mayor Gregor Robertson addresses a COPE fundraiser during the election campaign. Photo by David P. Ball.

2011 Vancouver Municipal ElectionOn Saturday night, when Marcus Youssef walked into his party’s civic campaign office, it was stuffed to the brim with supporters, drinking, making speeches, mingling. Was this Vision’s massive election blow-out at the Sheraton? NPA’s Fairmont rally?

“It was a shitty campaign office next to whatever’s pizzeria at Fraser and Broadway, and it was packed,” Youssef told the Vancouver Observer. Youssef is the co-chair of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), a 40-year old party reduced from its 2002 sweep to a single school board seat on Saturday.

“Obviously the mood changed over the course of the evening,” he said. “We were a little surprised. But that’s politics, right? Winners and losers. It turns — and you never know when it’s going to turn.”
With COPE pushed out of council entirely – replaced by two Non-Partisan Association (NPA) candidates and the Green Party’s Adriane Carr – many are asking what went wrong on November 19, especially since the Vancouver’s historic progressive party had signed an electoral alliance with Vision Vancouver, the clear victor on all levels.

A small budget
“We ran a campaign with $300,000,” Youssef said. “The only way to elect candidates – unless you’re Adriane Carr, and barely, with her name recognition – is with millions of dollars.”

“We need electoral reform, we need wards, and we need campaign finance reform. We are the Wild West as far as municipal electoral regulations.”

Compare COPE’s estimated $300,000 to the NPA and Vision’s estimated $2.5 million campaign budgets, and it’s easy to see how a small party like COPE would have a tough time getting a word in edgewise. B.C. has no spending or contribution limits for municipal elections.

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“More and more people are going to become disenchanted with the electoral process the longer we go down this road.” Alvin Singh, COPE’s executive director.

COPE organizers’ frustration with massive increases in campaign spending this election – some estimate that Vision and NPA roughly doubled their spending from 2008 – is shared by many we spoke to the day after their defeat.

“Without election spending limits, it’s really not a democratic process for Vancouver,” said Nathan Allen, COPE’s campaign co-manager. “You have to spend millions of dollars – that means developers are on both sides and really control the show.”

NSV taking the progressive vote?

COPE was unprepared for the results, candidates said afterwards.

“I’m in shock about the whole thing,” said former councillor Ellen Woodsworth. “I feel like it’s a pretty sad day, that we don’t have a council that really has a progressive opposition.”

“Clearly the joint campaign (with Vision) did not extend to COPE – (we) were just devastated. COPE was basically wiped out.”

According to insiders within Vision Vancouver, the loss of their electoral partner came as much a surprise – none of the polls, the Vancouver Observer was told, indicated a loss on this scale.

“(COPE) seemed very strong on the ground – I’m still emotionally coping with it,” Vision’s Andrea Reimer, who was re-elected to council, told the Vancouver Observer on Saturday. “Definitely I’m disappointed.”

Geoff Meggs, also re-elected on the Vision-dominated council, blamed COPE’s loss on Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV), a new party which emerged from anti-Vision discontent within COPE. NSV shares much of its platform – including affordable housing, neighbourhood consultation, electoral reform and reducing developer influence at City Hall.

But NSV candidate Terry Martin – a COPE member who lost the party’s nomination last June – said that COPE’s ouster from Parks Board and all-but-one seat on School Board indicate that another factor must be at play, since NSV ran only for mayor and three council positions, and endorsed all three COPE council candidates.

“That’s an absurd assessment because we didn’t run for School Board or Parks Board and they got devastated there,” he said. “In fact, nobody in NSV would have run if COPE ran a full slate – we would have supported COPE.”

COPE’s campaign co-manager Nathan Allen said that an election post-mortem has yet to happen – most organizers took Sunday to recuperate, and today will be spent recovering lawn signs and cleaning the campaign office. But he alleged that, at least in the case of candidate Ellen Woodsworth, voter suppression in the Downtown Eastside likely influenced her loss.

Allen alleged the NPA successfully pressured election officials to turn away low-income voters who did not have proper identification, despite having lawyer-signed statutory declarations, discouraging many other voters as lines lengthened. The declarations had been accepted by officials in advance polling last week, Allen said.

Michael Davis, communications director with the NPA, denied the accusations, saying NPA scrutineers simply ensured that election laws were followed.

While relatively few voters were impacted by the alleged tactics, Allen said they easily played a role in Adriane Carr’s 91-vote lead over Ellen Woodsworth, a popular long-time activist in the Downtown Eastside.

COPE campaign manager Nathan Allen, left, at party headquarters on election night. Photo by Joseph Boltrukiewicz.

