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September 21st – I’m certain I’m about to be lied to. Whatever these slick hucksters are going to say, I’ll have to be on guard, for their intention is to dupe regular folks like you and me into voting against our true interests. Politics, as we’ve all been told, is a dirty, selfish business.
In the parking lot behind the Olympic Village Canada Line station the heavy cameras of the real press – OMNI, CTV, Global, CBC – along with the inky clout of The Province and The Globe and Mail, fan out before a plastic podium, adorned with the red, white and blue of the Non-Partisan Association.
“Check one, two, one-two,” a youngish man from the hired production company clucks into the microphones.
My first ever political press event.
There’s barely time to absorb the scene before a woman in business casual seizes my hand, demands a card and informs me she has “backgrounders” – the printed materials provided for journalists too lazy or deadline-crunched to take notes or ask questions. She works for a “reputation management” company – one of the benefactors of the looming municipal elections.
“I don’t get quoted,” she tells me, but offers her number in case I want to speak to someone who does. Naturally, I sense in her offer more of the vague lies of politics.
Lingering at the back, I feel an outsider among the SUVs and impatience of the paid press, the feigned calm of the milling candidates, and the day-job stares of the production folks. Two dozen humans are present, but not one a full-fledged civilian. They’re left to learn about this on the evening news – this choreographed dance between politics and media, held not in front of the Canada Line station, but behind it, the reason no doubt related to the rusty train tracks laying idle just behind the podium. Yes, the stage is all set for the NPA’s “significant campaign platform announcement”.
But that’s not why I’m here. My reason stands to the right of the podium, hands clasped at his waist, the whole spectacle not yet routine enough for him to put on the air of calm exuded by the veterans. Another tender virgin of municipal politics. The poor bastard, I think. I’ve got him under the microscope, and he’s basically asked me to do it, this council hopeful – our window into the Vancouver civic election.
The intention is not to promote the NPA. Nor Vision Vancouver. Nor is it to undermine them. No, the aim is to provide a raw glimpse into the world of municipal politics by tracking in painstaking detail the journey of a single candidate. I’ve demanded total access. The story will be useless, I’ve explained, unless I’m there when the critical decisions are made and the pivotal battles fought. To his benefit or peril, Jason Lamarche was the first one to say, “all right”.
But that was a week ago (or maybe six), when he seemed excited at the prospect of dedicated coverage. Today I arrive at this “significant campaign platform announcement” uninvited, and filled with an amateur’s uncertainty. The NPA is a formidable political organization, having enjoyed fifteen years of majority rule until their implosion, most recently at the hands of a slick Vision Vancouver campaign fronted by a handsome man named Gregor Robertson. Decimated in 2008, the Non-Partisan Association’s current fundraising and media efforts suggest it’s serious about mounting a comeback, and it’s the only legitimate challenger to the Robertson juggernaut. Who knows how they’ll feel about Lamarche’s decision to let me in.
All that is speculation, but this much is certain: today our boy looks sharp and focused next to the podium. While the rest of the candidates engage in idle chatter, or busy themselves on their smartphones, Lamarche stands alone, having staked out an early claim, hoping to appear on the evening news next to party leader Suzanne Anton. Dressed for the task, he sports a well-cut suit (stripes aligned at every seam) and a thin red tie. Face immaculately shaved, he looks young, in spite of his retreating hairline, and I sense a grin tugging at his cheeks as he notices my presence and the snap of my shutter. As best I can tell, no one else has a dedicated reporter.
And to be fair, not many candidates would allow such a thing, especially by an unknown and cynical liability such as myself. Politicians are notoriously risk-averse. But here’s the thing about our man – the youngest on the NPA ticket, a former sponsored skateboarder, the lone renter, an unknown: somehow he needs to get known. Above the 40,000 votes the NPA will deliver him by party loyalty alone, he needs to drum up an additional 10,000 to 20,000 himself to earn a council seat. It leaves him with the question asked by candidates for the last twenty years in this town: how the hell do you convince 20,000 people to check your name in a ballot box? The vast majority of it comes down to pure name recognition. No doubt I’m a part of that strategy. The pessimist in me understands that, but beyond a calculated act of self-promotion, I can’t help but wonder if Lamarche’s willingness to open up is evidence of his confidence – not in my skills or objectivity, but in his own. Maybe, just maybe, he actually believes in what he has to say, and he believes people will like what they hear, if only he can figure out how to get them to hear it.
