Updated on February 11, 2016
How Harry Rankin’s political career anticipated Bernie Sanders — up to a point
News that a long-awaited documentary of Vancouver city council legend Harry Rankin is moving to production arrived just as Bernie Sanders crushed Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire.
Can Sanders be successful? I can’t help thinking about the parallels to Rankin’s storied career, far-fetched as that may seem.
Like Sanders, Rankin made no bones about his socialist beliefs. Like Sanders, Rankin got his start in politics at the municipal level, where he quickly became top vote-getter in election after election. (Of course, he had to run 11 times before he won; fortunately, elections were annual in those days.)
Voters loved Rankin’s no-nonsense style, his complete comfort with working people, his indifference to the contempt and outrage he inspired in the city’s economic elite. He had a 20-year career on council behind him when Mike Harcourt moved to provincial politics to run for the NDP. Rankin decided to run for mayor.
In the long 1986 campaign that followed, Rankin raised unprecedented amounts of money and had the largest organization ever fielded by the Committee of Progressive Electors (COPE) up to that time. He ran into a wall named Gordon Campbell and lost by 20,000 votes.
(It was a watershed year in BC politics, with Bill Vander Zalm crushing the New Democrats in the wake of Expo 86. Harcourt soon became NDP leader and won the provincial election in 1991.)
Rankin was widely respected in the city for many reasons. He was an eminent lawyer, much esteemed by his peers. He took up lost legal causes — particularly for First Nations people who were victims of police brutality. Every Saturday morning he was available in his office to anyone who called for a few minutes of free advice, civic or legal.
But the voters ultimately decided he should be leader of the opposition, not leader of the city.
Can Sanders escape that dead end? He has his work cut out for him.