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“COPE people voted for Vision” 

Some rank-and-file COPE members, however, suggested that the party is making excuses because it does not want to admit its alliance with Vision Vancouver didn’t work. Last June, party members voted for the alliance after COPE came under pressure from the Vancouver District Labour Council (VDLC) to ratify a cooperative agreement with Vision, according to several COPE activists.

“That agreement — which was supposed to help ensure that COPE elected folks — failed, with the party suffering huge losses across the board,” said party activist Riaz Behra, a door-to-door canvasser this campaign. “(It) further confused the electorate while preventing COPE from crucially distinguishing itself from Vision.”

“COPE was hamstrung — wedded to arguing for the status quo, unable to register substantive policy critiques of Vision — while Vision, in my opinion, greatly benefited from the arrangement.”

Other COPE members the Vancouver Observer spoke with agreed with Behra’s criticism of the Vision-COPE alliance.

“All the COPE people voted for Vision, and not vice-versa,” said Tristan Markle, a COPE member and co-publisher of The Mainlander. Markle argued that COPE’s vote totals were not significantly higher than in previous elections, indicating that despite the alliance few Vision voters seem to have checked COPE on their ballots in return.

“By propping up Vision and giving Vision all COPE’s votes and giving Vision all our marks and voter ID info, Vision’s just going to destroy COPE and wipe them out, which we were worried would happen – and it did.”

Markle said that, although COPE’s membership voted to support the alliance, it did so under pressure from labour unions who had shifted the bulk of their donations to Vision Vancouver since it split off from COPE after the latter’s 2002 election victory.

“Vancouver District Labour Council was going to pull its funding,” he said. “It was made not-so-subtly clear that COPE’s biggest financial resource is the $300,000 through unions, and that it wouldn’t be on the table. They didn’t have a choice.”

“I admit that COPE was in a tight spot – either way it was going to be difficult whether they did the coalition or not. (But) if COPE doesn’t stand up for itself, it’s going to lose every time.”

Allen agreed that VDLC pressure to unite the progressive-left played a significant role in his party’s decision to put forward only three council candidates and no mayoral one. But he stressed that the alliance was the right strategy.

“Most of our budget comes from unions – and they wanted to not split their money between two organizations,” he said. “(VDLC) have a strategic decision to make, and I respect that and I support that, because there’s a lot at stake in those decisions.”

“Collective bargaining with city workers under an NPA government has always been bad. They have to do what they need to do to make sure their political voice is represented.”

Some speculated that the labour movement’s insistence that COPE not harm Vision’s chances by splitting the vote may also be influenced by some workers benefiting from Vision-backed developments in the city. Vision is mainly backed by developers, but also receives sizable donations from unions.

“Some of the unions are involved in the construction trade, so the more construction there is, the more big projects there are, the more work they get,” said Martin, of NSV. “They’ve become so dependent on union money, it seems the unions can tell them what to do now.”

“The reason COPE was begun in the first place was to give voters an option of voting for someone other than a developer-funded party. To do a deal with a developer-funded party is against their entire principles.”

The media’s role

Another factor in COPE’s defeat, Markle suggested, lies in the mainstream media creating a two-horse race between Vision and the NPA throughout the election.

“The whole thing was framed in the media as between Vision and NPA, between Gregor and Anton,” he said. “They got all the attention, so COPE didn’t get any.”

Party officials insisted that COPE was in no way gagged by the labour movement or its agreement with Vision, and that their parties cooperated while maintaining their identities.

“We disagreed with Vision when we needed to, and we agreed with them when we needed to,” said Singh. “We’re not going to slam somebody just for the sake of doing that – that’s the NPA style of doing politics, not what we’re interested in doing.”

Despite the dismal results, campaign organizers also pointed out that COPE was able to get much broader exposure as a result of piggy-backing on Vision’s well-funded campaign materials, and being endorsed in Robertson’s speeches and campaign materials.

“I don’t think it was a mistake this time,” said Allen. “Ultimately we were able to reach out to more voters. We informed probably about 90,000 people on election day they could vote for Gregor Robertson and also COPE and Vision candidates.”

“I guess we didn’t do enough work to make sure that was clear.”

Either way, with COPE’s primary funders squeamish about donating to conflicting parties and the NPA rising in the polls through the campaign, the party had few options.

“Without that agreement, we would have been running a campaign on 50 bucks,” Youssef said.

As the lawn signs come down today, and COPE begins to dissect what went wrong, it is clear that the party has a period of introspection – and internal discussions – in the years ahead. But party members are hopeful that the mainstay of Vancouver social movements will continue to play a role in progressive politics – in or out of office.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Singh said, saying that the party will push even harder for electoral and campaign finance reform. “We’ve been around here for 40 years. We’ve seen similar electoral outcomes in the past where everyone wrote off COPE and said we were decimated – you know, we’re still here.”

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