Behind the scenes of the NDP leadership campaign

Pitting renewal against tradition, it’s a win for change

A win for change

Photoraph by Cole Garside

The last thing anyone expected from Thomas Mulcair in the race for the NDP leadership was a charm offensive. Sharp debating skills, sure. Divisive messaging, more than likely. But the Quebec MP routinely characterized as a tough customer was hardly thought likely to better his rivals in a contest of interpersonal skills. Yet there he was on the last Saturday of January, a couple of weeks before the watershed point when his dominance of the campaign became clear, winning a potential key new backer over breakfast at Halifax’s venerable Victory Arms Pub.

His quarry that morning was Nova Scotia MP Robert Chisholm, who had entered the leadership race, then dropped out early when he realized his inability to speak French was a fatal shortcoming. A former NDP leader in his home province, Chisholm looked like an obvious high-value target for all the main leadership aspirants. His background as a union leader might have suggested an affinity with fellow labour-movement heavyweights Brian Topp and Peggy Nash. But he told Maclean’s that he received just two “casual” calls from camps other than Mulcair’s. “Really, it was only Tom who reached out,” Chisholm said, “and was interested in following up on a regular basis and seeking my opinion.”

The two had barely known each other before the race, but Mulcair now struck Chisholm as “warm, friendly and engaging.” Not adjectives often publicly associated with the hard-driving Montrealer. On that winter weekend when all the leadership contenders rolled into Halifax for the second of their series of six televised debates, Mulcair and his wife, Catherine Pinhas, arranged breakfast with Chisholm and his wife, Paula Simon. They settled in for a relaxed hour at the pub restaurant on the ground floor of the gracious old Lord Nelson Hotel. “We found them both quite charming,” Chisholm said. After mulling his decision, he announced on March 1 that he was endorsing Mulcair.

By then Mulcair was the acknowledged front-runner. Exactly how he managed to vault past Brian Topp, the choice of most of the party establishment, will be debated for years by NDP insiders. Was it that Mulcair offered New Democrats the best bet of solidifying the 2011 election breakthrough their late leader, Jack Layton, had conjured in Quebec? Was it his bluntness in urging the NDP to drop its “boilerplate” left-wing language and appeal to centrist voters? Those elements clearly mattered. But the courting of Robert Chisholm suggests another factor: Mulcair is a diligent professional pol, capable of compelling performances in public or private. Those who predicted that the scrutiny of a six-month campaign would expose his dark side and hurt him were proven wrong. Rank-and-file members, and more than a few big names, found him effective, not off-putting.

If Mulcair exceeded expectations, so did the race as a whole. Early on, pundits dismissed it as a drab affair, the candidates’ positions too similar, the debate stiflingly polite. Toward the end, though, bitter personal conflicts burst to the surface. (“Just because we’re not Liberals,” one senior NDP official quipped ruefully, “doesn’t mean we don’t have this stuff.”) Even Ed Broadbent—the former NDP leader whose elder-statesman status would normally dictate he remain above the fray—came out swinging against Mulcair and on behalf of Topp. Although policy differences remained blurry, sharp-edged clashes about style and strategy drew attention to high-stakes questions about the party’s capacity to grow and perhaps govern.

And all this unfolded with Layton’s death last August still uppermost in the minds of voting party members, especially among the operatives who staffed the leadership bids. “I went from organizing the invite list for the funeral to having to think about who I was going to support post-Jack,” recalled Joe Cressy, a Toronto NDP organizer who backed Ottawa MP Paul Dewar. “It wasn’t an easy process.”

So the inevitable ballot question was: Which leader stood the best chance of holding onto the government-in-waiting status that Layton had so improbably snatched for the NDP? Mulcair embodied one pragmatic answer: Jack’s final triumph came mainly in Quebec, and that, after all, is Mulcair’s home turf. Topp offered a different response: as Layton’s campaign director, he was one of those who influenced and executed Jack’s strategy, and thus promised to continue it.

But Layton’s legend isn’t really about regional strongholds or strategic acumen. It’s the memory of an inspiringly upbeat political persona. Among the candidates, only B.C. MP Nathan Cullen repeatedly showed flashes of that rare flair for politics-with-a-smile—reminding NDPers of what it was like to be able to boast that theirs was, to apply the clichéd litmus test, the federal party leader most Canadians want to have a beer with.

It was just three days after Layton’s state funeral in Toronto, on Aug. 30, when reporters asked Mulcair about his leadership hopes before he gave a speech to students in Montreal. “I’m getting a lot of support, a lot of interest,” he said. If Mulcair was testing the waters, Topp was much more ready to take the plunge. On Sept. 12, the long-time NDP strategist and executive director of ACTRA Toronto, the union for the city’s TV and film workers, declared his candidacy at a news conference in Ottawa. At his side to affix the seal of establishment approval was Broadbent, who had endorsed Layton’s leadership bid in 2002.

