Vancouver has never had a mayor quite like the passive-aggressive Sam Sullivan before, so apparently willing to lie down at a moment’s notice and show the world his underbelly.
Sam Sullivan is doing it again. He should be talking non-stop about what he’s achieving for the city and how he’s bringing everything under control and what he’s doing as a leader. And he is doing some of that, delivering the upbeat, positive message track so beloved of politicians and corporate leaders everywhere, in his earnest, gosh-isn’t-governance-just-amazing style. He’s carrying out his plan, he’s pulling his caucus together and getting his 6-5 votes. He’s bringing sanity back to the city. But along the way, he just can’t resist the occasional morph into his other self. So here is our mayor, His Worship, cheerfully telling me over the course of our mental-whiplash-inducing 90 minutes – his legs propped on the desk in front of him to ease the swelling in his feet brought on by a series of long days – that he’s a hopeless manager and he doesn’t understand process and the meetings he chairs are a shambles. Oh yes, and since I’m asking about his background, he’s always deliberately schmoozed rich or important people to help him get what he wants and, yeah, well, now that you ask about it, he has pulled more than one ethically dubious scam in the past. Vancouver has never had a mayor quite like this before, so apparently willing to lie down at a moment’s notice and show the world his underbelly, so blithely confident about displaying himself as a beta male while whispering conspiratorially, “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this…” The many-layered Sullivan persona is one that’s difficult enough for the average observer to decipher. But for Vancouver’s business community, a group whose code of conduct is founded on projecting a positive image and telling people clearly and directly how and when you’ll achieve your goals, the city’s new mayor and his style have evoked a wary, hedging approval – we think he’s okay, even though we’re not quite sure what he’s saying, why he’s saying it this way, or whether he’s going to carry through. Bob Laurie, the no-nonsense realtor and Vancouver Fair Tax Coalition offensive tackle who’s been wrangling with Sullivan for more than a decade, beginning with industrial land in False Creek Flats, calls him a Columbo. That would be that anti-hero TV detective played by Peter Falk, who fumbled around crime scenes acting like a simple-minded rube, much to the scorn of everyone else, including the criminal mastermind. Then he’d solve the mystery by zeroing in on small details that others had overlooked. Others have compared Sullivan’s style to Howdy Doody and the obsequious Uriah Heep character created by Charles Dickens. And those are people who support him. In more rigorous analysis, people who study organizational behaviour say that he’s a classic wielder of indirect, passive-aggressive power strategies. Instead of the “big male presence” that the majority of Y-chromosome-carrying politicians try to project, Sullivan has chosen what Simon Fraser University business professor Mark Wexler calls the “ingratiating” mode: “His public persona is one that oozes a complex message of ‘You don’t have to worry about me, I’m not dominant, I’m not powerful.’” It’s a technique used by people from groups shut out of the kind of formal, expert power of those in authority. Back in the old days, women and minorities typically were the most likely to employ that approach. Wexler can think of only one other politician who came close to Sullivan’s style: Réne Lévesque. “He cried in public. He frequently played the victim. He used his weakness as strength.” It doesn’t mean people playing the Can You Help L’il Ole Me card don’t want power. They want it just as much as any high-testosterone golden boy. It just means they get it and exercise it in a very different way. But the result of Sullivan’s unique style is that, although he’s been in the public spotlight for almost a year, people are hesitant to say with confidence that they know who he is or what he will actually do at City Hall. Theoretically, he should be an unambiguously beloved and admired figure. He has risen above an exceptionally challenging handicap. He champions causes that help the disabled. He’s backed by a hard-working East Vancouver family. He’s received the Order of Canada. He comes across as charming, empathetic, intellectually curious, open-minded, kind, unpretentious, honest, and as clear and transparent as a pool of forest water. At the moment, Vancouver’s business world, among the most dedicated observers of every twitch at City Hall, has a lot of time for an avowed free-market advocate who cancelled the worrisome Burrard Bridge bike-lane experiment, fired a board of variance perceived as being anti-development, and carries the flag, literally, in front of fascinated international media for the project that means the world to them, the 2010 Olympics. And, unlike the previous circuses of battling councillors from the same party, Sullivan’s Non-Partisan Association team is making extraordinary efforts to stay together. It’s unclear whether that’s due to any leadership from Sullivan or whether it’s a combination of two other factors: thoughtful, well-run strategy sessions conducted by chief of staff Daniel Fontaine, and a general terror of allowing any kind of dissension after having watched two previous councils suicide-bomb themselves into defeat with infighting. At any rate, there appears to be some calm. Few people are willing to pronounce harsh judgment on the record at this early