An opportunity presents itself: the soundcheck complete, Lamarche finds himself alone in the dead eyes of the TV cameras, and he makes what I interpret as an attempt to win the favour of their operators, in the hope they might pan to him at some future event, or ask his opinion at the next press conference:
“Do you need a white-balance card?” he quips, feigning a Vannah White pose with the imagined prop. No one laughs. With eight weeks until the November 19 elections, these early-campaign announcements are snoozers for the media heavies. (“It’s where they make the promises they’re going to break,” a network cameraman tells me while packing his gear.) Having received the morning press release, editors citywide balanced their resources against the potential payoff of this “significant campaign platform announcement”. Decisions, decisions: what if somebody gets shot?
Oh, wow, striding through the parking lot, assistant at her elbow, mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton is the last to arrive, in true dramatic fashion. Lamarche, taking the lead, begins a slow clap, and he cracks off two or three, right beside the microphones, before realizing no one else has joined in. Greetings are exchanged, hands shaken, before Anton shuffles her papers and settles in front of the podium.
“Today marks the second in a series of announcements that we will be making in the coming weeks that will offer Vancouver voters a positive, common-sense alternative to Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver,” Anton declares, reading from a script so stilted it deserves a second reading.
The newspaper folks begin jotting dutifully in their vertical-flip notebooks, and I wonder vaguely if I’m doing it wrong: recording on my phone for later, and absorbing the quality of Anton’s speech for now. I decide she would make a painful preacher – voice gripped tight in her throat and delivery suggesting an awareness of human intonation but not quite an understanding. The contrived pauses and stresses reach their climax as she delivers the punch line:
“It gives me great pleasure… to announce today, that the NPA is bringing the downtown streetcar back to Vancouver.”
An odd silence befalls her team before they break into applause, and I have the overwhelming sensation of being trapped at a sibling’s high school play. Her speech trods on, stumbling once or twice, but backed by a dozen candidates nodding in unison at anything faintly resembling a point. And suddenly I realize: these are not the calculating pros we’ve all grown cynical of, watching CNN. These are not even the comparatively slick, well-oiled campaigns of Canadian provincial or federal politicians, with their professional script-writers, market research, and illusions of spontaneity. Here in the trenches of municipal politics the vibe is raw to a point that it’s endearing. “Oh, I can’t stay mad at you!” – these are regular people, and it’s about the only thing that makes the whole awkward ballet tolerable.
Our man Lamarche, for example: the skateboarder-turned-small-business-banker. We ride the train home together, me drawing a ticket from the machine, him in possession of a one-zone pass. He holds a shitty red umbrella. We talk about the conference and I ask him about the intimidating effect of the mainstream cameras. “I didn’t know where to look,” he admits, with a modest smile. But he had fun. He enjoyed himself. And he thought the party’s announcement was genuinely important, well-conceived and well-executed. Not everyone agreed.
And once again I’m confronted by the rude question that I’ll be facing for the duration of this series: where is that line between fact and fiction? Where does the choreography end, and the real dance begin? Would he tell me if he thought the announcement was hollow, vapid, manipulative trickery? I size him up, as we stroll down Davie Street, and he pontificates on voter apathy. When I talk he leans in and makes eye contact – a Trudeau trick. When he speaks he does so articulately, and with much movement of the hands.
“You’re a believer in the system,” I finally accuse him.
“Of course,” he claims, and he gestures to the expanse of concrete before us. “This is a road. This is not an accident,” his eyes alight.
“This is a sidewalk,” he says, shifting his gaze to the ground. “This is not an accident.”
He points out the purple hue of the garbage cans and the rainbow banners hanging from the lampposts – symbols of safety and acceptance – all the while shrugging his shoulders at me and holding his palms to the sky, as if to ask, “do you not appreciate how all of this stuff gets done?”
And it occurs to me that I don’t.
At least, not yet.