Even some NDP officials who admired Topp, however, harboured private doubts. One veteran party insider observed that not only had he never stood for office, he wasn’t even the sort of backroom guy who stepped out of the shadows for TV political panels. He had a formidable machine, but did he have the chops? Mulcair was in the opposite position. A combative Quebec Liberal politician before Layton recruited him to the NDP, his skills on the front benches and in front of the cameras were undeniable. But where was his team? Through September and October, Mulcair looked badly out-organized by Topp. Meanwhile, Toronto MP Peggy Nash, Ottawa’s Paul Dewar and B.C.’s Cullen all launched and looked credible, along with a cluster of minor candidates. Mulcair griped about the disadvantage of running from Quebec, where the party had no provincial wing and few members. Behind the scenes, he scrambled to pull together a competitive team. Remarkably, its key figure didn’t come aboard until Nov. 23, more than two months after Topp’s launch.

Raoul Gebert, president of the federal NDP’s Quebec wing, supported Mulcair, but maintained formal neutrality until after a late-October meeting of the NDP’s Quebec council in Alma, Que. At that session, Gebert told Mulcair he’d be willing to volunteer on his campaign, after taking a couple more weeks to finish his Ph.D. thesis in industrial relations at Université de Montréal. To his surprise, Gebert told Maclean’s, Mulcair called the next day to ask him to be his campaign manager. On Nov. 19, Gebert handed in his thesis. Four days later, he took over what had been up to then a tractionless Mulcair run.

That was just 11 days before the campaign’s first big event, an all-candidates’ debate in Ottawa. The spectacle at the new Ottawa Convention Centre didn’t set pulses racing. Fully nine candidates lined up behind podiums, and the back-and-forth was disjointed and cautious. Yawns from the media, however, might have missed the debate’s impact among NDPers registering first impressions.

While Mulcair didn’t mix it up much, his polish in both languages was evident. Gebert said the aim of their preparation was to showcase his “skill set,” rather than set him apart on policy. Indeed, Mulcair looked sure-footed. It fell to Cullen to jokingly sum up the debate’s mild-mannered tone: “I’m in violent agreement with my colleagues here.”

There would be a long gap before the next debate, in late January in Halifax. During that stretch, the assumption that Topp and Mulcair were the front-runners held up. But key secondary storylines took shape, notably that Nash, a former top Canadian Auto Workers official, might offer a second-choice compromise for both Mulcair’s and Topp’s supporters. Topp, in particular, was in jeopardy if she caught on. Like him, Nash was Toronto-based with big-union credentials.

In the Halifax debate, however, Cullen drew much more fire. Unlike Nash, whose safely traditional NDP positions were hard to attack, Cullen had put a target on his back by proposing selective cooperation with Liberals and Greens in Tory-held ridings. Mulcair and Nash took aim. “Why don’t you think it’s enough,” Mulcair asked, “to get progressives to rally around our banner?” “We had a historic breakthrough in the last election,” Nash challenged. “Why not build on that?” Cullen held his ground, declaring that he trusted NDP riding associations to know when it was best to work with other progressive parties. Perhaps more importantly, he wasn’t shaken from his sunny style, unique in the field. Weathering the Halifax storm elevated Cullen. “That’s when people said, ‘There’s something to this guy,’” said Jamey Heath, the NDP veteran managing his campaign. “That’s where Nathan’s campaign started.”

Further complicating the contest was a jolt of energy in Dewar’s campaign. He made news in early January by scoring an endorsement from northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus, the NDP’s star performer in Question Period. Yet the way Dewar used Angus’s endorsement might actually have undermined his bid. The Ottawa MP’s inability to speak French was a glaring liability, and he highlighted it by anointing Angus, another unilingual Ontario MP, as his deputy leader should he win. “That was when language really entered into this,” said one organizer from a rival camp.

Still, Dewar’s campaign orchestrated what came to be the campaign’s watershed moment. Until early February, public analysis of the race was based on rumours, instinct and hunches. But on Feb. 13, Dewar’s campaign released the results of an interactive voice-response telephone poll of 6,400 NDP members in hopes of establishing him as a true contender. It put Mulcair well ahead at 25.5 per cent, Nash second at 16.8 per cent, Dewar a close third at 15.1 per cent, and Cullen and Topp vying for fourth with just under 13 per cent each. Topp’s campaign disputed the result, but the sense that he was struggling was widely taken as accurate.

