Sullivan says ‘I did everything I wanted do’

Q & A: He hopes he’ll be remembered for starting conversations on EcoDensity and Project Civil City
Source: Vancouver Sun
After 15 years on council, three of them as mayor, Sam Sullivan is stepping aside from civic politics. The decision was made for him last summer when he lost the NPA nomination to re-offer for mayor but, as he told columnist Don Cayo in his first end-of-term interview, he’s not unhappy with it.
Sun: Tell me three regrets, and three triumphs from you term as mayor.
Sullivan: The strike. The strike is a considerable regret. I don’t like to implicate anybody. These are all my own weaknesses, my own shortcomings. But I chose to not have any role in it – to leave a lot of room for our staff….

Everybody knew what the deal was – 17.5 per cent. We knew it the weekend the strike started. Everybody knew it.
So I suggested, “Why don’t we just offer that?”
It was, “Mayor, you don’t understand negotiations. You have to offer less. Then they ask for more. Then you offer more. And eventually you get to the right number.”
This idea that it was “Sam’s strike,” and Sam was the one standing in the way? I was the one who got it and wanted to have that as a regional deal.
So the fact that it could go that long being blamed on me – I don’t mind being blamed for stuff as long as the city is moving forward. But that is a bit of a regret.
Sun: Would you interfere if you had your time back?
Sullivan: No. . . . Well, I would probably be more public. I would take a firmer stance and say, “You guys, we all know it’ll be 17.5 per cent. Now get in there and negotiate.”
Sun: That’s one regret. Two more.
Sullivan: I don’t really have any more regrets.
Somebody came to me after I lost the nomination and said, “Mr. mayor, now is the time to introduce all those policies you wanted to but were afraid to.”
I said, “I’m sorry, I’ve done them all.” Which is probably why I won’t continue to be the mayor.
But I did. I did everything I wanted to.
Sun: Surely getting dumped is a regret in itself, isn’t it?
Sullivan: Yeah, I shouldn’t have gone to Hong Kong. I should have stayed home and made my phone calls. I should have watched a little more carefully.
Sun: You got cocky?
Sullivan: Yes, I guess so.
But I don’t know. I think it’s probably better. I’m going to test a theory now that I can be more effective in achieving my policy goals outside of city hall than in it. That’s my theory, and I’ll test it.
Sun: We’ll talk more about that. But now, I’m going to let you off the hook with regrets so we can talk about triumphs. What were the high points?
Sullivan: Every time we got a vote through was just a thrill.
I’ve developed this maybe unhealthy of view of government, but it has helped me survive. It’s that God wishes me to suffer, and if I suffer enough to move forward on a policy goal, then He will give me my little victory.
Laneway housing – I was just in heaven. The ambassador program. Three-one-one – that was very hard-fought, even in my own caucus. EcoDensity. Project Civil City. The 3,800 social housing units. The fact that we got $5 million to upgrade all the 18 SROs (single-room occupancy hotels) from the provincial government. . . . All those were victories that were very sweet.
Sun: You’re 48 and you’ve been 15 years in civic politics – almost a third of your life. Is that long enough?
Sullivan: Oh yes!
Well, who knows? One day I may want to put my toe in the water again.
It has been a wonderful experience. But since losing the nomination I’ve kept a list of all the things I won’t miss. And the list is growing very, very long – I almost wonder why I did it so long.
Sun: What are the main points on that list?
Sullivan: More than anything else, people who don’t care about the community. People who dress themselves up in righteous robes but who try to make their case entirely from self-interest – even unconscious self-interest when they don’t even know they’re doing it.
And then when they accuse others of being self-interested. That is very demoralizing to me when people around me are sacrificing, trying to make the city better and you run into people like that. Especially when they win and succeed in thwarting what’s good for the community.
Sun: City hall politics gets nasty at times, doesn’t it?
Sullivan: My best defence is a bad memory. I have to think about this.
But I think it’s nowhere near as nasty as how people used to come to political decisions, which was through blood and thuggery.
I think it’s a wonderful thing, this democracy we’ve achieved that can reach decisions without any blood. What a huge thing. I love it.