stage, when it’s hard to tell which way things will go. But there’s a lot of chatter backstage: constant rumours that Suzanne Anton or Peter Ladner, the two councillors people are turning to because they’re accessible and they talk in direct, practical language, will or should replace him as mayor; the conviction by some that city manager Judy Rogers and senior staff, working with a mayor uninterested in what he sees as details and an inexperienced council, are now happily running the show; confusion over Sullivan’s oblique and vague way of talking about his goals; frustration, including from some of his closest supporters, about his constant emphasis on his disability and the lack of emphasis on doing something positive for the city, as opposed to just cancelling everything the previous council did; and a dawning realization that this sweet-looking guy, backed by a very effective backroom team that’s gathered around him, doesn’t forget people who crossed him and is very capable of hardball. Just ask police chief Jamie Graham, who found himself skewered a couple of times by Sullivan chess moves that forced him to beg for extra officers he thought he had made a deal for in April and, in July, exposed him to public roasting over a bad-taste message he left for the city manager, complete with target-practice poster. Or park commissioner Al de Genova, the never-a-bad-word A&W Root Bear among politicians, who found himself tossed out of caucus for not being onside enough with his Non-Partisan Association colleagues. Or Lynne Kennedy, the NPA elections co-chair suspected by Sullivan’s team of secretly favouring Christy Clark in the race for the mayoral nomination last September, who got yanked from the police board unceremoniously last month. [pagebreak] That’s all left people scratching their heads. Is Sullivan a nice guy who’s in over his head and being manipulated by others around him? Is he Columbo? Or is he Karl Rove in a wheelchair? “The business community wonders who the real Sam is,” says Wexler. Sullivan says anyone at his old high school, Van Tech, would be amazed at his rise to mayor. He was, as he calls it, “the flunkie” – the guy who ran around and did things for the student-council president, but would never, ever, be the student-council president himself. Sullivan might still be a flunkie today, a nice guy with a small business on the East Side, like his dad, getting along with everyone and maybe tinkering with little inventions on the side. After all, he’d been brought up like a lot of working-class kids. “I had operated from something that I had learned from my family and others,” he says. “Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed.” But then he had that ski accident when he was 19. And being quadriplegic changed things in ways you wouldn’t think of immediately. It gave him an advantage, although he wouldn’t recognize it at the time. Now he wasn’t just an ingratiating and personable young man, like dozens of others in the world. He was an ingratiating and personable young man in a wheelchair, at a time when Rick Hansen in B.C. and disability activist movements everywhere were on the rise and governments were scrambling to do the right thing. And it channeled his energy, the kind that had given him the drive to work at four jobs and save $6,000 for a trip to India when he was only 19, into what he could still do and was good at. As it turned out, he was good at thinking up ideas and he was even better at networking with people to get them to support or carry out his ideas. Sullivan still remembers vividly a test he took in organizational behaviour at SFU, when he was working his way through his business-administration degree in the early 1980s. It assessed him in three areas: task orientation, relationships, planning and process. He scored in the 98th percentile in the first category, 92nd in the second, and a dismal 13th percentile in the third. “I had to realize that there’s an entire third of my brain that’s missing, and it’s a huge disability,” says Sullivan. “I don’t actually understand process. I’m able to accommodate that disability through extreme reliance on relationships and tasks.” So he realized then that he’d never make it if he had to plan or manage anything. But he could rely on his ability to get other people to do things for him and he could set himself one little task after another, so that it looked like he had a plan. There was one other thing he was good at that the test didn’t have any questions for. He was good at finding loopholes and unorthodox, some might say borderline, ways of getting what he wanted. When he was a student and living on a meagre disability payment, it was little things. He learned to work the bureaucrats and the system, be “ingratiating,” in his words, to get them to fund his years of study at SFU – the kind of long-term program that ministry workers aren’t always that enthusiastic about funding for people on welfare. He would get into the symphony for free, for example, by hanging around the doors in the rain looking miserable, as though he were waiting for someone to meet him, until staff invited him to wait inside. Then, once he was in and people had kind of forgotten he was there, he’d scoot off and find an unoccupied spot. Or for Expo 86, in the year before he graduated with his bachelor’s degree from SFU, he found out that a disabled person and his attendant could get into the fair for free. So, again, he’d wait outside the gates and then offer to a likely candidate, for a sum lower than the normal $20 entrance fee, the chance to go in as his “free” attendant. The chance to use his unique set