David Chudnovsky with Vision councillor Tony Tang, photo credit: Brent Granby
In 2008 Vision Vancouver was elected on a platform to end homelessness and build affordable housing. After three years of NPA rule, Vision was supposed to be the progressive alternative to NPA’s developer-friendly politics at City Hall. Today many Vancouverites feel they were given a raw deal. Basic affordability has worsened and homelessness is higher than when Vision started. What was promised as a political “paradigm shift” turned out to be one of the most aggressively pro-corporate, tax-cutting municipal governments seen in the history of Vancouver.
Now yet another ‘new’ party is appealing to people who are frustrated with corporate-class civic politics and want to see real change. David Chudnovsky and RJ Aquino, former COPE politicians, yesterday announced the formation of OneCity. Some progressives have expressed tentative optimism about the announcement, while some Vision backers have also endorsed the party.
The launch of OneCity coincides with Vision announcing that they will be giving space for two non-Vision candidates for city council in the upcoming November elections. Probably more than a few observers are now asking: Who are those two remaining seats for? Who is behind the new party and what is their relationship to Vision Vancouver?
The main organizer behind the new party is David Chudnovsky, former COPE executive member and long-standing architect of the COPE-Vision electoral alliance from 2005 – 2011. To understand why Chudnovsky has decided to create another party we have to revisit the history of the Vision faction within COPE and its ongoing attempts to stop COPE, Vancouver’s oldest left-wing party, from organizing and challenging the right wing Vision-NPA voting block at city council.
Creating Vision to stop COPE: 2005 – 2008
COPE held majorities on all levels of civic government in the three years preceding 2005. In the lead-up to the November 2005 elections, however, COPE Mayor Larry Campbell and his chief of staff Geoff Meggs began taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from real-estate and gambling interests.
As Mayor, Campbell voted against COPE’s own progressive platform on transit and the Olympics, forming a pro-business faction dubbed ‘COPE Lite’ by local journalists. In the process, Meggs and Campbell also created The Friends of Larry Campbell, a fundraising body capable of receiving funds from Wall Financial and other developers. Eventually, in 2005, the group transformed into a separate party called Vision Vancouver.
While Vancouver’s neoliberal politicians created Vision, they also organized to take over as many positions as possible within COPE itself. Their priority was to stop COPE from running a mayor or a majority of candidates. In February of 2005, Chudnovsky (along with George Heyman, Jim Green and others) unsuccessfully tried to persuade David Cadman, COPE’s likely mayoral candidate, to support a Vision compromise.
Despite these efforts against them, COPE members voted down an electoral alliance with Vision Vancouver at COPE’s general meeting on July 15th 2005. In response to the show of strength from the general membership against the new Vision party, key politicians within the party organized a campaign to overturn the membership’s decision. This campaign included explicit threats that some unions would pull funding and that COPE’s elected school trustees would resign en masse. Although he was by no means the only power broker, then-MLA David Chudnovsky played a prominent role.
In the face of an ultimatum from some of their politicians, the COPE membership chose to not field a mayoral candidate, although they stopped short of endorsing Vision candidates. (Unsurprisingly, several of the politicians who organized the school board resignation campaign of 2005 were also at yesterday’s press conference for Chudnovsky’s new party, OneCity).
In the lead-up to the coming election in 2008, much of COPE’s membership remained opposed to another term as “junior partner” with Vision. To counter this anti-Vision current within COPE, Chudnovsky successfully organized a slate to take over COPE’s executive. The slate ran a campaign devoid of any long-term plan for how to rebuild COPE independent of Vision, and was instead largely centered on scapegoating former Councilor Tim Louis, who opposed Vision’s pro-developer policies.
Vision’s true colours: 2008 – 2011
When Vision was elected in 2008, the promise to address the housing crisis quickly turned into a developer feast on low-income and affordable housing across Vancouver. Vision councillors embraced the Non Partisan Association (NPA) developer agenda, even surpassing the NPA with tax breaks and fee exemptions for developers through programs such as STIR. During Vision’s first term in office, corporate tax rates in Vancouver had plummeted to the lowest in the world.
State-led gentrification, developer bailouts, and massive cuts to promised social housing at the Olympic Village and elsewhere surprised and disappointed voters. The widely-held hope that the 2008 financial crisis could teach politicians about the failures of neoliberal policy – and help turn the tide against historic inequality – turned out to be a pipe dream.
In the summer of 2011, Vision Vancouver was nearing the end of their first term in office and was beginning to mount a November re-election campaign. But the buzz of 2008 was no longer in the air. The previous progressive consensus around Vision’s “big tent” agenda was beginning to unravel. At their annual general meeting in June 2011, the municipal Green Party decided against an electoral cooperation with Vision in favour of collaboration with COPE. And in an online poll, 54% of Georgia Straight readers agreed that “COPE should forge an alliance with the Greens for the 2011 Vancouver election.”
In response to popular sentiment across Vancouver, housing activists decided to join with long-time labour organizers and COPE members to form COPE Not Vision, a grassroots movement to “take back the city from the developer agenda of the Vision-NPA alliance.” By the spring of 2011 the movement for a democratic, leftist and independent COPE, in the hands of Vancouver’s residents instead of its developers, was underway.
