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COPE’s Developer Donations: A Response

Mainstream media are now covering the Coalition of Progressive Electors’ campaign manager’s decision to ask key party candidates to actively solicit donations from real estate developers during the recent Vancouver civic election and the party executive’s decision to file a fraudulent election return with Elections BC to cover this up. Among those are some who actively worked to discredit my efforts and those of fellow director Kim Hearty to bring prior major ethical lapses foreshadowing these to light.

These included the ongoing membership of directors and future council candidates Tim Louis and Wilson Munoz in MAWO, a violent sectarian cult whose database is maintained by Louis, the commission sale of rent-a-crowd votes by the Mainlander organizers to Louis, efforts to intimidate me through interference with my partner’s career and workplace, ongoing misinformation of members and the general public concerning internal party practices and procedures, control of committee and director votes through direct cash payments by Louis to board members, committee members and parliamentarians prior to key votes and an ongoing alliance with real estate developer Michael Goodman, whose personal fortune comes from Fort MacMurray real estate development tied to tar sands expansion and providing mortgage brokering services to offshore speculators in Vancouver real estate.

Today, many people, especially candidates and party activists who have been aware of these issues all along are feigning surprise and outrage at this latest turn of events. This is all par for the course. To COPE activists, there are two kind of people in the world: (1) good people who are powerless and rail against the evil people who run things and (2) bad people who can be held responsible for all the bad things that happen. Because, for COPE members, people who can be held responsible for things are part of a separate ontological category than themselves, it is unsurprising that no COPE candidate, finance committee member, election committee member or board member (with the notable and exceptions of Anita Romaniuk and the party’s registered financial agent) has taken any responsibility for campaigning as the only party that does not accept donations from real estate development firms, actively soliciting and receiving donations from said firms and attempting to file a fraudulent financial report with Elections BC. That is because COPE members see themselves as the people who hold others responsible, not people who take responsibility. To a COPE activist, people who are responsible for things are an ontologically separate category of being.

Everyone active in COPE was either in possession of all the information they needed to know that their party’s campaign was nothing more or less than a fraud perpetrated on the people of Vancouver, or could have easily obtained such information had they practiced due diligence a potential candidate should.

That’s why everyone is pointing fingers and demanding each other’s resignations without, for a moment, wondering if they have anything to apologize for or resign over. While Gayle Gavin and Keith Higgins have gone to some effort to offer an apology to members, this apology actually belongs to the people of Vancouver. I hope that Anita, Gayle and Keith let the real victims of COPE’s fraud–the tens of thousands of voters who supported them–know how sorry they are.

Anyway, now that all this is blowing up, questions might be asked as to why I still endorsed three of the party’s twenty candidates. Here is my answer: because there was no risk of the party governing, because the party’s candidates, had they been elected, would have continued to understand the Vision-NPA majority as a set of ontologically separate beings who had nothing to do with him. While they would work to sabotage the creation of any kind of principled, democratic, accountable progressive party, they would have been immune to offers of power by the majority because to have actual state power is to be responsible and accountable for things — and that’s for that other species of creature, the black-hatted villains with power.

Below, I enclose the original resignation letter I sent to my supporters in early March of this year. The apologies I offer in it I now extend to Vancouver voters as a whole.

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Today, Carlito Pablo published excerpts of the letter below in the Georgia Straight. Because of the Straight’s pro-COPE/pro-Green slant, almost no part of this letter criticizing COPE appeared. Thanks to the distorted impression the article left, I now feel it is incumbent upon me to publish the whole document for those who, like Ann Livingston, found the piece largely devoid of my reasons for leaving COPE.

Tuesday, March 24th, 2014

Dear Friends and Supporters,

As Hunter S. Thompson would say, “after an agonizing reappraisal of the whole scene,” I have decided not to stand as a candidate for Vancouver City Council in 2014 for any party or as an independent candidate. You are among a great group of people who have worked hard, investing time, money and emotional energy in offering a progressive, populist alternative to Vision Vancouver this fall.

Please accept my thanks for all your commitment and hard work and my apologies for making poor decisions that have resulted in coming to naught. For those who hang out with me because you’re interested in long, over-analytical explanations, read on. For those just glad to be off the hook, please accept my thanks and know that I’ll be in touch in a more sociable way soon.