Sun: You … got squeezed out a job by people you thought were on your side. There is constant manoeuvring, some of it open and some of it out of sight, for all manner of political advantages. Isn’t that nasty?
Sullivan: In our democracy we have managed to contain the obnoxious parts of that. But look at what we actually get done and how small a price we really we pay. People used to have to die for their community. I don’t have to do that. That’s a great bonus – thank you very much!
So you can call some things that go on nasty if you like. But I think it’s fair game. We know the rules that we play with.
With the nomination, I made some errors – tactical errors that I never made before – but I knew the rules.
And you know, sometimes I wonder, when I review what happened, if I actually wanted to lose.
My thing in life is that I start things; I create new realities. But I also have always recognized that I am not the right person to finish them. I just don’t have that mindset. I get bored, and I want to start another new thing.
So, if you think of all the stuff that got started big things. We’ve got the commitment for the Millennium Line going out to UBC. The social housing. There are no ribbons to be cut yet. But so much work has been done.
The drug policy stuff can be done outside city hall. You can’t actually do much of it inside, anyway. But we’ve started that whole process going.
Sun: If you had won, what would you be planning to start building next?
Sullivan: This is why I wonder [about whether I wanted to lose]. I do think about flying the flag at the Olympics, but it was never the goal. . . .
Sun: Will you be there in the bleachers somewhere?
Sullivan: If I get a free ticket.
But, you know, you’re helping me convince myself that I’ve done the main things I wanted to do.
There’s the cultural stuff – BC Place, the Art Gallery, we’ve got them in the official development plan….
The $20-million Olympic legacy fund, that was a six-to-five vote. And a lot of these other things were close votes.
So I can’t name something that I would start.
The Community Court’s in place. We’ve got our commitment for the new police.
Now we need somebody to look after this stuff and make sure it all happens.
Sun: Any predictions on the election?
Sullivan: I very much hope to see Mayor Peter Ladner with a good NPA majority.
Sun: Is that your prediction? Or just your hope?
Sullivan: It’s too hard for me to say. I don’t have enough information. I don’t have any access to the polling numbers or anything like that.
Sun: You’ve talked about starting many things, so let’s talk now about legacy. What will be there come hell or high water, and what will be dependent on having someone elected to follow up on what you’ve begun?
Sullivan: I’m not a monument-builder. And in my four terms on council, my strategy was to get other people to move motions, to get other people to become personally connected, visibly, with initiatives. Because I just wanted to get things done.
So you take people who might not be fully committed, who might screw the thing up, and you get them to champion it.
At the end of that, you don’t have your name attached to a whole lot things. So I was always happy to be a facilitator, a supporter, a vote for the right things.
If people do remember anything about me, they might remember that I got a couple of conversations started. One, should we live in a denser community? And, two, if we do, how should we live together in that community? The density initiative and Project Civil City – that’s what these are all about.
Sun: What are you going to do Nov. 16 or 17?
Sullivan: I’ll still be the mayor, still going to a bunch of events, kissing more babies and maybe cutting more ribbons. I think, officially, I don’t turn things over to the new mayor until Dec. 7.
Sun: Okay, then. What do you do Dec. 8? Do you kick back, go to Hawaii, stay home and sleep in?
Sullivan: No, no. There’s so much to do. I have a lot of studying I want to do. I’ll be able to spend more time studying the languages I want to learn – Hindi and Tagalog.
When I was the mayor, I had an excuse. I had to do it because I had to give a speech. But now I’ll be able to do it just because I want to.
And I have a lot of books I want to read. I have to rethink my life. I want to do a lot of thinking, writing, things like that.
Sun: Any advice for the new guy? What’s the one thing you wish somebody had told you when you won the job?
Sullivan: I’d tell them please be careful about your relationships with the province and the federal government.
Vancouver has so little revenue, so few levers to change the things that affect the quality of life. So be tough, be firm, but don’t start a war with those levels of government. And don’t jeopardize those relationships.
There are a lot of people in the provincial government and in Ottawa who’d love to turn off the tap on Vancouver. There are a lot of people who represent rural ridings that would just love some mayor or council to give them a good reason to turn off the tap.
So, for the sake of the city, I hope no one will give them that reason.
Read introduction by interviewer Vancouver Sun columnist Don Cayo