Doled out as a freebie to homes on the tony west side, Vancouver magazine may have our city's name but its unfailingly glamorous version of our town seems to end at Granville Street. It wasn't always so, as writer Sean Rossiter once provided a much edgier view of the city and its halls of power. Vancouver's latest incarnation is at one with the Vision version of city hall, regularly enlisting writer Frances Bula to profile the likes of Hollyhock's Joel Solomon, Sadhu Johnston, Gregor Robertson and now chief of staff Mike Magee.
Editor Gary Stephen Ross sets the tone by opening his September edition with a reverent nod to Mayor Gregor's recent oil tanker dog and pony show. I'm led to believe that Ross' 2009 Power 50 list was created with Magee's help, despite the fact that the Mayor's right hand only finds himself at No. 17. Up close though, it's clear that the one-time political protester is now running the show at 12th & Cambie.
A wise lieutenant, it's said, will humbly shun the limelight. Not so for Gregor Robertson's top advisor, bodyguard and drill instructor. Mike Magee, by allowing Frances Bula the closest access of any media and endorsing a feature report on how he handles the affairs of his office, has perhaps made a Citizen Sam-esque miscalculation. Why bother pulling back the curtain unless you're absolutely certain the story will reflect well upon you?
Bula's story about Magee hardly paints an entirely flattering picture. First, there is the unusual image of a reclining Gregor Robertson in a rowboat powered by Magee – it simply makes the Mayor look bad. Then, the opening paragraphs reveal a coarseness you might expect from a class warrior who's recently acquired power.
Mike Magee leans back in his chair and speaks in a voice appropriate to the cool-down segment of a yoga class. Even when he refers to one problem person as an “idiot” and “complete motherfucker,” his tone is gentle, reflective. Things seem under control—for the moment.
Vision Vancouver's reign has been marked by its secretiveness and contempt for those who don't "get" what the party is trying to do for (or to) the City. Bula's characterization of the Mayor's man suggests that the tone has been set from the top.
Many of Magee’s contacts were developed through Joel Solomon, the wealthy and influential patron of social-enterprise investment in Vancouver, who has developed enormous faith in Magee’s ability to carry out complex, politically challenging ideas. “He’s always shown this quality of strategic astuteness,” says Solomon. “He has very strong instincts about how to get things done.” Solomon adds, in his tactful way: “And he’s unafraid to express himself”—an understatement to anyone who’s received one of his blistering emails. Not everyone is enchanted. Some describe Magee as prone to unnecessary cry-wolf crisis generation, information hoarding, and believing that a considerable proportion of the world’s population is not all that smart.
But no one is willing to cross him.
Another eye-popping example of how the traditional non-partisan public service has become servile to the whims of the political class are these lines revealing the interplay between Magee and the city manager:
...Penny Ballem steps in for a two-minute conference on the tactics for getting a particular motion to council before the summer break. Such strategizing happens dozens of times a month, and it always involves the man whose job it is to make sure the mayor looks good...
“My thing is to try to empower Penny [Ballem] as much as possible,” says Magee. “But we’re very insistent that the bureaucracy take direction from the politicians.”There’s an endgame to all of this.
Repeatedly Bula reminds readers of Gregor Robertson's apparent shortcomings for the job of Mayor. Magee, even just last month, still seems to be perpetually micro-managing Robertson.
He quietly figures out when the mayor should avoid reporters with career-ending questions and when he should apologize. He castigates those who’ve blundered (including Robertson) and talks tough with other levels of government.
As raw material for politics, Magee's original instincts told him that Robertson was all wrong:
When Robertson first talked about going into politics, Magee wasn’t bowled over. He admired Robertson’s values, his connections to social-venture businesses, his lack of rigid ideology. “But I thought he was the most unlikely guy. So earnest. And he had no political experience.”
In the face of growing criticism from traditional Vision supporters and nearly 9000 signatures opposing Vision's West End iniative, Magee tells his colleagues to batten down the hatches:
When the mayor’s “fucking NPA hacks” comment exploded during the dog days of summer, it was Magee who was directing strategy (stay calm, remember the West End renters support us, let’s figure out a better way to talk to this group) while giving developers advice about how to deal with rough waters ahead. But he’s taken the role to another level because he’s so tight with the mayor and hypnotic in his ability to paint detailed, compelling visions of a progressive new nirvana.
"Progressive new nirvana" is a tongue-in-cheek way to describe the systemic social change sought after by Roberton's biggest bankroller Joel Solomon. Bula describes the circle around the Mayor – Magee, Solomon and Bob Penner (seen above) – as they mold Robertson.
A lifetime of deep belief in the inherent problems of militarization, resource extraction, and global energy consumption doesn’t simply end. Instead, it blooms in the presence of the perfect mate and political vehicle—a man like Gregor Robertson, whose values are essentially Green but who is willing to do whatever it takes to change the world a little. Magee—networker, bargainer, cajoler, and, when necessary, enforcer—is at the heart of a group committed to transforming an idealistic young organic farmer and businessman into a winning political brand.
Turning the farmboy into the image of a Mayor after three years of flatlining as an MLA is no mean feat. Magee is Henry Higgins to Gregor's Eliza Doolittle, and you know they practice how to say The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain. None of this would be happening if not for Solomon's ambitions for Robertson, as indicated by these passages in Bula's piece:
Magee met Joel Solomon, who had already built his wealth and connections into a major force, investing in new-style social-purpose businesses and giving grants to old-style environmental and social-justice groups...
Solomon lacked the skills to navigate the rough world of campaign politics, but he saw that here was a new kind of politician, one he wanted to support: “There’s a need for leaders,” he says, “who are deeply rooted in values and competent enough to do something about them.”
Solomon also provided money, contributing heavily to Robertson’s campaign as MLA for Vancouver-Fairview in 2005, which Magee ended up running. The effect of all that cash startled traditional NDP organizers, who were used to working with dedicated volunteers, not campaigns flush enough to hire door-knockers and phone banks...
We're not so sure what "heavy" contributing Joel Solomon supposedly did for Robertson (who was a US citizen at the time). According to Elections BC records he barely has given a few hundred bucks to the NDP. However, Magee's consultancy managed to cough up nearly $25,000 for the party. This is in addition to roughly $40,000 that Magee's company gave to Vision Vancouver.
It's astonishing really that we're witnessing such a completely different style of governance here in Vancouver. A former political agitator now runs the biggest bully pulpit in this country west of Toronto – Vancouver city hall – watching over a billion dollar budget, and the political ops are bankrolled by a rich guy from a remote island. Meanwhile the Mayor looks more and more like a marionette. But who cares, right?
Bula wraps up by reminding us where this is all headed...
And beyond City Hall? Provincial leader? Premier? A cabinet post? The team all agree that Robertson has further to go. From Magee’s office, the future looks bright. It’s his job to make it stay that way.
- post by Mike