Unfortunately, I do not think that progressive Vancouverites are ready for a sufficiently broad left-populist alternative yet, despite how desperate the situation is. In my work to put together a big tent coalition that could run on a platform of constructive change and principled opposition, I have discovered the depth of the collective trauma caused by the fission and collapse of the COPE government between 2002 and 2005.

I have come home to a left that is profoundly divided and deeply distrustful, obsessed with petty score-settling and paranoid “I told you so!” politics. Ironically, the myriad warring factions that today comprise what passes for a civic left in Vancouver are united in their belief that we lost a tremendous, once-in-a-generation opportunity in 2002 to remake our city as a compassionate, diverse place in which it was possible to live with dignity from cradle to grave, a place that had room for kids, for families and for older people, regardless of their wealth or income.

When I came back to Vancouver in 2012, after an eight-year absence, it seemed clear to me who was at fault and what was to be done. It seemed obvious to me that the people who crossed from COPE and the Green Party to form Vision were the culprits, their betrayal leveraged by developer donations and the small cadre of federal Liberals and Shaughnessy and West Point Grey whose strategic alliances have kept them in continuous control of our city for three quarters of a century. It seemed to me that Vision was comprised of the cheapest sort of sell-outs, people willing to the bidding of big business for a fraction of the perks, donations and invisible exchanges NPA representatives would demand.

It seemed like America after Lincoln’s assassination, when the human rights gains of the Civil War were squandered by a corrupt, incoherent and unfocused presidency. Like US president Andrew Johnson’s relationship with the planter aristocracy of Dixie, the class insecurities of the former communists, socialists and Greens populating Vision’s front bench just greased the wheels for sweetheart deals, concession and corruption. NPA councillors would not be awed into multi-million dollar concessions by a game of squash at the Arbutus Club, a business lunch at the Vancouver Club, getting to commission their own rigged study from KPMG or $1000 seat at a Cancer Society fundraiser. This is a world in which they comfortably move, not like those underdressed Vision imposters. They would just not get as drunk on that fine Kentucky bourbon as today’s Andrew Johnsons seem to be.

It seemed that the state of the city could be explained by the low character of a handful of opportunists on the left. This was a credible narrative for me—Vancouver seemed to be the logical conclusion, the most extreme manifestation of Tony Blair’s Third Way.

But now I am not so sure.

Having tried to work in COPE the past eighteen months has made me see something darker and more frightening in our city’s self-styled progressives. When I signed up 89 people to show up and vote to emancipate COPE from its self-destructive relationship with Vision last April, I had failed to understand who and what COPE was; I had failed to understand the nature and character of my allies. I now realize that the people I installed as the new decision-makers in COPE are equally to blame for monstrous government our city has had to endure since the formal COPE-Vision split a decade ago.

COPE’s toxic, meeting-intensive culture of interminable, acrimonious, incoherent nonsense that is politely called “debate” would drive any sane person out of active participation within two years. This is not an accident. This is the plan. Years ago, back when he was one of my biggest supporters, Adriane Carr’s husband Paul George gave me some advice about to control an organization: make the internal environment so toxic that only crazy, ineffective people can stick around. I think that’s been the theory of my former allies in COPE for some time. When new people come in, get as much work out of them as you can and burn them out so that they never attend more than two annual general meetings, so they never crack the code of the party and challenge your leadership.

The two warring factions of COPE have operated together to make this a reality. David Chudnovsky’s faction played this game one way, becoming increasingly reliant on the fresh meat of young activists who could be thrown into the meat grinder that COPE was, in order to keep a small, secretive cabal in charge of the party and its direction. Tim Louis’s faction played the other way. To quote a long-time COPE activist and Louis supporter who ended all activity in the party after her former allies turned on her a few short months after attaining a board majority, “Tim finds very damaged people and he heals them—just enough.” It has been by learning and synthesizing the opposing faction’s strategy with his own over the past two years that Tim is now COPE’s undisputed, unchallenged autocrat.