The conventional wisdom that Mulcair and Topp were jockeying for the lead, with Nash first among the pack chasing them, was shattered. Instead, Mulcair was alone in the lead, with Topp relegated to a cluster of come-from-behind contenders. “This piece of information basically restructured everything,” said a senior NDP official. “It didn’t help Paul so much as it hurt Brian,” said another party strategist who stayed neutral. Demolishing Topp’s image as a front-runner may not have bothered Dewar’s campaign manager, Dan Mackenzie. According to an NDP official who knows both men, Topp and Mackenzie clashed when they both worked for the ACTRA union and remain on chilly terms.

Mulcair’s stature grew immediately. The NDP’s surprise 2011 election leap into second place had given many long-suffering party stalwarts the sense that, for perhaps the first time in history, power was a realistic prospect. Choosing a potential winner mattered more than ever before, and Mulcair began to acquire that aura. “Other things follow success,” a senior NDP strategist said of Mulcair’s new position, “like endorsements and money.”

Even among social democrats, money matters. By early March, Mulcair had raised more than $300,000, compared to less than $240,000 for Topp, who was closely trailed by Cullen, with nearly $210,000. Cullen also gained thousands of supporters thanks to a social-media campaign. Two left-wing websites, Avaaz and Leadnow.ca, launched email drives in mid-February, prodding their tens of thousands of members to join the NDP and vote in the leadership race, with the aim of pushing “progressive” parties to unite in opposition to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. As the only candidate advocating that sort of cooperation, Cullen gained “a huge boost” from the Avaaz and Leadnow interventions, according to Gebert. Along with propelling him ahead of Nash and Dewar, it meant Cullen would be competing with Topp for badly needed attention in the home stretch.

Largely undetected in the mid-February realignment was the hiss of air leaking out of the previously buoyant Nash campaign. “In January, I think Peggy Nash’s campaign was the strongest challenge,” said Gebert. But that strategy worked only so long as a plausible scenario saw her as a compromise candidate “coming up the middle” between Mulcair and Topp. Now there was no middle to come up—only Mulcair in front and the rest chasing him. “It pulled the rug out from under Peggy Nash,” Gebert said.

Mulcair settled into a classic front-runner’s style. He granted few media interviews. (He was the only candidate who turned down requests from Maclean’s.) “Once you’re perceived to be in front, you have to be mindful of the fact that attacks will concentrate on you,” said Gebert. There was no avoiding them entirely, however. When the assault on Mulcair came, his adversaries portrayed him as dismissive of the party’s Layton-era accomplishments. “We have to renew,” Mulcair had told the Toronto Star editorial board. “We’re one of the only social democratic parties to never have renewed itself.” He also referred to the party relying too much on old-fashioned “boilerplate” left-wing language. Members of Layton’s inner circle felt insulted. “Mulcair says it’s time to broaden our base, expand, modernize,” said one Layton loyalist. “That’s precisely what we’ve been doing for the past nine years.”

In the final debate, held in Vancouver on March 11, Mulcair faced a sustained attack. “How can you inspire our party,” Dewar asked, “when you don’t seem to be inspired by our party?” Topp asserted that Mulcair had been “very critical” of the NDP, while Nash accused him of refusing to be clear on the direction he would lead the party. But Mulcair kept his cool and reminded New Democrats that their biggest growth in 2011 came in Quebec, where the party has little historical baggage. “What I’ve been hearing from across Canada,” Mulcair said, “is that people want us to adapt exactly as we did in Quebec.”

His adversaries acknowledged the potency of the Quebec question. Topp’s campaign manager, Raymond Guardia, who ran the NDP’s Quebec election campaign in 2011, noted that the party’s polling support in the province was dropping during the leadership contest. As a result, Guardia said, “Quebec as an issue took centre stage, and that defined the race,” which made Mulcair’s bid “viable.” Riccardo Filippone, Nash’s campaign manager, said the contest turned on the question, “Who can keep the Quebec caucus united and solidify our gains in that province?”

The obvious answer: Mulcair. He first came to prominence in his home province as a hard-hitting opposition Liberal in Quebec’s national assembly in the late 1990s, then as environment minister in Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government. After splitting with Charest in 2007, he jumped to Layton’s federal NDP, and won the party’s lone Quebec seat in a by-election. There’s little doubt it was Layton’s personal style that won the NDP an astonishing 59 seats in Quebec in the 2011 campaign. If Mulcair offered no similar magic, his solid standing in Quebec might be the next best thing.

Any lingering doubts that Mulcair was firmly in front were dispelled on March 15, with just 10 days to go in the race. Broadbent, arguably the party’s most revered living figure, gave a series of hard-hitting interviews, casting doubt on Mulcair’s temperament and his commitment to core NDP values, and saying he was “deeply disappointed” that Mulcair said the party still needed renewal after the Layton era.

