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COPE's R.J. Aquino a 'genuine advocate' for Vancouver, says MLA

R.J. Aquino, 30, has spent much of the election campaign door-knocking and attending all-candidates debates. Photos by David P. Ball.

Vancouver municipal election 2011: Council candidate R.J. Aquino has a personal connection in this apartment building, so we ignore the ominous NO CANVASSING sign at the entrance, wait to get buzzed in, and finally knock on a door several stories up.

Turns out the connection is more of a business-acquaintance-of-a-friend type of thing, but we're not canvassing -- yet. “Good afternoon,” his friend says in Tagalog when the resident answers, seeming slightly skeptical, perhaps confused by the cold-call (Aquino translates the conversation for me afterward). “I'd like you to meet R.J. Aquino. He's a candidate to be Vancouver's first-ever Filipino city councillor, and he's with the Coalition of Progressive Electors.”

The man drops his guard, immediately breaks into a smile and steps forward to shake Aquino's hand. The 30-year old candidate jumps into action – chatting comfortably in Tagalog, answering questions, smiling throughout. Thanking the man for his time, we head towards a Filipino restaurant down the street. This is Aquino's neighbourhood, and he seems entirely at home here – pointing out restaurants he's frequented since they opened, listing his favourite coffee shops.

“There's always a little, 'Who are you and what are you selling?' at first,” Aquino explains of election canvassing, certainly an awkward art. “But as soon as they realize you're not trying to impose anything they lower their guard.”

“Then they ask, 'Why are you running? You seem young.' I tell them I don't think you can start young enough. I want to change what's wrong with the system.”

A week before the election, Aquino is still a relatively unrecognized face on the campaign trail. Perhaps it's because he is not an incumbent, or because attention has focused on Vision Vancouver and the Non-Partisan Alliance (NPA). But to many who have attended all candidates debates, Aquino seems to have made an impression.

At the Last Candidate Standing debate on November 6, for instance, the 30-year old was one of the few who took up organizers' challenge to bring props – his, a Star Wars-style light-sabre, used to hilarious effect when the debate moderator seized it mid-question and attempted to joust Vision councillor Geoff Meggs, who seemed decidedly unamused. When faced with the baffling question “If your election campaign were a video game, which one would it be?” Aquino's response was Angry Birds – the goal being to “fling” new voters to the polls.

This elicited laughter in the mostly young audience, but with a lot of his enthusiasm for youth political engagement and door-to-door canvassing, the Angry Birds metaphor may actually be apt, it seems.

“A lot of my peers didn't even know there's a municipal government to begin with, apart from the mayor,” he said. “One of obvious things is there's not enough affordable housing being built. When I tell my friends that, they begin to really understand the power municipal government has.”

“People realize -- you know what? I give a crap. Why isn't it affordable to live in Vancouver? 'You mean Council can affect that?' (they ask). It's a matter of translating how Council can work for some key changes that affect people on a daily basis.”

Born in the Philippines, Aquino moved to California when he was 11, and Vancouver six years later. After studying commerce – he describes himself as “business-oriented” before he was in politics – Aquino co-founded Tulayan, an organization which educates Filipino youth about their culture, language, heritage and history. Tulayan, he explains, means “to bridge” in Tagalog.

“There's a lot of symbolism there,” he reflects. “We need to build bridges between each other. When we start to realize that everything we do will ultimately affect ourselves and each other, we're all the better for it.”

“We don't live in isolation. I'm definitely on the left -- I'm a socialist. I believe that people are basically good.”

As the youngest candidate running among the three parties represented at City Hall (NPA, Vision and COPE), it's somewhat of a wonder Aquino has not received more publicity this election. He has turned up for nearly every all-candidates debate, is out on the streets daily talking to voters, and all that while raising his 10-month old daughter Sophie with his partner, J.L. (It's purely coincidental, he said, that he married someone else going by a two-letter first name).

While some candidates across the spectrum have started to fray at the edges -- some noticeably coughing and weary-looking as the campaign wears on -- Aquino shows off his enthusiasm at every opportunity. The day before his interview with the Vancouver Observer, however, he injured his back while unloading a child seat from his car, and was forced to literally hobble to our meeting in sweatpants and a hoodie, fresh from the physiotherapist. Laughing off suggestions that he should credit his injury to some heroic rescue, Aquino admits the campaign has had a steep learning curve.

“The hardest question I've received this campaign trail has been, 'How does it feel to be the token candidate?'” he admits, referring to suggestions he is on the Vision-COPE slate to attract voters of colour and youth. “I don't feel like I'm a token anything.”

“I made the decision on my own. Some people encouraged and helped me because they believe I would be a capable public servant. Isn't that a dangerous thing to think about every young, female or ethnic candidate? Are people just going to vote because a candidate has the same ethnicity? No. People vote because of their values.”

The fact that Aquino was not a very prominent community organizer or COPE activist prior to his nomination this summer, however, has raised questions among some in the Filipino community, who question why the party picked someone relatively unknown for one of its three council positions under the COPE-Vision alliance.

“R.J. is well-liked as a politician,” said Charlene Sayo, former executive director of the Philippine Women Centre of BC. “He's loved in the community (and) appeals to second generation Filipino-Canadians as a role model for young people. He'll get the youth vote -- he's got the appeal.”

“That said, I'm not sure that he has a handle yet on what's going on with working class Filipinos -- janitors and live-in caregivers and so on. He's non-threatening in that way. In all honesty, he'll probably be paraded around the community as a role model and a leader (...) but will he be able to influence or change anything systemically?”

One of Aquino's political mentors, however, disagrees with suggestions that the rookie COPE candidate is a place-holder to attract youth or minority voters. Mable Elmore, who is the first Filipino-Canadian Member of the Legislative Assembly in B.C., pushed Aquino to enter politics and says she has full confidence in his abilities.

“He's a solid person,” she said. “He's a genuine advocate to run in Vancouver -- he's a great candidate and he'll be a terrific councillor.”

“Probably the most important quality candidates should possess is a commitment to be of service to the community -- to work with and advocate on behalf of communities. That's what I encourage in terms of leadership style, and I see that in R.J. having gotten to know him and work with him.”

While Elmore admits that having young candidates of colour – like Aquino -- is important to representing and engaging communities in the political process, she said that leadership qualities far outweigh other considerations.
“It's important to have the communities represented at all levels in terms of inclusiveness and engagement,” she said. “It's an advantage when you have candidates from (many) communities -- but you can't just throw anyone into the mix.”

“It's hard work on the ground. He's got strong support. He'd make a great councillor.”

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