EDITORIAL | Gregor is Obama’s counterpart, after all

Gregor Robertson’s 2008 campaign for Mayor rode the Obama wave. At the time, however, positive comparisons between the two were decidedly false. Ironically, present criticisms of the American president apply equally to Vancouver’s Mayor.

In 2008, Obama was an eloquent and inspiring speaker, and Gregor an embarrassing one. I attended an early Robertson campaign event in the Downtown Eastside, after which the 70-year-old woman sitting next to me remarked with conscious understatement: “not very inspiring, is he?”

Obama was a thinker — almost a pop-philosopher! And while Obama cultivated a blank-slate image onto which voters could project their hopes and dreams, Gregor could not escape the perception that the blank-slate was between his ears.

The most realistic likeness between Gregor and Obama in 2008 was that their supporters were Obama fans. These supporters longed for a politics that appealed to the best in people, a politics confident in the capacity for transformational collective action to overcome inequality, poverty, and discrimination.

In the summer of 2008, neo-liberalism had been thoroughly discredited, and voters had not yet forgotten that responsibility for the financial crisis lay squarely at the feet of right-wing policies. They voted in droves for Obama, who promised hope over fear, and for Gregor, who promised to End Homelessness by fighting day in and day out for the most marginalized in our City.

Comparisons between Obama and Gregor in 2008 were largely false. Ironically, in 2010 the comparison is far more plausible.

Marshall Ganz, who managed the grassroots component of Obama’s presidential campaign, recently published an influential article in the Los Angeles Times, outlining the reasons for Obama’s failure in his first two years. The analysis is similarly useful for evaluating Gregor Robertson.

Ganz argues that in 2008, the US wanted “transformational” leadership.

“Transformational” leadership engages followers in the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world, work that often changes the activists themselves. Its sources are shared values that become wellsprings of the courage, creativity and hope needed to open new pathways to success.

Unfortunately, Ganz points out, Obama the president instead displayed “transactional leadership.”

“Transactional” leadership, on the other hand, is about horse-trading, operating within the routine, and it is practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.

Ganz argues that the cynicism dominating US politics in 2010 has its roots in Obama’s decision to be a transactional leader instead of a transformational one. This “failure to lead” was sealed by three fundamental errors, all of which also characterize Gregor’s first two years in office. Ganz writes:

Obama and his team made three crucial choices that undermined the president’s transformational mission. First, he abandoned the bully pulpit of moral argument and public education. Next, he chose to lead with a politics of compromise rather than advocacy. And finally, he chose to demobilize the movement that elected him president.

Likewise, Mayor Robertson has neglected his “bully pulpit.” Although Robertson spent his first few months in office reminding Vancouver’s elites of the urgency of addressing the homelessness crisis, he soon abandoned even that. During the Olympics, the City’s goal was to sweep homelessness under the rug. After the Olympics, more than half of the City’s low-barrier emergency shelters were closed. Recently, he has sought to downplay the affordability and homeless crisis and has become content to make excuses for inaction.

Robertson also chose to “lead with a politics of compromise rather than advocacy.” He allowed the Little Mountain community to be illegally destroyed by Housing Minister Rich Coleman after private negotiations. Showing more compassion for developers than for the homeless, he bailed out Millenium and allowed the affordable housing component at the Olympic Village to be whittled down to a fraction of the original commitment. Instead of aggressively leveraging resources to secure land and low-income housing, he has resorted to begging developers (like the StreetToHome Foundation) for crumbs. In neighbourhood after neighbourhood, deals cut with developers behind closed doors have undermined community planning.

Most importantly, Robertson like Obama “chose to demobilize the movement that elected him.” Robertson and Vision Vancouver have cut-off communication with community groups. Robertson’s “@#$% NPA hacks” comment was noteworthy, not for its profanity, but because it showed how out-of-touch he was: they were largely @#$% COPE hacks! When Vision does send Councilors to meet with community groups, their condescension is legendary. This has not only made it impossible for Robertson to tackle Vancouver’s significant challenges, but it puts the City at risk of a right-wing take-over in the fall of 2011.

Ganz might as well be referring to Robertson when he writes:

By shifting focus from a public ready to drive change — as in “yes we can” — he shifted the focus to himself and attempted to negotiate change from the inside, as in “yes I can.”

But whereas Ganz sees a glimmer of hope that by “rediscovering the courage for transformational leadership” Obama can “begin anew,” in Vancouver it seems that any such courage will have to be discovered in the grassroots. If anything, the Mayor has become an obstacle to transformational change.