British Columbia·Metro Matters

Why Victoria's mayoral race is about the city's changing character

Victoria has shed its sleepy reputation as home to "newlyweds and nearly deads" and ushered in a more urban, modern vibe.

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Hi, this is Megan Thomas, CBC's Victoria reporter. For this special issue, we're going to talk about the civic election race in the provincial capital.

It's shaping up to be a three-way contest for the mayor's chair between incumbent Lisa Helps, and two challengers without previous elected experience: business consultant Stephen Hammond and political consultant Mike Geoghegan

The mayoral race in Victoria could also be considered a referendum on the changes the city has undergone in the past four years. Victoria has shed its sleepy reputation as home to "newlyweds and nearly deads" and ushered in a more urban, modern vibe.



But the rising popularity of the city has seen skyrocketing rents, pushing housing and affordability to the top of the agenda. How people get around a busier city is also shaping up to be a ballot box issue.

Helps can claim several successes: 

  • Shepherding a boondoggle of a bridge replacement to completion after years of poor management on the file that pre-dated her time in the mayor's chair.
  • Construction has begun on a new sewage plant for the Capital region. While it's a shared regional responsibility, it is something that was marked by literally decades of in-fighting between municipalities.
  • Brokering a $90 million deal with the feds and the province to build desperately needed affordable housing.

But she's also had her share of bad publicity: 

  • Bike lanes: She worked to push through a network of protected bike lanes that are celebrated by some but the bane of some downtown business owners and drivers who paint it as part of a war on cars. Sound familiar to Vancouver?
  • A scathing report on the handling of an investigation into the now-disgraced former police chief has also dogged Helps during the campaign.
  • A public apology for a lack of public consultation following a controversial decision to remove a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from city hall, in the spirit of reconciliation with Indigenous groups.

Stephen Hammond has rooted his campaign in a pledge to make "better decisions" with a council that is more inclusive and responsive. Hammond became a household name after forming a group called Mad As Hell to speak up for residents who felt city hall was not doing enough to protect neighbours from the side effects of a long-running homeless tent city on the lawn of Victoria's courthouse. He is running on a slate called New Council along with four council candidates.

Mike Geoghegan, another challenger mounting a concerted campaign, is also promising to improve decision making and accountability at city hall. He's laid out more specific promises such as speedier approvals for housing developments and a publicly available record of how councilors vote on given issues.

In total, there are 10 candidates on the ballot for mayor in Victoria.

Outside Victoria

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the issue of housing and affordability also features prominently in the races next door in Saanich. A contentious homeless tent city in a Saanich park has brought housing and affordability to the forefront in the geographically large and diverse district. 

(Michael McArthur/CBC)

Incumbent Mayor Richard Atwell is hoping to hold off challenger Fred Haynes, a city councillor. Atwell has proposed a vacant building that used to house a library could be used for temporary modular housing on offer from the province. He's also promising to fast-track affordable housing projects.

Haynes favoured land near city hall for modular housing, but the province has since rejected that property as unsuitable. Housing measures in Haynes's platform focus on various measures to improve access to a mix of different types of housing.

All candidates debate in Oak Bay on Sept. 22. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Former community association president Rob Wickson is also among the four candidates running for mayor in Saanich.

In Oak Bay, Coun. Kevin Murdoch is trying to unseat incumbent Nils Jensen. Both candidates agree the leafy, single-family-home dominated district needs more housing, but they differ on how to get there.

Jensen is pushing a plan to allow legal secondary suites, but the idea has been in community consultation since 2015. Murdoch favours small-scale density and is campaigning on a plan to overhaul zoning and development policies so each project doesn't have to be assessed individually and decisions are less political.

That's it for us!

For more civic election coverage, CBC and UBC will host mayoral debates in Kelowna and Vancouver on Oct. 15 and Oct. 17 respectively. For election night coverage, tune in on Oct. 20 from 8 to 10 p.m. PT with host Gregor Craigie on 90.5 FM in Victoria or on the CBC Radio App. Check out the latest headlines at cbc.ca/bc and if you have any questions about the municipal election, drop us a line at metromatters@cbc.ca.

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