One theory for why the Ontario NDP didn’t win the 2018 election, despite coming as close to victory as it has in decades, is the beating it took over a few candidates' controversial past actions.
An election cycle later, the way the party is handling the legacy of that defeat has unsettled a slice of its grassroots.
Three devotees of the party told QP Briefing their bids to be 2022 candidates were unfairly rejected after vigorous vetting. They and a former riding president say it's just one concern they have with troubling changes to the candidate nomination process.
In 2018, the New Democrat campaign fell victim to a string of kind-of modern-era bozo eruptions. Candidates running for the party were found to have shared a Hitler meme on Facebook (but strenuously denied doing it on purpose), called Toronto's police chief a racial slur on Facebook, and been photographed holding a "FUCK THE POLICE" sign decades prior.
The latter two of these candidates, Jill Andrew and Gurratan Singh, won their ridings and will try for re-election this spring.
But when the Progressive Conservative campaign first unearthed the eruptions late in the 2018 campaign, it began hammering the New Democrats as antisemitic, anti-police radicals unfit to form government. It put them on the defensive and seemed to blunt their momentum.
Official Opposition won't cut it again for the NDP in 2022. The party's outwardly stated goal is to be elected to govern Ontario.
The NDP hopes intensifying its candidate vetting helps it achieve that goal.
The party has always vetted its candidates are vetted before they're nominated, including incumbent MPPs. Unlike the PC and Liberal parties, it doesn’t protect incumbents, at least officially.
To qualify as a possible NDP candidate in this election, hopefuls have to fill out paperwork known as a "candidate package," give the party access to their social media histories, provide proof of qualifications — such as academic degrees — and answer other questions in interviews, which sources described to QP Briefing.
"We have the capacity to vet candidates in a much more thorough way than we had in the last campaign," Horwath said Tuesday. One of the party's spokespeople later said the NDP's vetting process is "rigorous by necessity."
A political researcher who worked for the PCs in 2018 said the Ontario NDP's candidate vetting in the last election was "the worst I've ever seen, outside of maybe the Alberta NDP."
QP Briefing promised anonymity to the researcher so they could speak candidly about their past work. They've done research for conservative parties across Canada, including vetting candidates and doing opposition research. They said all major parties have gradually professionalized and invested in improving their vetting processes over the last decade.
Over the same period, the growing popularity of social media opened up more avenues for candidates to slip up.
"You've got to get burned touching the hot stove and then realize you've got to take it more seriously," the researcher said, referring to why parties have broadened vetting.
But with the Ontario NDP's new vetting process has also come new problems.
Sam Kaplun, the former riding association president for the NDP in Eglinton—Lawrence, left the party to run as an independent after he was disqualified from being an NDP candidate.
Kaplun told QP Briefing that party staff told him after a months-long vetting process that his "social media comportment" was the reason for his rejection. When he asked for a specific example, Kaplun said he was given one — he had liked a tweet calling Premier Doug Ford a "murderer." At least two NDP MPPs have accused Ford of "social murder" online.
Jay Woodruff tried running for the NDP in Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, but says he was effectively blocked by the party's candidate search team, which never sent him the candidate package to officially apply. Woodruff said he followed up multiple times over a more than half-year timeframe before he stopped getting responses.
This happened after Woodruff says he was encouraged to seek the party's nomination by a regional organizer, the federal NDP's candidate in the riding in the last election, and the local riding association's leadership. Woodruff, who has rheumatoid arthritis, is also the federal NDP's executive representative for its persons living with disability committee.
A woman who ran before as a candidate for the federal NDP (to whom QP Briefing also granted anonymity), said the provincial NDP's vetting was "very strict and stringent" compared to the federal party's process.
"(There were) all kinds of disclosures — credit checks, an employment check, I needed to send in transcripts of my diploma — like tons of information, every social media account I own," she said. "If I'd had a dating profile, they wanted access to that."
She had been an active member of her riding association for years. Four weeks into her vetting, she was informed she was disqualified. According to her, the party said she was rejected due to her "prolific Facebook presence" and for having given laugh reactions to "inappropriate" comments made by other Facebook users.
The woman, Woodruff and Kaplun each had their own suspicions of other reasons for why they weren't permitted to run for the Ontario NDP. None were sure, though, because the party's candidate selection teams shared only limited information. Each also said they were aware of additional prospective candidates who went through similar experiences with the Ontario NDP in the lead-up to this spring's election.
QP Briefing shared details about each of their experiences with the Ontario NDP, but the party did not want to comment on them specifically.
Emma Cunningham, the president of the Ontario NDP riding association for Pickering—Uxbridge until earlier this year, said despite claiming otherwise, the NDP is "an extremely centralized party with very little power given to grassroots."
Cunningham helped recruit prospective candidates for the riding for the 2018 and 2022 elections and said both times the party had "a (demographic) profile of the candidate they wanted to run, and they stall, and they delay and they hold people up until they get it."
Cunningham, who is Jewish, left the NDP in January after former Ajax mayor Steve Parish was named its candidate in the town's riding, which borders Pickering—Uxbridge. Parish pushed for a street to be named after a Nazi commander while he was mayor. After retiring, Parish opposed efforts to rename it.
The party dumped Parish as its candidate just over a week after Cunningham left the party. In a statement, the NDP said while its vetting "gave us confidence that Mr. Parish does not hold antisemitic views," the former mayor's failure to denounce the decision to name the street shows he has not "demonstrated that he understands why that is harmful."
The Ontario NDP has faced two other highly publicized candidate-based controversies this spring.
There was 15-year MPP Paul Miller's rejection as a 2022 candidate. The NDP said it discovered during vetting that he had been a past member of the "Worldwide Coalition Against Islam" Facebook group, which he's denied. The NDP said the discovery was Miller's last straw, given accusations he's faced in the past.
The other instance drew public criticism from multiple members of the party's Black caucus. Kevin Yarde was another of the party's incumbent MPPs. He left the NDP last week to sit as an Independent for the final days before the election is called.
Earlier this month, Yarde lost a contested nomination in his riding. Yarde told the Toronto Star he wasn't told he was facing a challenger for the nomination until nine days after the deadline for signing up voting-eligible-members.
Yarde was the first Black MPP to win a seat in the Peel Region, which is home to a large part of Ontario's East Indian community. Yarde also won Brampton North for the NDP for the first time in 2018, winning the seat by less than two per cent of votes.
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