Year of the independent? Several Vancouver city council candidates look to buck history

An independent candidate for council hasn't been elected in Vancouver since 1988. Here are some of the people hoping to change that.

Campaign finance reform and a lack of incumbents seeking re-election are reasons independents have high hopes

An independent candidate for council hasn't been elected in Vancouver since 1988. (Cliff Shim/CBC)

It's been 30 years since someone was elected to Vancouver's city council an an independent. 

But there are a sizable number of would-be politicians looking to change that in this year's municipal elections.  

"Being able to speak on issues, without having to work with a caucus or nine other colleagues you're running with, there's a certain freedom to that I'm actually quite enjoying right now," said Rob McDowell, a candidate for the NPA in the 2014 election.

This year, he's running as an independent after he was rejected by the party.

McDowell is one of several people who last week announced or indicated they would campaign to run for council as an independent. Like others running, he cited changes to municipal campaign finance laws, randomized election ballots, and the fact just two of ten councillors are seeking re-election to their position as reasons for optimism. 

"I know some of the people … and they're really good people that have their own ideas, that obviously don't always fit in the template that a party makes you fit into," said Adrian Crook, who also announced last week his independent run. 

"People are tired of politics standing in the way of progress, and independents stand outside that broken system and working with others."

Focus on specific issues

Former park board commissioner Sarah Blyth was the first high-profile person to enter the race as an independent.  

"It just seems like there's an opportunity to try something a little different. I think there's a possibility you can win as an independent this time if you work hard.

Blyth, the co-founder of the Overdose Prevention Society, was formerly a Vision Vancouver park board commissioner, but says going it alone allows her to focus her message on issues that are important to her, including mental health and the opioid crisis. 

"You don't have to run things by folks because you're part of a team, you just move forward," she said.

Taqdir (Taq) Bhandal, a PhD student at UBC, who has been running for several months, enjoys being able to campaign with her own message.

"I'm one of the few candidates who's really thinking of going beyond the political spectrum of left or the right, and trying to come up with a universalized way of incorporating social and environment justice together,"  Bhandal said.

Bhandal said her team did an analysis of all votes at city council, and found NPA and Vision Vancouver councillors voted the same as their party colleagues more than 90 per cent of the time. 

"I want to act as as an agent with a social justice and environmental lens, rather than, because of the way political systems have been set up, end up just voting along party line."

Name recognition key

While some of the advantages of running with a party have been reduced, namely greater access to funds, higher name recognition, independents still face an uphill battle in getting voters to know them.  

"The public really identifies with parties,"  said Sandy Garossino, who ran for Vancouver council as an independent in 2011.

"They have a really strong affiliation with parties one way or the other. They don't really know enough about independent candidates in general," said Garossino.

In 2011, she got the most support of any independent candidate this century, focusing her campaign on foreign capital impacting Vancouver's housing market. She still finished more than 25,000 votes short. 

Garossino said while the dynamics of this election are different, it would still take a lot for anyone to gain a foothold with voters accustomed to focusing solely on the mayoral race and supporting council candidates with parties they support. 

"They've got to really make a big impact, not just be a favourite of the inside-the-bubble people who are really watching this closely."