Coalition “maybe” as Victoria votes Together

The voters have spoken. They have elected a progressive majority in Victoria. But whether they’ll get a civic government that reflects those values is another question.

On the strength of common purpose and tireless grassroots campaigning, the new Together Victoria group has achieved a remarkable breakthrough–wins for all three members of their slate, Laurel Collins, Sarah Potts and Sharmarke Dubow.

I wonder what they could have accomplished had they run six or more candidates, including one for the mayoral chair.

If you add three to incumbents Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday, you reach the magic number of five, an absolute majority that could control all votes and chart a big leap forward such as the one TV has outlined in their platform.

But that’s the biggest “if” since Mayor Lisa Helps promised to relocate the statue after removing it from the doorstep at city hall.

For one thing, the TV organization, which represents youth, diversity and the vanguard of a new brand of Green/NDP politics, believes in the independence of elected officials when voting at the council table. That’s a long way from a coalition, such as the bloc voting at the provincial level, the thread that keeps the minority NDP government in power with the help of their allies the Greens, which is based on strict party discipline.

For another, even before the three new TV councillors are sworn in Nov. 1 (orientation begins this week), they will likely be subject to persuasion by the city hall elite that their platform is wonderful and “sure, we’ll have city staff see how we can implement it, eventually.”

On the other (left) hand, the lure of real power, especially to Isitt, who first ran for mayor against Alan Lowe in 2002, can be a strong motivator and an adhesive for politicians with a common agenda. But you have to wonder: Isitt served as his mentor when Loveday was first elected, but even they don’t vote together on major developments, as evidenced in our Voting Record chart.

So if there will be no formal coalition, there can still be a voting bloc that can help sway decisions or even amend council agendas at the start of meetings. Maybe.

The TV group is rooted in a movement that predates this campaign by more than a year, even before the provincial Green/NDP alliance toppled the Christy Clark government in the legislature on June 29, 2017.

Earlier in June of last year, grassroots NDP and Green activists met to discuss common cause at the downtown Victoria Event Centre, as a backdrop to the provincial drama. Laurel Collins was one of the facilitators of that meeting, attended by about 100 people, which helped propel the two-party movement forward. A year later, she was nominated to run for the emerging Together Victoria group.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, voting day, and the TV team was buzzing with Get Out The Vote enthusiasm at their cramped Pandora Street office, just a short (and protected) bike ride from city hall.

Sharmarke Dubow, ambling up the street to the office, stopped to invite me to tea after the election. Collins, I was told, was mainstreeting in James Bay.

I stepped inside the storefront office and the energy was infectious as the team of mostly younger volunteers jockeyed the phones between bites of takeout chicken and rice. “You should have some,” said Dubow.

“I have never seen anything like this,” said organizer Breanna Merrigan. “We have people of all ages and backgrounds who have never even voted in a municipal election, giving all their time and effort to this campaign.”

This is what wins elections, propelling candidates who were unknown two months before election day to near the top of voting result lists.

I’ve seen TV canvassers door-knocking in a rare summer downpour as part of the city-wide effort to convey the message about the three candidates and their ideas. Pastel signs in three colours sprouted on lawns, the demand so great the campaign ran out of them.

Collins said last week that voters she was approaching were starting to wave her away with a reassuring comment. “Yes, we’re supporting you.”

Organizers confer at Together Victoria campaign office: early start and real consultation led to wins

But the organizing and platform-building began months earlier, in mid-summer, when the candidates and key organizers met with community groups across the city to find out what voters wanted, to help form the basic ingredients of their platform. No other campaigns did this.

All ideas were grouped into categories and posted on white sheets. At the Burnside Gorge meeting, under “Affordable Housing, How we might find solutions,” suggestions ranged from “Balance the needs of neighbours and the community” to “Political courage–we need it.” The last one for sure.

When the meeting ended and attendees drifted off to enjoy the last of the evening sunshine, the TV candidates and key organizers stayed behind to work on the task of hammering these ideas into policy.

There were other organizing and team-building events in backyards, beamed to supporters across the city through social media.

Housing first and last. If the bloc of five “TV and friends” can rally around one urgent cause, they can reverse the affordable housing file, neglected by the outgoing council with its strong pro-high end development agenda.

The need is urgent as is the demand from the voters who supported them. Five could have been six if Pam Madoff had been part of TV, but her loss at the polls is a great loss to the city, her planning background and expertise on heritage irreplaceable at the council table.

Notes for a plan at community meeting: political courage required

Some assume Isitt had his hand on the scale to tip this balance of power all along, but TV organizers insist that he and Loveday may have been members and mentors to the TVers, but were not the leaders. But Isitt endorsed the three candidates and cooperated on some campaign initiatives.

The new council reality means Yes to bike lanes, Yes to First Nations reconciliation, both top priorities for Helps. Sir John A may have to get used to his storage locker. But Yes also to a much more aggressive approach to housing, like TV’s proposals to triple the City’s goal for social housing, replace high end approvals with at least 50% affordable housing and finally, after years of stalling, adopting a plan to capture a share of increased zoning benefits for the City. Those are in stark contrast to the council agenda of the last four years.

To achieve these bold plans will take bold initiatives, including making sure these items are included in council’s Strategic Plan, which is discussed and put in place at the start of the term. Loveday will press for a third-party review of how council consults with the public, a critical piece that could get sidelined or watered down.

Of course, the region now has $90 million in funding for social housing, most of it from the feds and province, which will provide a good start onthe affordable housing file–if applied appropriately to benefit people more than developers.

Helps says she will work with her new council, including the TVers. As long as “work with” means cooperate, not dominate, we may get progress on some crucial issues in the coming term.