of skills came fairly quickly once he graduated in February 1987. While he was still at SFU, he had gone to the Canadian Paraplegic Association run by Doug Mowat to do volunteer work, offering to write for the newsletter. The first set of stories he decided to do was profiles of prominent quadriplegic people, as a way of figuring out for himself how they had achieved what they did. His revelation, after interviewing Mowat – B.C.’s pioneering quadriplegic social activist and Vancouver MLA – and GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre co-founder Ed Desjardins, among others, was that they hadn’t started with a lot of money or advantages that helped them accomplish what they had. They just weren’t willing to settle for whatever life dished out. They expected more. Not just more for a quadriplegic. More in general. They were important and well-known. And if they could do that, so could he. Shortly after graduating, Sullivan got a job with Mowat’s Canadian Paraplegic Association on a program that topped up his disability cheques with a hundred dollars a month. He was given a business card, Mowat’s fancy office to use when Mowat was away on government business, and a vague project to set up “people in motion” committees throughout the province. “So from that I invited people to see me and I was able to really network and meet a lot of people,” he remembers. Within months, using what he calls loopholes in the system and recommendations from all his new friends, Sullivan managed to parlay that into much more while still using Mowat’s office. He got himself qualified for a regular monthly cheque from the government as a full-time employee through a little-used program to hire the disabled; he also got a new project, to go around the province and talk to local governments about setting up “access committees.” As well, he managed to get himself a secretary and an assistant covered by government funding. At the same time, Sullivan was starting to set up what would become his complex cluster of nonprofits – seven in all eventually – a foundation and a personal corporation. By the time Mowat, as Sullivan phrases it, fired him after a year for being “uppity,” Sullivan was ready to move on to full-time nonprofit work. Back in the 1980s, when he took an entrepreneur course for people on welfare at the Y, he wrote up a plan that envisioned creating a set of nonprofit groups just for quadriplegics, unlike the many that already existed mainly serving less-handicapped people. “I remember them telling me it was unrealistic what I wanted to do, these nonprofit groups. They said there’s not enough revenue, you’ll never find enough revenue for this.” How wrong they were. In the 2004/2005 fiscal year, the last year that Sullivan was involved in all these groups, the provincial government’s public accounts show that he got approximately $500,000 in funding from various ministries for five of his seven nonprofits. Revenue Canada records show that in 2004, the last year for which there are reports filed for the four of Sullivan’s affiliated nonprofits that have charitable status, those four recorded $1.25 million in revenues, mostly from private fundraising and gifts, while the foundation had $55,000 in revenue for 2005. The foundation also listed $1.5 million in assets in 2000. Not bad entrepreneurial work for a sector that others had declared a financial dead zone. Sullivan earned money by being an employee of one non-profit, Tetra, and charging management and consulting fees to the others, although it’s unclear exactly how much of the $200,000 listed as administration costs went to his Cosset Management Corp. He built those organizations up, doing what he does best, networking with people and working the loopholes. Sullivan is the first to admit that he doesn’t really do anything. He’s the ideas person, the broker, the man on the cell phone who puts together the puzzle pieces – a guy with money here, someone else with the technical skills there, and then a group willing to donate a boat or some time. [pagebreak] “I’m not good at doing things. I’m actually a terrible manager,” he says. “I’m better at initiating and starting things. The only way I can survive is by giving them to competent people and they make the magic happen.” But people who work with him think that’s a brilliantly creative talent of its own. “It’s important that he had the vision to see that it could be done,” says Gary Birch of the Neil Squire Foundation, who has known Sullivan for years since they were both paralyzed. At Sullivan’s request and then cajoling, the foundation helped adapt existing sip-and-puff technology so that it could be used on boats – something the foundation never would have done on its own. Sullivan also discovered a way to raise money. He had been laboriously typing out grant proposals, using a pencil to tap out the letters on the typewriter, and getting pretty much nowhere. But then he started holding fundraisers, where he always made a point of getting “one very wealthy person who was influential in the money world and one very powerful political person” to be co-hosts. That helped. “Finally when I started having events, started getting people involved and getting a little buzz around it, and these powerful people would look at this quadriplegic and say, ‘Holy shit, he’s actually doing something.’” Suddenly, when it came time to apply for grants, people – important people – knew who this young man from the East Side was. Over the years, he’s also hosted dozens of “salons,” where he brings together writers, industry leaders, academics, and other politicians of all stripes for