How did that candidate get the green light?

Charles Bird, who used to vet candidates for the Liberal Party, on background searches, how mistakes happen, and ‘crushing dreams’

Jerry Bance, Conservative candidate for the Scarborough-Rouge Park riding in Toronto, is seen here emptying out a customer's coffee mug, into which he reportedly urinated, in this still image from a video broadcast of CBC's Marketplace which aired on March 2, 2012. Bance issued a statement apologizing for his behaviour. (CBC Marketplace, The Canadian Press)

(CBC Marketplace, The Canadian Press)

Liberal candidate Chris Austin was dropped on Wednesday after comments he made on Facebook came to light that were, as the party said in a statement, “irreconcilable with the values of the Liberal Party of Canada.” He’s not the only Liberal hopeful to fall from grace. Joy Davies quit as a candidate in B.C. due to her pro-marijuana comments on Facebook, while Ala Buzreba was running in Alberta until she resigned when offensive Twitter messages surfaced. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have also dropped candidates: Jerry Bance was caught peeing in a customer’s mug while working as an appliance repairman; Tim Dutaud made fun of disabled people in crank calls posted to YouTube, and a blogger exposed Blair Dale’s inappropriate comments on social media. The NDP, too, dropped  candidate Morgan Wheeldon for comments he made on Israel.

To find out about what goes on behind the scenes with the parties’ “green-light committees,” Maclean’s chatted with Charles Bird, now a principal with the public-affairs consulting firm Earnscliffe Strategy Group, who did vetting for the Liberal Party under Paul Martin in 2006.

Q: There’s been no shortage of candidates getting caught up in scandals in recent weeks: Peegate, the crank phone-caller posing as a disabled person, the Liberal candidate in Calgary who tweeted at someone four years ago to “go blow your brains out you waste of sperm.” How do these people get past the vetting process?

A: The reality of the situation is there are 338 ridings, which means any given party hopes to nominate 338 candidates. Some will be incumbents and presumably will have been checked thoroughly before, but in a lot of cases riding nomination campaigns will involve three, four, sometimes more candidates, and the reality is that it’s very difficult to do a deep dive on every one of them.

Most parties these days have what are known as “green-light committees” which are responsible for determining whether a potential candidate should stand for nomination. There’s a preliminary assessment done, which essentially looks at a number of fundamental questions, but whether they have the time to go into the personal history of what potential candidates have done or said over the years is an open question.

You would hope these days, given the explosion of social media, that parties would have the good sense to at least have a thorough review of a potential candidate’s social media history. That becomes more problematic with things like YouTube and videos where the given individual may have not been tagged using his or her real name.

It is very difficult to do the kind of thorough review that we would hope our candidates are subjected to. Now, candidate-vetting has become much more centralized and intends to be done on a regional or provincial basis, rather than riding-by-riding.

Q: When you’re digging into a person’s history, is it simply Google searches of the person?

A: The first part with vetting candidates usually starts with the positives: What have potential candidates done in the community that strengthens their connection to the riding? This is usually the best indication of whether a candidate has the wherewithal to represent the party. The negatives tend to be more difficult to discern. Police and credit checks are standard, but it’s generally what a candidate has said and done in the past that can come back to haunt a campaign. Google can only take [you so] far.

You really need an intensive interview process with potential candidates to get a better understanding of their personal histories on a range of issues. You also need to ensure their resumé is accurate and not been subject to enhancement or outright falsification. This is so essential because opposing campaigns will be doing very thorough reviews of what an opposition candidate has said or done with an eye to embarrassing or discrediting both the candidate and the party.
Getting potential candidates to come clean with what they have said or done in the past can be a challenge. Some candidates won’t necessarily recognize their past can come back to haunt them, while others will deliberately hide what might prove troublesome. The folks who are more fixated on getting the nomination are more inclined to skim past the more embarrassing elements of their past.

Q: Is it difficult to get people to admit to those past indiscretions?

A: There are a number of techniques you can use. When you sit down with a potential candidate, you go in armed through your preliminary check with some of things they’ve said or done that could prove to be potentially damaging and say, “This is the time when you really need to come clean with me with what else might be out there because whether you realize it or not, there are things our opponents may seize upon in your personal past in terms of what you’ve said, done or written that could really prove detrimental not only to your campaign in the riding but also the party as a whole.”

    Likewise, it always helps to talk to people who know the candidate in question. These can be character references, but probably the more useful checks are with folks who may not necessarily like the potential candidate. They may say they’re this, that or the other, but as long as they’re not pointing to stuff that could be detrimental, you can proceed with a relative degree of safety.

    Q: So if someone says they’d like to run in a riding, you would say to him or her: “Tell me some people who generally don’t like you?”

