The past two Vancouver mayoralty election campaigns have featured few issues and a small voter turnout on polling day. But wealthy, Dutch-born businessman William Vander Zalm’s challenge to Michael Harcourt’s bid for re-election later this month has injected welcome color and excitement
into this year’s race. The reason: Vander Zalm, a former Social Credit cabinet minister and onetime mayor of Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver, has been one of the most flamboyant and popular politicians in British Columbia during the past 18 years. Describing himself as a “carpetbagger” who recently moved
from Surrey, Vander Zalm acknowledged that he is the underdog in the contest. But Harcourt is taking his rival seriously, even though a recent poll showed the mayor with 50 per cent of voter support to 20 per cent for Vander Zalm. Declared Harcourt: “If you want someone like him to sneak up and become mayor, then just be complacent.”
The struggle for the mayor’s office reflects the polarization that characterizes provincial politics in British Columbia. Vander Zalm is running for the Non-Partisan Association, a civic party that Liberals and Conservatives formed in the 1930s to keep socialists out of city hall. That coalition succeeded in controlling Vancouver for 40 years. But now Harcourt, who was an unsuccessful candidate for the New Democrats in the 1979 provincial election, is running as an independent backed by four left-leaning aldermen who have dominated the 11member council during the past four years. Already, Vander Zalm has lashed out at what he calls the “Commies on council” who, he complains, waste their time debating such issues as nuclear disarmament.
Despite the two candidates’ clear-cut differences, they have similar reasons for seeking the job: both want to preside over Vancouver’s destiny at a time when the city is undergoing one of the most dramatic transformations since it was incorporated 98 years ago. During Harcourt’s tenure about $5 billion worth of federal and provincial funds have poured into the city to support huge development projects, which include a $1.5-billion world transportation and communications fair in 1986. At the same time, a $l-billion rapid transit system linking downtown Vancouver with neighboring New Westminster and Surrey will upgrade a network that relies heavily on 35-year-old trolley buses. And on the city’s waterfront a $137million project, funded largely by Ottawa, is replacing decaying wharves with a convention centre, a cruise ship terminal dock, a harborfront hotel and the federal pavilion for Expo 86.
Until Harcourt won assurances that Expo 86 would not leave the city with a massive debt, he had opposed the provincially sponsored project on the shores of False Creek. Declared the mayor: “We did not want Expo to be just a six-month party which leaves us with a bad hangover.” For his part, Vander Zalm has always supported the huge projects now changing the face of Vancouver and he argues that he would be a better civic promoter than Harcourt. Added Vander Zalm: “What the city lacks is salesmanship.” Still, before he can sell Vancouver to the world, Vander Zalm has to sell himself at the polls on Nov. 17.
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