Fall of an icon sparks rise of opposition

Only weeks ago, this seemed like a walk in Beacon Hill Park for Lisa Helps.

There were no well-organized opponents, her own team was muscling up, she had name recognition, a track record as mayor and a list of supporters from the last election, many of them eager to sign on again.

Just one little symbolic move in the middle of summer and she could go into campaign over-drive as council gave itself a four-week break starting August 9:

Haul away the statute of John A. Macdonald that had stood at the steps of city hall for 36 years, at dawn on a Saturday morning, with little advance notice to city council and the public.

Compared to the big issues, it seems like a minor gesture. But it galvanized opposition to the mayor and left her detractors fuming and some of her supporters wondering why she would poke the hornets’ nest just before the campaign begins.

Letters and online polls confirmed the outrage, some running at 80%+ against the removal. Stephen Hammond, a new mayoral candidate with an established organization emerged as a challenger, and another even more profiled candidate quietly mulled entry to the race. Watch as she or he and others decide in the next few days and weeks.

Note to newcomers: There’s not much time to get the ball rolling, so those without an army of volunteers and a war chest need not apply.

To her detractors, the destatuing, as the legal geeks call it, just confirmed gnawing doubts over other issues: the mayor’s handling of the housing crisis, strange ideas like using city parks for homeless shelters (Topaz) or housing (Central), her insistence on expanding the bike network before the pavement had dried on the first two lanes downtown, used daily by many while non-cyclists insist they could have designed them better. Traditionalists see the removal of John A, book-ended with her refusal to swear allegiance to the Queen at the start of her term as insults to the country and its heritage.

I am sure there is much more to the statue story still to be revealed. Nothing is simple in the ever-expanding field of Aboriginal relations at every level of government in this country.

Lawsuits abound, judges reaffirm Aboriginal title, sometimes over huge swaths of land, and the B.C. government keeps paying the bills and scrambling to adjust to new realities as they wonder how much of the province they will still control when (not any time soon) the process plays out.

Helps and the City Family, who breezed past council by presenting the John A decision as a rubber stamp, can talk about reconciliation and witness ceremonies, but we can assume the mayor must also be following a strategy mapped out by lawyers and constitutional experts.

You don’t put your re-election and the city itself at risk without coordinating a controversial decision with the legal framework, do you? Not if you’re a smart, young, think-outside-the-box mayor setting the city on a new course. You consult the city solicitor first. Right?

So now it’s a race, but still Lisa’s to lose. Hammond of the unfortunately named Mad as Hell–talk about an image problem–is still far behind her in organizing and fundraising, but the resistance to the mayor, always bubbling under the surface, has broken out to the tops of the new high-rises that many old-school Victorians–cranky curmudgeons, but remember, they vote–detest for blocking their precious view of the Sooke Hills.

In the lobby at city hall this week, a swaggering middle-aged man with a mane of hair pulled out his wallet to pay a parking ticket and announced out loud: “This is for the Lisa Helps retirement fund.” Then he said it again, for those who missed it. A little mean, but the kind of comment you hear frequently, as well as praise for the mayor’s accomplishments. Vaughn Palmer of the Vancouver Sun, the senior political writer in the province, called her a “pipsqueak” in a column lambasting the statue removal. I think my own readers, who I’m just getting to know, would frown at that.

So in the early stages of the campaign, her opponents appear to have momentum on their side, courtesy of the mayor herself. If she can snatch it back, she will likely sail into a second term by a comfortable margin. If not, she may be, as another bitter commenter chortled, “one and done.”

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