The surge in support for the NDP during the 2011 federal election campaign took most by surprise. In this excerpt from his new book, Building the Orange Wave: The Inside Story Behind the Historic Rise of Jack Layton and the NDP, former campaign director Brad Lavigne reveals how the party had to scramble when an old police report about Layton and a massage parlour surfaced late in the campaign.
On April 29, as I worked on Jack’s speech for his last weekend rally of the campaign, I received an email at 1:54 p.m. from a reliable source, asking me to call her. “You want to call me on my cell,” she wrote. When she didn’t immediately hear from me, she emailed me back nine minutes later. “Seriously” is all it said. I took a few more minutes to finish up the speech and then I called her.
“Look, you didn’t hear this from me,” she said, “but the Toronto Sun has a hatchet job coming out in tomorrow’s paper on Layton. Something about a massage parlour back when he was on city council. You need to be prepared.”
I quizzed my source to assess the credibility of the claim and deduced this was for real. After I hung up, I turned to Jess Turk-Browne, the deputy campaign director I shared an office with during the campaign. “Close the door,” I said to Jess. “Have you ever heard of an incident in Toronto about Jack and a massage parlour?”
“No, never,” she replied.
The key to being able to defend your boss is to know everything in their past, no matter how bogus or embarrassing an allegation might be. It isn’t just about being prepared; it’s about trust. We thought we knew about all of the possible attacks that could be levelled against Jack from his 30 years in public life. We didn’t know about this one.
I called Kory Teneycke, Harper’s former director of communications, who was now a vice-president at Quebecor Media, heading up the upstart Sun TV News.
“Kory, it’s Brad Lavigne. Look, I hear that you guys are running with some bulls–t about Jack and a massage parlour from 1996. Do you know anything about it?” He was quiet. I broke the silence. “If you assholes run anything that even suggests any wrongdoing, I am going to spend my life’s work amassing the resources to rain holy hell on your f–king heads. If there is one ounce of this that isn’t absolutely 100 per cent f–king true, I am going to sue you f–king people for every goddamned dime that [Pierre Karl] Peladeau [Quebecor’s chief executive officer at the time] has.”
“Let me check into this and get back you,” Teneycke said. He called back shortly after. “It looks like the story checks out. We have our sources, it’s being run through legal and we are running with it. It’s going in our papers tomorrow, and it will be on Sun TV tonight at eight.”
I turned to Turk-Browne. “Well, that didn’t work.” I called Anne McGrath and told her I needed to talk to Jack immediately and that he needed to be alone. She and Jack were in the RCMP car and had just arrived at the airport for the flight to Courtenay, B.C. As the plane was being loaded, a staffer found an office. Jack sat in there on the couch. I filled him in on the situation as best we knew it. “What do I need to know here, Jack?” I said.
“This is bulls–t. Nothing ever happened,” he assured me. He hung up the phone and turned to McGrath. “I need to call Olivia. Can I have the room?” By this time, the media were sitting on the tarmac waiting for Jack and Anne. They were getting antsy.
A few minutes later, Jack and McGrath called me back. We scheduled a conference call for when their plane landed. In the meantime, I would engage our legal counsel and develop our media lines. I called Brian Topp and walked him through the situation. “Any advice?” I asked.
“Call Olivia. Get her to make a statement. She’s the best validator you’re going to have on this,” he said.
He was right. Olivia was eager to help in the pushback. She remembered the incident and couldn’t believe Sun Media, vocal critics in the past of both her and Jack during their time on city council, were trying to resurrect the story now. The incident was known around Toronto political circles, but it never made the newspapers. Jack was never charged with anything, and because Jack hadn’t done anything wrong, he and Olivia didn’t think anything more of it.
I quizzed her for all the facts and details so that we could craft a statement. We needed to get this right. Good crisis communications requires acting quickly and getting your side of the story out.
We were running against the clock. We had our media lines ready to go by now, and Olivia’s statement was undergoing a final edit to be released before Sun TV went to air with the story at 8 p.m. EST, 5 p.m. in B.C. We wanted Olivia’s statement to form the basis of our response and be part of every story filed that night. The minute the public saw Olivia saying she knew about the incident, they would see it shouldn’t be a problem for them.
Three minutes before air time, we released her statement to the press. “Sixteen years ago, my husband went for a massage at a massage clinic that is registered with the City of Toronto . . . I knew about this appointment, as I always do. No one was more surprised than my husband when the police informed him of allegations of potential wrongdoing at this establishment. He told me about the incident after it happened. Any insinuation of wrongdoing on the part of my husband is completely and utterly false, which is why, after 16 years and eight election campaigns that my husband has campaigned in, this has never been an issue . . . This is nothing more than a smear campaign . . . another reason why politics in this country need to change, and on Monday, Canadians will have their chance to do just that.”
The mood on the tour had gone from jovial and light to brutal inside an hour. We decided to have Jack make a brief statement on camera on his way into the high school, where 700 people were waiting for him. He wouldn’t take any questions. “It’s unfortunate to see these smear campaigns starting in these last few days of the campaign. This is why a lot of people get turned off politics and don’t even want to get involved, and I think it’s very unfortunate,” he said before walking away from the pack of reporters.
Inside the school gym, Jack turned it on, delivering one of his best performances of the campaign. After the town hall, the team on the ground made sure he exited through a side door into an awaiting RCMP car.
I gathered with a few senior folks in my office that evening to watch things unfold. Within a few minutes of the Sun broadcast, it appeared the story wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. The best news was the reaction on Twitter. Within minutes of the story breaking, the twitterverse turned on Sun TV, with journalists and commentators attacking the news outlet:
“Canadian politics hits new sordid low. Am sick at heart” (Frank Graves, Ekos). “It’s a sad episode for Canadian politics” (Gerry Nicholls, former president of National Citizens Coalition). “Somebody at Sun should have had the news judgment, [if] nothing else, to realize. But then if they were about news or judgment, they wouldn’t be Sun, would they?” (Andrew Coyne, Maclean’s). “Attack on Layton seems desperate & small. It may help him more than hurt, given apparent national mood.” (Keith Baldrey, Global B.C.).
None of this changed the frame of the story in the Toronto Sun. Sun readers in Toronto woke up on Saturday morning to a giant picture of Jack’s face on the front page of the paper with the words “bawdy politics” in large font. The subhead read: “Layton found naked in massage parlour: Former cop; wife denies he did wrong.”
Our getting out in front of the story meant the coverage in other media outlets was more nuanced. We’d stayed calm. We’d assembled our facts, developed a game plan and then executed it. But we’d also been very lucky to get the tip from my source. That had given us a few hours to develop a response.The worst thing you can do in such situations is hide and let your opponents have the field to themselves. We got our best validator out front, calmly and consistently delivering our message. Olivia’s statement had also blunted the sting.
Despite the last-minute attempt to blunt our momentum, our tracking polling showed we were still on the ascendancy on Saturday night, our last day in the field. Nanos’s nightly overnight tracking poll picked up the same trend: For the first time in the campaign, the NDP was tied with the Conservatives among decided voters: 33.8 per cent each.
We had prepared several versions for Jack’s election-day speech: Conservatives win a majority with us as the official Opposition; Conservatives win a minority with us holding the balance of power; we win a minority. I told our speechwriters to use the word “spring” in all the speeches to emphasize the theme of renewal. We settled on, “Spring is here, my friends, and a new chapter begins.”
Once the different versions of the speech had been put to bed, there was nothing left to do but wait.
From Building the Orange Wave: The Inside Story Behind the Historic Rise of Jack Layton and the NDP © 2013, by Brad Lavigne. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission.