Are Low-Profile Political Candidates a Waste of Time?

If you are prepared to watch yourself lose an election on TV, you deserve to run.

Around this time six years ago, I was pounding the pavement with my pal-turned-campaign-manager Geordie McRuer, knocking on doors, and handing out literature adorned with my own tooth-flashing face. I had recently been voted one of four winners of an innovative local contest called City Idol, and had decided at age 24 to run for a Toronto city council seat I had no chance of capturing. The eventual winner was a guy many Torontonians already knew, a guy with experience, smarts, and an family tradition of public service. Young and beautiful as I was, it was still very disappointing to lose. I tried and failed and learned a lot in the process.

Reading Toronto Star journalist Bob Hepburn’s latest column on “delusional” federal Liberal candidates may have triggered some repressed reminders of my own foredoomed electoral campaign. But the piece was also a good reminder that you have to be at least slightly insane to enter the often cynical, judgmental, and contradictory world of political candidacy.

Although party leadership races are designed to build consensus and trust within a political family unit, most people who put themselves forward stand a good chance of being told they have no business running at all. Hepburn is annoyed that so-called “no-hope” Liberal leadership candidates will “take valuable time and focus away” from the real contenders in debates and town hall meetings. But since most prominent journalists only mention presumed “fringe” candidates to remind us they do not matter, that problem has already been solved.

Furthermore, all party leadership races employ a ranked ballot to choose the eventual winner. The ballot allows the voter to rank candidates in order of preference. A voter can reserve the lowest spots for the also-rans, or only rank his top four or five choices and forget the rest. But, as Hepburn soberly reminds us, these particular candidates are running to eventually become the next Prime Minister. Rather than provide them a platform “to air what they believe are brilliant ideas, to hear their own voices and to see themselves on TV,” Hepburn urges Liberal voters to preemptively tune them out.

Interestingly, Hepburn provides one method to a sub-par candidate’s madness: the chance to boost one’s profile in the hopes of coming off as a less futile candidate in the future. Hepburn concedes this is a logical reason to enter a race you will likely lose, so his decision to label low-profile candidates as “ego-fueled” functions as its own barometer for legitimacy. If a candidate learns to swallow this kind of widely broadcast personal criticism for the years or decades it takes to build a viable public resumé, those who called her a wannabe might later describe her as having “integrity,” “vision,” “courage,” or some other leader-like quality.

Of the five allegedly doomed and delusional candidates Hepburn mentions, lawyer and author Deborah Coyne, stands out as the only woman. Hepburn says Coyne is “best known for being the mother of Pierre Trudeau’s only daughter, Sarah.” Mother, eh? Is that even a job? I suppose any woman with the luxury of time, the ability to assemble a campaign team, and the financial freedom to pay the estimated $50,000 entry fee (Which Hepburn deems “relatively cheap”) can just wake up and decide to run for the leadership of a federal party. The media will soon overwhelmed by the three other women in Canada who make this self-serving leap into the spotlight.

But let us be serious: Hepburn believes the upcoming Liberal leadership race is arguably “the most important in the Liberals’ history,” and “not some student council election or a kids’ soccer team where everybody gets an equal chance to participate so no one’s feelings are hurt.”

When the personal sacrifice required to run for public office is characterized in such misleading and paternalistic terms, it’s easy to see why even presumably qualified people stay far away from politics. I obviously don’t approve of all our elected officials, but I have to salute their insane decision to run, if only because I know how personally challenging it can be. I also know that unless we do something about the cloud of cynicism hanging over our political institutions, it won’t matter who the Liberals choose to lead them.

If you can condemn prospective Liberal leadership candidates for wasting the country’s time and resources, your sense of entitlement is at least equal to theirs. I’d suggest Hepburn put his own name forward, but I imagine he is either as unqualified or as disinterested as the rest of us. Not to worry, though—if Liberal voters can manage not to get distracted by Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s baby-mom, there are rumours that another, more recognizable Trudeau relation may also be interested in the job.

~Dedicated to Geordie Mcruer and all steadfast enablers of hopeless dreams


4 thoughts on “Are Low-Profile Political Candidates a Waste of Time?

  1. Sol

    Nice piece, Des. You’ve touched on another thing: the whole discourse arising from the notion of “fringe” candidates is problematic.

    Who decides which candidates are “credible” or “mainstream”, and which candidates are “fringe?” What are the criteria for evaluation? Is the evaluation process transparent and unbiased, or could institutional and social factors be determinants before the evaluation is even made? Not only is the playing field not level – some candidates are kneecapped before they even hit the dressing room.

  2. Sean Geobey (@sgeobey)

    Unless a candidate is a dynastic relation to some previous politician they’re pretty much all fringe candidates the first time they run for anything (even when its under the banner of a major party). Hepburn’s argument is an attack on the leadership churn so vital to any democratic society.

  3. Kelvin

    very interesting piece Des.
    such a rampant media culture of this . I am glad some people have enough courage and vision to face this political climate in any capacity, without being too distracted by the countless self-appointed baseless ‘definers’ of viability like Hepburn.


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