So much for the NDP's grassroots

There's a notable shortage of populist flair in the NDP leadership race

So much for grassroots

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

How the NDP rank and file might have reacted had they been able to take a look inside the first big fundraiser of Brian Topp’s bid for their party’s leadership is fun to imagine. The soiree, which one senior NDP official said raised about $20,000, was hosted by actress Wendy Crewson—who has appeared on TV shows like 24, with Kiefer Sutherland, and in movies like Air Force One, with Harrison Ford—at her home in Toronto’s pricey Rosedale neighbourhood. On hand were actors, directors, and even the high-rolling film industry executive Paul Bronfman.

This to fuel up the campaign of the man who wants to lead a party that’s always professed to stand for rural and blue-collar voters? Actually, Topp’s close ties to the Toronto showbiz crowd have a defensible NDP basis—he’s been executive director of ACTRA Toronto, the union for the city’s TV and film workers. Still, the combination of entertainment industry glamour and establishment money prompted one New Democrat organizer, who is leaning toward another leadership contender, to sniff that Topp wasn’t exactly showing a “grassroots touch.”

What Topp has displayed, though, is organizational reach on a standard that makes him, beyond any real doubt, the man to beat. It wasn’t supposed to be so obviously his race to lose. When the former NDP president and top campaign strategist declared his candidacy early last month, the widely held assumption was that Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair would soon throw his hat in the ring, too, and the two men would vie for front-runner status out of the gate. But while Mulcair was taking a few weeks to lay the groundwork for his candidacy, which he formally announced this week, Topp began assembling, piece by piece, a machine that gives him the clear, early edge.

And that leaves NDP insiders and ordinary members contemplating a complex set of strategic calculations as they look ahead to their leadership convention in Toronto next March 24. Do Topp’s formidable opening moves show that his political skills and party network make him the best choice, even though he’s never held elected office? Does Mulcair’s prolonged effort to organize his bid merely show reasonable prudence, or does it suggest that he’s struggling from the outset? And if a compelling two-way contest doesn’t materialize, does that leave unexpected room for other candidates to break through and seriously contend?

Early jockeying for Quebec support has been key. A former environment minister in Jean Charest’s provincial Liberal government, Mulcair jumped to the federal NDP in 2007. He was the party’s sole Quebec MP before it won an astonishing 59 seats in the province in last spring’s election. To win the leadership, Mulcair needs to dominate his Quebec base. Yet Topp is threatening him already by nabbing key support in the province, last week signing up Raymond Guardia, the NDP’s top Quebec strategist, as his national director.

In fact, Topp’s ability to compete in Quebec shouldn’t be any shock. He grew up on Montreal’s South Shore and speaks French well. But he’s far better known inside his party for his career elsewhere, from working as chief of staff to former Saskatchewan NDP premier Roy Romanow in the 1990s, through key roles in federal NDP campaigns from 1997 to 2011, to his union work for ACTRA in Toronto. Those scattered Quebec, Ontario and western connections give him an unusually far-flung network. “Brian Topp, in some ways, transcends a number of Canadian political cleavages,” says Chris Adams, vice-president of Probe Research, a Winnipeg polling and marketing firm.

But Topp’s leadership credentials are far from unassailable. He’s run plenty of campaigns, but never with his own name on the ballot. True, former prime minister Brian Mulroney never stood for election before he became Tory leader, but his example stands out for its rarity. So much so, in fact, that Topp has drawn that comparison, quipping that “every once in a while somebody named Brian from Quebec comes in and gives it a try.” Joking aside, though, he will have to show serious chops as a front-line politician to dispel concerns among NDP members that he’d need extensive on-the-job training. After all, they are the official Opposition. That means Topp must, according to University of Saskatchewan political science professor David McGrane, provide a convincing, affirmative answer to a tough question: “Is he up to being a prime-minister-in-waiting?”

Mulcair’s front-bench capabilities are proven. Layton gave him a prominent role in question period and he’s been a confident performer in front of TV cameras. He also brings experience as a cabinet minister in Charest’s government. But precisely how much credit NDP stalwarts are willing to give him for his accomplishments before he joined their fold remains to be seen. Among voters who aren’t party members, that non-NDP background could be an advantage. “If [the New Democrats] want to continue their success, they have to hug the centre,” McGrane says, arguing that Mulcair’s background with Charest’s government and the fact that he isn’t closely tied to unions might help him construct a centrist image.

McGrane, who has studied the 2011 NDP campaign in detail for a chapter in an upcoming book on the election, says Layton appeared only once at an event with union leaders during the entire race. Coming straight out of his ACTRA job, Topp will be seen as tighter with organized labour. “Obviously, whoever [the NDP] chooses is going to be savagely attacked by the Conservatives,” McGrane says. “Attack ads are effective at tapping into people’s predispositions, and whether they like it or not, the NDP has been seen as in the back pocket of the labour movement. That would be an effective way to attack Brian Topp.”

Others contend that Topp won’t be easily pigeonholed. The success of provincial NDP parties in the West was often held up by Layton as a template for future success in Ottawa, and with the Manitoba NDP winning a fourth straight majority this month, that model has rarely looked more appealing. Topp was at Romanow’s side when the former Saskatchewan premier was dominating his province with a decidedly non-threatening brand of NDP politics, and the iconic former premier has already endorsed his one-time top aide. Adams predicted Topp will use that connection to associate himself closely with Romanow’s “straight-laced” style and “very orthodox economic approach.”

Neither of the two leading contenders seems to have much populist flair in his tool kit. Mulcair often conveys intense combativeness, Topp a low-key self-confidence. That has some NDP insiders looking around for other options. Toronto party activist Joe Cressy—who has chaired campaigns for both Jack Layton’s widow, Olivia Chow, and his son, Toronto city councillor Mike Layton—is backing Ottawa MP Paul Dewar. Cressy casts Dewar’s underdog status as a virtue. “Paul’s a guy who’s committed,” he says, “to growing the party from the grassroots.”

In a party with the NDP’s sense of its anti-establishment identity, the possible appeal of that pitch shouldn’t be underestimated. Neither should the potential appeal of a female candidate—maybe Toronto MP and former Canadian Auto Workers official Peggy Nash—if any women decide to run. Five months leaves ample time for surprises. But for now, this contest is being defined by Topp’s evident strength and whether Mulcair is able, starting this week, to exploit any weaknesses.

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