evenings of conversation at places like the Opus Hotel. Sullivan, who typically says little throughout the evening, pays for everyone’s dinner and always provides music – an exercise that costs him about $1,000 a pop and creates a diverse group of people who go away impressed by his generosity and enthusiasm for intellectual conversation. And he always worked the system, never actually breaking rules but bending them just as far as they’ll stretch. At one point, he needed a staff person in one of his ventures who could type or help him get around, but he didn’t have the money to pay someone like that. So he found someone who was capable of doing everything he needed, then got her salary paid through a disability program by getting her condition – something Sullivan didn’t specify as he recounted this but made clear wasn’t normally considered a disability – classified as one. When a hedge fund came knocking at his door asking if the principals could give themselves a tax break by using a loophole where they gave a promissory note to his foundation that could count as a charitable donation, he said sure. (That’s where the million dollars in assets came from, money that’s involved a lot of legal wrangling and that Sullivan is still not sure the foundation will ever actually see.) All of that – the networking, the incredible tenacity, the willingness to engage in any kind of street fighting in order to win – paid off when Sullivan emerged from political obscurity to run and then triumph in what seemed like three unlikely campaigns: the push to defeat the wards referendum, the race against Christy Clark for the mayoral nomination, and the race against Vision Vancouver’s Jim Green. They might have been wins by incredibly narrow margins, but in politics, you don’t even have to get 50 per cent plus one. Even 47 per cent will do, as long as it’s at least one more vote than the other side. Now he’s mayor, which is a different kind of fight altogether. Sullivan says he doesn’t care what people think of his first year. He acknowledges that the public meetings he chairs are a “shambles” and look so incredible messy from the outside that even he can’t bear to watch his performance on tape. But, he says, he’s working on his plan and when year three comes around, he’ll start talking more about what he’s actually accomplished. By then, he believes, it will be clear to people that he gets things done in his own way and that he can pull in the votes he needs to do it. It will also be clear to the business community how he operates. No. 1: Govern, but don’t get involved in the details. For example, he wants to see more residential density in the city. But whether someone chooses to do that through an 86-storey tower or townhouses is not something he’s interested in – that’s “management.” No. 2: Provide business with the fundamentals – land to run businesses on, fair taxes, a safe city – but don’t do any sector any particular favours. Sullivan, the only person who voted against a new industrial-land zoning for high-tech businesses at the height of high-tech fever, says something like that will never happen again while he’s in charge. No. 3: Let the free market operate. Affordable housing will happen by creating supply to meet the demand. Hasn’t worked so far in Vancouver’s expensive downtown condo market? Well, yes, he’ll acknowledge, but then reiterate that any economist will say that it’s all about supply and demand and it should work. But people are quick to judge and the conventional wisdom of the political elders is that new administrations need to brand themselves early and often, not in year three, before the other guys, or a confused public, do it for them. And Sullivan has a challenging year in front of him. The grace period, such as it was, will be over. The fair-tax coalition, hugely disappointed after Sullivan couldn’t persuade his caucus to go for more than a one-per-cent shift of taxes from business to residential, will be looking for more. Developers, a group that Sullivan is still bitter toward because of what he sees as their failure to support him in the election campaign until the last minute, are waiting to see if he will remain aloof and revert to the previous NPA style of letting staff dictate everything. A union contract has to be negotiated, one that will keep the peace until after 2010. Sullivan announced to his new police board in July that he wants to bring the police into line and make it as accountable to council and staff as any other city department – a move that is sure to set off internal tensions. And if internecine war is going to break out in his caucus, something that many believe is a distinct possibility, it will happen by this time next year. Most importantly, Sullivan has to start delivering results and convincing people that he really is in charge, even if it’s in his own unique way. Mark Wexler’s analysis is that Sullivan will probably do okay, unless he develops an image as the nasty guy in the wheelchair who runs people over, rather than the nice guy in the wheelchair who is helping the poor and drug-addicted while not visibly wrecking the city. The other risk is if there’s a serious crisis, when Sullivan’s preferred method of operation – play weak and stay silent until he can figure out the lay of the land – may not be enough to hold the fort. Still, even Wexler is not willing to discount the possibility that he can survive even crisis and disaster. Never, ever underestimate him, his supporters politely warn. His friends have always known that. And in the past year, his longtime detractors and newfound enemies have come to realize it, too.