7 min

Not your average politician

Spencer Chandra Herbert is openly gay and clearly outspoken

Credit: Shimon Karmel

On an uncharacteristically sunny February afternoon, Vancouver-West End’s openly gay MLA sets up a table and banner at the corner of Davie and Bute streets, in the heart of the gay village.

Some of the passersby seem unsure of his intentions. They eye Spencer Chandra Herbert warily, wondering if he is trying to sell them something.

He calls it his mobile community office — a way for him to better connect with the people in his constituency. Today he is collecting signatures for two petitions he hopes to present to the legislature. The first is in favour of increased rights for tenants; the second is in support of St Paul’s Hospital.

Chandra Herbert takes pride in the part he played in getting the BC Liberals to commit to keeping St Paul’s in downtown Vancouver and has now set his sights on getting the funds needed to rejuvenate the aging hospital.

“Is there an election coming up?” asks one man jokingly. After signing both petitions, he tells the young politician to keep up the good work, saying that more politicians could take a cue from him.

The next provincial election isn’t slated until May 2013, but before Chandra Herbert officially announces his intention to run again, he wants to get more feedback from the community and see what they think of the job he’s done as their MLA.

“I don’t ever want to become the voice of Victoria to the neighbourhood, instead of the neighbourhood’s voice to Victoria,” he explains.

“If the message that I hear from people is ‘No, you shouldn’t run again,’ well then I won’t,” he says. “I don’t want to assume just because I’ve been elected once that I somehow have an entitlement to be elected forever. But so far the word is good; people are telling me that I should run again.”

Chandra Herbert likes to see himself as a different kind of politician. The 30-year-old prides himself on not owning a car and prefers to bike, walk or bus to appointments within his constituency. He can often be seen cycling through downtown Vancouver or Victoria in one of his trademark vintage suits. He gets most of his wardrobe secondhand, salvaging his suits from thrift stores or as hand-me-downs.

For an MLA, there is no average nine-to-five day. When he’s not in the provincial legislature in Victoria or out shaking hands and meeting people in the community, he’s likely in his Denman St storefront office meeting with constituents. On any given day, anywhere from 15 to 50 people contact his office looking for help, information or advice. Some of the cases can be fixed with a quick phone call; others take months to be resolved.

When pressed for his proudest moments since taking office, he points not to any of the myriad times he has been featured in the press for his outspoken statements nor to a change he has made in legislation, but to the advocacy work he does for his constituents.

He specifically recalls the case of an elderly West End woman who was repeatedly threatened with eviction.

“She wanted to give up so many times. She didn’t think she could withstand the pressure to leave the West End. Every time she talked about it, she would just start to cry,” he remembers.

After months of behind-the-scenes work from his office, the woman was able to stay in her home with more assistance and support than before.

“It’s the small things,” Chandra Herbert says. “I would want to do this even if I wasn’t an MLA, but for her it’s the biggest thing in the world.”

As a self-described festival organizer and community activist, Chandra Herbert never expected to find himself in public office. But the then-24-year-old jumped at the chance when the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) asked him to run for a seat on the Vancouver Park Board in 2005.

“I’d worked a lot from the outside, fighting for late-night buses for example, and I finally went, ‘I’ve got to give it a try from the inside and see what difference I could make there.’”

He doesn’t know why he was able to successfully transition from activist to politician, where many others have failed, but credits his experience in the arts, both onstage and behind the scenes.

“I’m comfortable in both worlds. There’s some people who are great at policy and not great communicators, and there are some who are really great on communicating but have nothing really to say. I try to work on both sides,” he says.

After serving a single term and carefully consulting with community members and his long-time partner, Romi, he made the leap to provincial politics in 2008, citing homelessness and the climate crisis as two personal motivating factors.

At the age of 27, in 2008, Chandra Herbert handily won a by-election over Liberal challenger Arthur Griffiths in the then-Vancouver-Burrard riding. Seven months later he was reelected in a general election to represent the new Vancouver-West End riding. He is still the youngest MLA in the legislature.

“I was on Park Board and saw the limit of what I could do there to deal with the huge increase in homelessness — the fact that friends of mine were getting evicted from their homes in the West End for no good reason,” he recalls.

