Unsung Heroes 2023: Ace campaign manager Kareem Allam is returning to private practice (for now)

Will he be back in politics soon?

Will he be back in politics soon?

Let’s get something out of the way right off the top.

When I first interviewed Kareem Allam in the confines of Vancouver City Hall, I had no idea he was going to resign from his post of chief of staff to the mayor of Vancouver a few weeks later. In fact, in our first conversation, which lasted around an hour, Allam stressed to me that, after helping mayor Ken Sim and his slate of ABC councillors win the 2022 Vancouver municipal election, he was in it for the long haul and would be staying the rest of the term.

On a call shortly after his resignation was made public, Allam explained that after the main pillars of the campaign he orchestrated had come to fruition—city council voting to approve the 100 cops/100 nurses project in the Downtown Eastside was the last puzzle piece—he felt comfortable leaving. He also said he was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. Fair enough. But as Allam retreats back to the consulting business he co founded, Fairview Strategy, we thought it was worth taking an in-depth look at the man who helmed some of B.C.’s most effective political campaigns of the last few years. And whether or not he might be back.

Allam was born in Vancouver to immigrants from Cairo in 1979. He spent a few years back and forth between Canada and Egypt before his family permanently moved to Richmond. After high school, he studied history at SFU and was thrown into politics as a young man when he helped Canadian Alliance candidate Joe Peschisolido beat incumbent Liberal Raymond Chan in the 2000 federal election.

Allam got some notoriety within the party for that and ended up working for Alliance leader Stockwell Day, planning his trips and scheduling. But it didn’t take long to realize he wasn’t a fan of Ottawa’s weather. He came back to B.C. and, in addition to helping Dianne Watts win the Surrey mayoral election in 2005, worked for a number of organizations, including Terasen Gas (now FortisBC), the Vancouver Board of Trade and Fraser Health.

In 2011, he served as Kevin Falcon’s deputy campaign manager for a BC Liberal leadership campaign in which Falcon narrowly lost to Christy Clark. “That was a bit gutting,”  he recalls, noting that it was his first big loss.

About 10 years later, after Allam had spent some more years working at the aforementioned organizations as well as some time in Indigenous relations, Falcon called again. Andrew Wilkinson had just stepped down as leader of the BC Liberals after the party was trounced by the BC NDP.

“I think the party really didn’t do as well with Andrew as the leader—there was definitely a lot of intellectual capacity there, Andrew is brilliant,” says Allam. “But that ability to sort of connect was lost, which people in the party took for granted. That was what Christy [Clark] was really good at—one-on-one, she’ll make you feel like the most important person in the world.”

There was also what Allam refers to as a policy drift within the party, and he was worried that the caucus didn’t look or act like the rest of the province.

“The discussions I had with Kevin went right up the start of the race,” he remembers. “I’m like, Okay, if you run, we’ll put together a good team, we’ll win. The question is what’s going to happen next. Are you prepared for that with your family and everything? So, very quickly, I reached out and built the most diverse team I had ever been part of. We wanted to signal where the party wanted to go. If you watch his campaign videos, he’s walking across rainbow crosswalks, talking about how his values haven’t changed, but his perspective has.

It was the remaking of the image. I think it appealed to the party—let’s become younger, more urban, more progressive. It resonated in the Chinese and South Asian communities, too.”

Many Vancouverites only first heard of Allam’s name in the aftermath of the 2022 municipal election, but Ken Sim had actually tried to recruit him for his first shot at the mayor’s chair in 2018. “Ken asked me to run his campaign three times, I said no three times,” says Allam. “I was at a point in my career where I just wasn’t ready to take it on.” He also had his worries about the NPA: “The party had drifted to the right, and that’s just not where Vancouver voters were and probably will never be.”

In 2022, with three of the former NPA councillors joining Sim under a new party banner ABC, or A Better City—some of Sim’s closest friends, who had helped on the Falcon campaign, started calling Allam. “I was like, No guys, I’m really burnt out,” he says with what can only be described as a perpetually exhausted laugh.

Living downtown, the “sense of urban decay” encouraged Allam to eventually take on the job. “Just starting to see people in mental health distress on the street,” says Allam. “A lot more needles, poop, windows being shattered, all signs of a mental health crisis. Because of my time at Fraser Health, I recognized immediately what the solution was: Car 87, a mental health program run by Coastal Health and VPD that partners police officers with mental health nurses. These programs work, there’s no doubt they work. So I went, Okay, I’m going to take this campaign on and this is what I’m going to bring to the city—100 cops, 100 mental health nurses.”

There were also key promises around housing permitting and child care. “We played it dead centre in terms of ideology,” says Allam. “At least that’s what we tried to do. We acknowledged immediately that nine of the 11 Vancouver ridings are NDP ridings. If we didn’t get people who voted for John Horgan, no way were we going to win the election… We won almost the entire city, we won Oppenheimer Park, which nobody predicted.”

Asked whether there’s one thing that binds his campaigns together, Allam cites his status as a perceived outsider. “This is a space that’s dominated by rich white people from the west side,” he says. “When I started in politics in the early 2000s, Arabs weren’t the most popular people. When some of the bigger campaigns were getting pulled together, they’d go, What are we going to do with Kareem, oh, you can manage the ethnics. I made the decision early on that, okay, I will do that. I built great relationships with the South Asian and Chinese communities… You want me to be in charge of the ethnics, okay great, now the ethnics are in charge of you.”

In both conversations I had with Allam, I stated the obvious: “Kevin Falcon is going to call you about the next provincial election. What are you going to say?”

Both times, Allam said no, but in our second conversation he admitted that the door is open to returning to politics “a few years down the line.” But hey, he’s changed his mind before.

Q&A with Kareem Allam

Kareem Allam’s keys to the Vancouver municipal election:

100 cops/ 100 nurses

Vancouverites generally don’t think the handcuff approach is the right one. But the nurses were telling us that they were nervous to get too close. They want to be safe, too. That’s where the Car 87 piece works.

Housing permitting

You can upzone every neighbourhood in the city to 100 storeys, it’ll never get built. If we can clear up permitting, there’s enough zoning to deal with it.

Down the middle

Sixty percent of our voters were federal Liberals, 20 percent Conservative, 20 percent NDP.