Many things have kept the Louis faction effective over the years. They provide a sense of importance and social relevance to individuals who might find those things nowhere else. In this way they are committed to looking past disability in the most admirable way, thinking through the ways our society wastes the considerable talents of the traumatized, addicted, disabled, etc. and then mobilizing those talents in the service of the greater good. I once had just a fraction of their ability to see real talent in deeply dysfunctional, marginal individuals and find a way to include them in doing really important things, not just at the margins but at the centre of the enterprise. Over time, I have lost that talent; I don’t miss it but wish I had put it to better use when I had it.

Sadly, because many of these individuals have such limited social options and face such discrimination because of poverty, invisible disabilities and other marginalizing factors, they are left to endure a corrosive, predatory, abusive internal culture that they must weather due to the failures of our movements, and of society at large, to provide real alternative spaces for them to socialize and participate in struggles for social justice. I can leave COPE for greener pastures; for some whom I leave behind, there are no greener pastures—this is as good as it gets. Their experience is that the abuse they endure in COPE is the price they must pay to function as social and political beings in our city.

But there is something darker still. Every significant Louis supporter I have met has talked about the disaster of 2002-05 and how we must learn from those mistakes so that COPE – or some future left-oriented party hoping to govern – never squander another opportunity like that again. Theories about how to avoid this invariably showcase two factors:

(a)    COPE either didn’t have or didn’t follow good, radical, socialist policies for the city. This time we’re making radical, deep, well thought-out policy that serves social movements and thinks through the deep, structural changes our city needs.

(b)   COPE let careerists, moderates and lightweights looking for a payoff run as the party’s candidates because they were more charismatic or connected. Not this time. This time we’re running salt of the earth long time social movement activists.

But the problem is that the COPE they are building isn’t doing the things it imagines itself to be doing.

First, COPE has almost no policy and almost nobody is interested in it. When policies are put forward they are back-of-the-napkin ideas that arise on the floor of policy meetings, backed by minimal research or they are the personal hobby horse of a member, disconnected from the demands or interests of local social movements working on the issue. Curiously, what few policies there are are strangely conservative and often echo positions held by the current city council, especially when it comes to buck-passing to senior levels of government on transit, childcare and campaign finance reform. It is as though COPE doesn’t think it needs to make policy because it imagines that it is pure, incarnate policy—by being a thing, you don’t have to do the thing.

COPE in 2002, on the other hand, had a clear, coherent, robust body of policy, hashed-out by members over many years, cooperating closely with social movements and organized labour. The problem in 2002 was not lack of policy but the institutional disconnect between a party’s elected caucus and a party’s corporate organization. This problem was structural in character. No amount of rule-making by the corporation of a party can legally bind its caucus because elected officials are not legally recallable to a party; the only power a party has to discipline its caucus is to choose not to renominate them; COPE’s threatened use of this very power in 2005 is what led to the present state of affairs. The belief that using stronger language in party policy and stronger language to make the caucus accountable to the membership is wrongheaded in two ways: (a) the party is actually doing a worse job on those fronts that it was a decade ago, (b) this plan was tried and directly led to the present state of affairs.

Second, and much more importantly, there appears to be no understanding of how to recognize character or corruptibility. Tim Stevenson, for instance, was one of the most upstanding, ethical, principled members of the 90s NDP caucus, who ran against the party’s welfare cuts in 1996 and won the party’s nomination anyway. The view seems to be that if people were not bought-off by Vision and their developer friends last time or are presently associated with those who were not, they are tested, trustworthy, reliable people who will be able to stand up to threats, bribes and intimidation. In my view, the absolute opposite is true.

During my brief time in COPE, I came to discover that the current leadership group is structured on a politics of small-scale financial patronage of people with marginal employment prospects or otherwise straitened financial circumstances. Votes and committee composition might turn on sums of less than $200, doled out by the ruling patriarch, but these tiny amounts of money actually hold much of the putative leadership group together. While the scale of bribery within COPE is so small as to be statistically insignificant when compared against the reciprocal exchanges of donations development permits at City Hall, it is, if anything, more formal, more central to and more prevalent in the party’s day-to-day operations.