June 26, 2011: COPE’s last electoral agreement with Vision
Despite the momentum for change within the party, COPE’s executive focused its resources on securing an electoral agreement with Vision. The deal was negotiated in a series of private meetings, where Vision was represented by Bob Penner of Vision’s polling company, StratCom. COPE’s side was led by David Chudnovsky. Meeting minutes show that there was very little discussion of policy at these private meetings with Vision.
The final wording of the agreement was presented to COPE members on the same day as the party’s general meeting on June 26, 2011, providing members with little time to respond to the terms of the agreement. The final agreement made no mention of actual policies or positions, only stressing “shared principles” and that COPE and Vision would refrain from criticizing each other’s voting record or policy platforms during the elections.
At that June meeting, Chudnovsky presented and defended the final terms of the private deal, leading the call for a continued electoral alliance with Vision. Party members heard from both sides of the debate. Many members responded passionately, arguing that while a Vision alliance might help defeat the NPA in the short term, Vision itself had adopted the policy agenda of the municipal right-wing. A long-term project of rebuilding the left in Vancouver was needed, and members of ‘COPE Not Vision’ argued that COPE was the place to take on that challenge.
In response to arguments for an independent COPE, Chudnovsky gave a two-part response. On the one hand he argued that, despite its flaws, Vision was still a progressive party. On the other hand, Chudnovsky argued in response to an article re-published in The Mainlander that the substance of Vision’s positions and policies was simply not important to the debate:
A discussion of how to characterize Vision’s politics would be, I think, a useful exercise. But to determine whether the progressive vote will be split, we need to examine not the political positions of Vision, but the views of the voters.
Vision’s policies were either acceptable or not important because, according to Chudnovsky, voters favored the status quo. For Chudnovsky, a discussion of Vision’s policies might be considered a “useful exercise,” but an exercise that should not inform the practical politics of COPE.
For a prominent leader of COPE during the first term of Vision’s reign, Chudnovsky paid almost no critical attention to Vision’s devastating policies. As Georgia Straight editor Charlie Smithconcluded at the time, the COPE of 2008-11 systematically avoided any criticism of Vision Vancouver and Mayor Gregor Robertson. “Based on the evidence on the COPE Web site, it’s fair to refer to the left-wing civic party as the junior partner to Vision Vancouver,” wrote Smith. “I reserve the right to change my mind if COPE starts criticizing the governing party’s politicians by name, like any other real opposition party in this country.”
By leading the fight against ‘COPE not Vision’, Chudnovsky dragged the party into a defeat in the November 2011 elections. No COPE council candidates were elected to government in November. The vote at the annual general meeting of 2011 did not follow the bold and independent path of the Greens – who are currently stronger than ever – and the stage was set for three more years of debate about whether or not to engage in an electoral cooperation with Vision.
An Independent COPE: 2012-2014
In November of 2011, a COPE-backed Vision was re-elected to office. Emboldened by a neutralized left, Vision hit harder with a second-term agenda of austerity and tax cuts, with gentrification and developer tax breaks rolled out even more aggressively than before. Yet for the next three years, at each COPE general meeting, the same cast of actors – led by David Chudnovsky and joined in 2011 by RJ Aquino – argued for a continued strategic alliance. But the COPE membership wanted a new strategy, and began electing new leaders.
At COPE’s April 2013 Annual General Meeting attended by over 500 people, the membership voted by a massive 5-to-1 margin to strike clear independence from Vision, followed by an unfortunate incident where Chudnovsky stood in front of the room and called the members’ decision “stupid.”
Chudnovsky retained the two-year COPE fundraiser position for another 9-months. During that time he did not fundraise for COPE, despite continuing to hold office. Instead he began laying the groundwork for a new party. In the fall of 2013, Chudnovsky and Aquino formally left COPE and has now announced OneCity.
In their time as leaders of COPE they took measures to keep COPE an effective front group and “farm team” for Vision. Among the most established politicians in Chudnovsky’s circle have since joined Vision Vancouver as candidates for the upcoming election, including Brent Granby and Allan Wong.
It remains to be seen if OneCity candidates are willing to run against, rather than alongside, Vision candidates. There is cause for concern not least in the fact that Vision has announced it will be setting aside two council seats for non-Vision members. At least one prominent Vision supporter has pointed in this direction: “Vision is only running eight [candidates] and I think there’s room for a strong couple of city councillors who aren’t Vision members and that’s why I’m supporting RJ.”
OneCity may be calling itself a new party, but the history of its main players shows that the group is part of a larger trajectory of compromise and division on the left.
 “Larry’s party an indie affair,” Allen Garr, Vancouver Courier, 15 Dec 2004; “Developers help bankroll mayor’s faction: Councillors question contributions,” Frances Bula, The Vancouver Sun, 1 Apr 2005.
 “At-large vote gave NPA edge,” Allen Garr, Vancouver Courier, 30 Nov 2005.
 “Possible Vision Vancouver-COPE alliance scrapped,” Petti Fong, The Globe and Mail, 17 Aug 2005.
 “NDP politicians, labour endorse Jim Green, Vision Vancouver and COPE candidates,” The Vancouver Sun, 11 Nov 2005.