As a member of the official Opposition, he has been fighting for affordable housing ever since, advocating against arbitrary rent increases and evictions. In his very first speech in the legislature he called on the government to take action on the Residential Tenancy Act and on homelessness.

“I know this House is often one of chest beating and desk thumping, a place where the theatre of partisan politics is played out. I appeal to the members opposite, on behalf of my constituents, to take action now for renters and those living on the street,” he said in November 2008.

“My community is tired of stepping over homeless people, and the homeless people in my community are tired of being stepped over. They need supportive housing now so that they can get off the streets and into programs that help them with mental illness, help them with substance abuse and drug addiction problems, help them get back to living productive lives.”

As one of a handful of openly gay MLAs in BC, Chandra Herbert is also a consistent advocate for gay and trans rights. He has pushed the courts to apply hate-crime designations in gaybashings, attempted to amend the Human Rights Code to include gender identity and expression, and continues to press the government for a provincewide anti-homophobia policy in schools.

He also remains firmly committed to his roots in the arts. When the BC Liberals slashed funding in 2010, Chandra Herbert came out swinging as opposition critic for the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts.

While acknowledging their economic importance, he believes the arts have a more important benefit to society. “They help us learn who we are, who we’ve been, and can give us a vision for where we’re going. They help us understand that the world is not always black and white, that in fact it’s a multicoloured universe,” he says.

More than three years after Chandra Herbert became an MLA, the Tenancy Act remains unchanged, and of the five private member’s bills he has introduced, none have been adopted.

“The Liberals have not passed, to my knowledge, any private member’s bills in their 10 years in office,” he says. “But, I offer them and I say in the spirit of bipartisanship, ‘Take them, you can rename them, claim that you came up with them. I just want the bill passed. I don’t need credit for it.’ But so far there has been no willingness.”

He dismisses the argument that the interests of West End voters would be better served by an MLA in government rather than in opposition and says he stands by his record.

“You’re going to have the same battles, whether we’re in government or in opposition. You have to push forward the policies and the ideas,” he contends.

“In terms of advocacy in the community, we had [previous Liberal MLA] Lorne Mayencourt for eight years and in that whole time we never got a commitment from the government to keep St Paul’s in the community,” he points out. “We never got any solutions to dealing with street homelessness.”

Many of Chandra Herbert’s constituents have nothing but praise for him. West End Residents Association president Christine Ackermann gives him an A for his work with renters and the gay community.

“It’s been heavenly to have someone like Spencer Chandra Herbert be our MLA because in the past we’ve not had MLAs that have been responsive to our needs in the community,” she says.

“He makes himself available, he listens well, he has good ideas, he’s active in the community, his office is always open. Those are things I want to see in an MLA.”

John Nicholson, chair of the West End Business Improvement Association, also gives Chandra Herbert an A for being inclusive of both residents and businesses.

But Chandra Herbert is not without critics. Laura McDiarmid, who ran unsuccessfully against him in the last election for the BC Liberals, is less impressed with his record and doesn’t think that he’s doing a good job representing the West End.

“It’s very hard to be critical because he’s a very nice young man,” she says. “I just think there’s something to be said for experience.”

McDiarmid thinks Chandra Herbert has chosen issues that will raise his profile while ignoring others that affect local residents. “There’s a lot more in the West End than the renters’ issue and queerbashing,” she says. “Is the West End being represented well by him? Everyone, not just a select few?”

While acknowledging that it is a municipal rather than provincial issue, McDiarmid gives him a C-minus for not taking a stronger stance about Vision Vancouver’s Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing program.

“Even though there’s nothing he can do about it, he can still take a stand knowing the effect that it will have on the community,” she says.

Chandra Herbert resists assigning himself a letter grade, instead saying that he is doing well but needs more work. “I’d say I could always improve,” he says. “If I were to give myself an A, I think it would signal to people that I don’t think I have to improve.”

He is noncommittal about how long he plans to stay in politics.

“I’m still a relatively new MLA. I’m figuring out how this works,” he says. “I think you’ve got to be focused on the job you have now, on the people you serve now. If I was focused on 20 years down the line, I don’t think I would be as effective.”