Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Running for Office with John Laschinger and Noah Richler

Noah Richler, the political outsider turned New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate, enters a nursing home on a sunny weekend afternoon in Toronto—St. Paul's. A women looks up at him from her wheelchair and says, “I like Harper. I’ll vote for you.” In that moment of pavement pounding in the middle of the campaign, Richler wondered why seniors with memory loss (enough to conflate former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the local NDP candidate) are able to vote while teenagers cannot.

Richler, son of Mordecai, was no ordinary candidate -- he was not content to pass from one voter interaction to another without reflecting on the process in which he was engaged. Political enthusiasts can be thankful that despite his election loss in 2015, Richler is back in front of the microphone to examine his experience -- a campaign whose autonomy, he admits, would likely not have been possible in a party with greater discipline than the NDP.

Sunday afternoon’s Writersfest programme paired up the neophyte Richler with the epitome of political backroom veterans, John Laschinger, for a discussion on their respective new books, The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and Campaign Confessions. John Geddes, Maclean’s Ottawa bureau chief, as moderator, likened the pairing of authors to “putting unlike animals together” on the ark. And indeed there were some sparks between them -- such as when Laschinger, a campaign manager for more than four decades -- said that the characteristics and performance of an individual candidate counts for just 6% of the outcome of the election (with the remaining plurality attributed to the performance of the party leader in the final three weeks of the campaign).

Whereas Michael Ignatieff, in Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, aimed to reach young people with an interest in politics in order to encourage them not to make the same mistakes he believes he made, Richler does not appear to have a compelling agenda to advance civic engagement. His cynicism tends to overshadow all else, though he is genuine in his appreciation for the volunteers and supporters who hardly knew him and yet devoted their time and/or money to his campaign.

I found Richler to be most engaging when vividly describing the idiosyncrasies of the campaign trail, such as when he compared (in his mind, of course) his unkempt canvassers -- “they’re my gang; I’d have no other” -- to those of the Liberals, with their sunny ambitiousness and “thick hair.” He said he tried to use humour, rather than fear or negativity, to reach unengaged voters.

Laschinger, meanwhile, distills his vast campaign experience -- from Toronto to Kyrgyzstan -- to offer a few lessons for aspiring politicians, such as the importance of keeping expectations low so that the candidate may exceed them (and thus, the importance of not lowering expectations for one’s opponents such that they may wildly exceed them, as the former government did to Justin Trudeau last year.)

Laschinger is full of stories of backroom antics and colourful personalities, and yet his methods are highly quantitative. When the percentage of voters eager for change in government reaches 60%, the incumbents can pack their bags, he says. He offers a few tricks of the trade, such as the value of broadcasting negative ads against one’s own candidate in order to make him or her better known, as Laschinger did during David Miller’s mayoral campaign in Toronto. Laschinger isn’t all spin and tactics though. His work is guided by respect for each man and woman who puts their name forward as a candidate for public office. Perhaps his most important insight was that he spends the majority of his time as campaign manager listening -- “God gave me one mouth and two ears” -- to volunteers, supporters, critics, and so forth.

Richler is similarly invested in the people -- rather than the Twitter identities -- who commit themselves to a campaign and to the democratic process. As a candidate, he says, “you have to believe you can win” and you must be able to tell each volunteer sincerely that their and your collective efforts were worthwhile. Participation matters, to borrow Laschinger’s favourite phrase, and candidates play a vital role in energizing participation in Canada’s democratic process.