So the campaign’s final “compelling narrative,” according to Guardia, would be about whether the NDP “wants to lurch to the centre or stay true to its values.” That stark framing of the choice was working better for Topp, according to officials in several leadership camps, than the competing preoccupation with holding Quebec. Going into the March 23-24 convention in Toronto, NDP insiders were asking each other whether Topp had hit his stride just in time, or a little too late.

A party-record 4,629 NDP members attended the finale, descending the escalators into the Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s cavernous subterranean south building. The voting on Saturday, March 24, would follow an untested system. Of the more than 131,000 card-carrying New Democrats eligible to vote, just under 56,000 did so in advance, ranking their preferences from first to last. When the ballots were counted, the candidate with the fewest first-place picks would be eliminated, and others could opt to drop off. The next-highest choices on those ballots would pick up those votes in the following round. Party members who didn’t mark preferential ballots in advance could still vote in real time as the convention progressed, either in the hall or from anywhere in Canada, using a computer or a smart phone. But they would vote for just one candidate on each round, the old-fashioned way.

Before the Saturday voting came the Friday afternoon candidate “showcase.” Each of the seven contenders was allotted 20 minutes to make a final appeal. Cullen drew the first slot, delivering an unscripted, unadorned speech from centre stage. The minimalist approach looked increasingly good during the unintended comedy that followed. When Mulcair’s entry behind a troupe of drummers took too long, he adjusted by reading his speech at a bizarre, blistering pace to stay within the time limit. Nash’s hoopla also ran long, but she failed to tighten her speech enough and was cut off when the organizers cranked up get-off-the-stage music, Oscars-style. Topp performed solidly, as did also-rans Niki Ashton and Martin Singh. Dewar’s error-free speech drew less comment than a risible rap introduction from Angus. As the foul-ups upstaged clean routines, the NDP’s decision to put a Layton tribute in prime time that evening began to look prudent.

The main event began Saturday morning with the announcement of the first-ballot tally. Mulcair grabbed just 30.2 per cent, at the low end of most predictions. Still, he was comfortably first, well ahead of Topp’s second-place 21.3 per cent. Cullen was a strong third at 16.3 per cent, Nash a disappointing fourth at 12.8 per cent. With just 7.4 per cent, Dewar found himself in the dismal single-digit company of Singh and Ashton.

It took two more rounds of balloting to winnow the field down to just Mulcair and Topp. But there would be no photo finish. When Cullen fell off the ballot after the third round, arithmetic showed that fully three-quarters of his votes would have to flow to Topp for Mulcair to be denied.

Yet Topp opted to stay on for a nearly futile fourth round. He later told Maclean’s the NDP has no tradition of leadership hopefuls dropping out early. An exception was Svend Robinson’s withdrawal from the 1995 race after the first ballot, and Topp remembered how bitterly disappointed Robinson’s supporters were. He would see this through to the end. The last few hours would be tortuous: the online vote-counting service the NDP hired was plagued by delays caused largely, weary party officials emerged to explain, by outsiders maliciously trying to clog up the system.

The final result, announced to a bone-tired crowd after 9 p.m., gave Mulcair 57.2 per cent and Brian Topp 42.8 per cent. Mulcair made his way to a stage thronged with his vanquished rivals and party luminaries. Broadbent and Mulcair shook hands. Topp lifted Mulcair’s arm. Mulcair’s victory speech was oddly muted, heavy on warnings about the Tories “dismantling the very institutions we hold dear.” He cited stats on declining youth voter turnout, but offered few rousing lines. As he read his text, the Conservatives fired out a news release denouncing him as “an opportunist whose high-tax agenda, blind ambition and divisive personality would put Canadian families and their jobs at risk.”

It was a desultory end to a drawn-out contest. Mulcair, though, is less crowd-pleaser than painstaking professional. On Sunday morning, after meeting the NDP caucus for the first time as their leader, he crisply outlined his priorities at a news conference. No poetry, just pragmatism. Mulcair vowed his NDP would “project confidence and competence as public administrators,” adding, “that’s sometimes what was missing.” Describing Harper’s government as “very tough, very well-structured,” he vowed to match those qualities. It seems the Prime Minister, who has made organizational discipline his defining trait, will now face an Official Opposition leader bent on claiming the same political virtue as his own.




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Behind the scenes of the NDP leadership campaign

  1. Wow – what great writing! A comprehensive, readable, behind-the-scenes summary of the Convention filling in the gaps for those who couldn’t be there in person as well as succinctly describing the candidates’ campaigns and the dynamics of the race itself – I have saved and printed this informative piece – thank you!

  2. Topp shouldn’t feel bad about sticking it out.  Mulcair gets added legitimacy for breaking 50%, and if he can’t break 50%, he shouldn’t be leader.

  3. Managed to do that whole piece without even mentioning the Romeo Saganash campaign, the first leadership bid by an Indigenous person in North America.

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