And yet, those financially tied to the party chairman will actually tolerate breaches of principle, vendettas and intimidation tactics that would raise the eyebrows of the most ruthless Vision operative. If the excuse-making, denials and cover-ups that followed the mobilization of MAWO (Fire This Time) and the sleazy reprisals against my family are anything to go by, Vision didn’t just poach COPE’s talent; it may actually have made off with some of the party’s more principled members. The overwhelming majority of principled people of the left in Vancouver today are not to be found in the leadership group of either party, having abandoned both in disgust while I was living in Ontario and the US.

Let us consider, then, that those who comprise COPE today have not sold out because they are principled but because nobody is buying. Let us consider the possibility that the creators of Vision bought off only those worth recruiting and that those individuals likely exacted a higher price in progressive policy concessions and political support than those who remain in COPE would have, that the invisible-handed God caused developers to purchase only genuine assets, not unreliable, damaged goods.

The fact is that if someone can be bought off for a $10/head commission on party memberships, a few hours of minimum wage data entry work or dribs and drabs of minimally-remunerated cold calling; if they are willing to look the other way in the face of lies, threats, intimidation and retaliatory attacks on members’ families and charitable enterprises, and write these things off as just the price of doing business for such a pittance, their chances of turning down a consulting contract from Westbank are minimal. If they are wowed and brag to their friends about getting to eat some inferior vegan appetizers at Tim’s house a couple of times per year, imagine how lunch at the Terminal City club would seem to this crew – or better yet, a weekend at Hollyhock or some other favoured Tides retreat location. COPE is not massing the army of the incorruptible; it is doing the very opposite: finding and mobilizing the most desperately corruptible in the city.

If we actually want people of conscience in our city government to arrest the extirpation of the elderly, of poor people, of families—really, of all but the richest and most privileged of us, we need to build a whole new political movement in this city, one that is safe and inclusive. We must begin from a basis of love and, equally importantly, honesty. We must acknowledge how far we have gone wrong, how far we have strayed from the path if we ever hope to build a political movement able to advocate for a better city. We must reject the politics of long shots and shortcuts and engage in the hard, rewarding work of once again creating a space where our city’s social movements and ordinary citizens can make their voices heard in the elected bodies of our city government.

If you’re interested in talking about that project, let me know. Either way, thank you so much for giving of your time and energy over the past year and a half. It has meant a great deal to me and I will be in touch in the coming months to thank you more personally. We had a lot of fun doing politics in the past year and a half; let’s not lose that.

I am sorry things worked out so badly. Ultimately, the responsibility is mine. I should have done a better job of listening to people who were around during the time I was gone. I should have checked my own ambition and not ignored the ample signs that I was leading you somewhere scary and bad. I really wanted things to be different this time. I’ll never give up and I’m sorry I’ve let you down.

In solidarity,

Stuart Parker

President, Los Altos Institute

Thursday, March 14th, 2014

PS        After some thought, I have agreed to make this a public document with the following addition:

I have received increasing criticism for speaking out against corrupt and unethical behaviour in COPE. Apparently, there is an implied duty on the part of party supporters to participate in covering up abuse and corruption whenever they see it in the party, even when it is directed against them. You don’t really believe in social justice—the theory goes—if you are not willing to counsel silence or publicly deny the testimony of those who do speak out.

Coming out of the black community, this programmatic silence is well-known to me. It is how we created early “role models” in communities too profoundly traumatized by the legacies of slavery to produce many healthy people. During my last month in COPE, I leaned on the writings of bell hooks about how the creation of false heroes through practices of deception and  excuse-making has, itself, become destructive, producing mental ill-health and placing the least healthy among us in our vanguard.

Hooks talks of her refusal to keep confidences she has never agreed to keep. Witnessing or hearing of bad acts does not conscript us into the project of secret-keeping and silencing. In fact, the belief that it does, first and foremost, created Vision Vancouver and its politics of hypocrisy, corruption and cover-ups, the belief that we not only need not but must not hold ourselves to the standards to which we hold our adversaries. Our politics must be underpinned by courage, decency and honesty. To build the kind of solidarity capable of challenging the forces of global capital, we must build our movements on practices of truth-telling and open debate. And I still believe we can.

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