    A: Yeah. You could do that. Absolutely. You can challenge a potential candidate a number of different ways. It’s a good way of seeing whether they’re able to withstand the pressures. Part of it is an education process for the candidate.

    Q: How many people are part these green-light committees?

    A: It varies. Generally, it’s half a dozen or so. These are the individuals who will be responsible for reviewing resumés and, in a lot of cases, doing sit-down interviews with potential candidates to see whether they pass muster, whether their connections to the riding are sufficient, whether they exhibit sufficient political gravitas in order to run.

    The green-light committees have to exercise some degree of judgement. It can be an enormously subjective process and it can also be a process where, if you’re not careful, it can be prone to manipulation. That’s to say, if certain individuals have a preferred outcome in terms of a potential candidate for a giving riding, lo and behold, every other candidate fails to past muster.

    One thing that is best avoided for the sake of our democracy is a situation where a perfectly upstanding person comes forward and has every reason to seek a nomination for a given party and a bunch of acquainted hacks basically say, “No thanks. We’re not even going to let you seek the nomination.” That’s when things start to get dangerous.

    Q: So you don’t hire a private investigator to look into your own people?

    A: No. But I will say that practice is becoming a lot more prevalent in the United States. It’s one thing to have university students in a room Googling the daylights out of an opposition candidate. It’s quite another to have somebody who is a skilled investigator do that kind of work.  I think one of the reasons it hasn’t happened in Canada is two-fold. One—it’s very expensive. And two—the privacy laws in Canada are more stringent.

    Q: The former Conservative candidate in Papineau [Chris Lloyd], he was running as part of an art project. It came out later that in 2011, he even sent the Conservative Party of Canada a fake cheque for $30 billion—and in the memo it said the money was for the “F-35 Fighter Jets.” He was running in Papineau, which is Justin Trudeau’s riding—would that person not get vetted as hard because he likely wouldn’t win?

    A: You would absolutely want to pay close attention to who you have [running] against a national party leader because they will receive disproportionate attention if they say or do anything that could be considered foolish. Even if they don’t have a hope in hell of winning the riding, they will be subject to more media scrutiny.

    Q: And what about those who get caught up saying stuff on Twitter?

    A: Social media is the purview of trolls who say deliberately incendiary things. Very often, decent individuals will react suddenly—especially if they are personally offended—and will do so out of a sense of frustration and anger. And that can often sit there for years, as was the case with Shawn Dearn, Tom Mulcair’s director of communications, who in response to an edict from the former Pope Benedict XVI, pushed his views as to where the Pope could go in no uncertain terms. This was five years ago but this news just broke. You now have a situation where a casual reader might see the NDP’s director of communication said the Pope—and by extension all Catholics—can go you-know-what. If there was ever a crystal-clear message of the dangers of reacting out of anger or frustration on social media, that would be it. It’s interesting that it’s what we would call the “bozo eruptions” on the part of the governing Conservatives that tend to get more of the attention than what you’re seeing of the opposition parties. That may go with the territory of being the governing party.

    Q: The folks who get busted for things they said on Twitter—it’s so easy to check. How do vetters not catch these things?

    A: I would agree. It is ridiculously easy to check. It doesn’t take that much to go through your sent tweets and to erase anything you find objectionable. That said, you never know who out there has a freeze-frame of what you said. Snapchat notwithstanding, anything you send into the world of social media has a degree of permanence. Even if you’re erasing stuff from your Facebook page, or your changing your resumé on LinkedIn because you exaggerated a bit, there’s a real possibility someone out there already has it—but the people doing the vetting likely won’t be those people. Arguably the most important part of the vetting process is the one-on-one interview with the candidate. That’s something I put a lot of stock in.

    Q: Did you enjoy vetting when you were doing it?

    A: No. It’s a very gruelling process. I had to sit down in some very difficult situations with individuals to tell them, “I’m sorry. I’m required to shatter your dreams of being an elected official”—that’s no fun whatsoever.

    Q: When you were ‘crushing dreams’—can you give an example?

    A: Without mentioning any names, there were people who had previous convictions of great concern that could have been used against them.

    Q: A criminal conviction is likely a deal-breaker, but for social comments—I’m thinking about the Liberal candidate in Calgary who tweeted, “Go blow your brains out you waste of sperm”—where’s the line between “We can get past this” and “This is a deal breaker?”

    A: You know it when you see it. There can be some allowances made for the context for a given comment in the midst of a heated argument. If you say something that is truly offensive, you need to recognize it right away and apologize immediately because it speaks to your maturity as an individual. It is a grey line. Generally, anything that is offensive to a group of people is a showstopper, especially if you see repeated instances of it.

    Q: When someone on your team gets caught—you missed something during the vetting process—what happens?

    A: The first thing you do is fire the candidate. That’s my first reaction. Do you feel bad? Absolutely. Does it happen? Yeah, it does.

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