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BC Politics

What to Make of the BC NDP's One-Horse Race?

A party united. A party divided. A party that must listen. Insiders weigh in.

David P Ball 11 Apr 2014 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is a staff reporter with The Tyee based in Vancouver. Find him on Twitter or reach him by email.

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Of John Horgan's last man standing status, one observer said: 'The fact that there will not be a leadership race makes some people feel there isn't space to have the conversations they want to have now. It's important the party hear and know that.' Photo: bcndp Flickr.

A few BC New Democrats are quietly expressing concern after the race to replace leader Adrian Dix narrowed to one man this week: party veteran John Horgan.

With Mike Farnworth the latest contender to withdraw his name -- following in the footsteps of Rob Fleming, George Heyman and David Eby -- some insiders wonder whether the party's new $25,000 entry fee, compounded by the challenge of competing for MLA endorsements with 1990s-era stalwarts like Farnworth and Horgan, may have thwarted potential candidates.

One of those informally tapped to consider joining the race was Vancouver School Board Chair Patti Bacchus. She agreed that Horgan is a "good candidate" with broad party support, but worried about election-by-acclamation and the resulting lack of debate.

"It's a bit discouraging not to see more interest in some renewal, some new faces and voices, in the NDP. For some, right off the bat, they said the financial piece put them off even entering it," Bacchus said, adding she decided not to run early on.

"If you have a leader who excites and inspires people, I believe the money will come from the base, but if you expect a leader to have it right out of the gate, you're eliminating a lot of potential talent."

Former MLA Jagrup Brar said he is celebrating the "unified" party under Horgan, as he had worried that a leadership race could divide caucus and "hurt the party big-time." But he questioned the cost of entering the race and said the issue needs to be debated.

"I'm pleased to see we have a leader now, the party is united under him. But $25,000 is a bit high," said Brar, who last November lost a bid for party president to Craig Keating. "It's a lot of money to raise for some people. It limits some from getting into the debate."

Keating insisted that the amount is "a really low bar" considering the party racked up an $11-million bill in the last election, leaving it today with debts in the ballpark of $2 million. In modern election campaigns, he added, leaders play an essential role in filling coffers and building war chests.

"Somebody who is a serious candidate for leadership needs to show they have fundraising chops," he said. "[They] will have to play a major role in raising money for the election campaign. In our current system, that's a necessity."

But Bacchus argued that leadership shouldn't be about "who can bring money."

"I find that part of politics really disheartening," she replied. "That tells me there are issues with the party. There are a lot of young people with great ideas and energy that would like to be involved."

Long campaign period another put-off

One of those younger voices who considered running is MLA Rob Fleming. He disagreed that $25,000 was the major barrier to more participation.

"The most daunting task for new candidates to get their heads around was the length of the campaign being about seven months long," he said. "That's a more significant cost than the entry fee... The campaign date was, in my view, three months too long."

Such a campaign could set a candidate back between $15,000 and $20,000 every month for travel and phone banks, Fleming estimated. He also said it was difficult to quickly gather the same degree of support coalescing behind Horgan and Farnworth, who were already known for their bids against Dix in the party's previous leadership vote.

"They had ready-made machines that they essentially had to switch back on," he said. "That made it harder for newer candidates, because the labour endorsements and a substantial number of MLA endorsements just had to be renewed."

Members who fear a narrowed race will exclude more critical voices on issues such as fracking, agriculture, foreign workers or the environment need not worry, Fleming said.

"For all of the twists and turns to the point we're at today, it feels like we're in a very good place," he said of Horgan's bid. "We have a diversity of voices in our caucus and very strong advocates on a number of issues."

Hopes for Horgan to broaden the base

Bacchus said she approached several others to consider entering the race, including Mira Oreck, a veteran of U.S. President Barack Obama's reelection campaign who spoke at the last BC NDP convention.

The entry fee was not Oreck's main reason to decline, but she admitted it is steep. A bigger consideration was boosting the diversity of voices in the party more broadly, she said.

"If a new generation or a different kind of person is going to seek leadership alongside those who already put their names forward, it was important it not just be about one individual, but that the party looks at recruiting new candidates and new kinds of people for a broader base of support," said Oreck, who is now a strategic partnerships director at the Broadbent Institute.

Oreck said the reasons for Horgan's initial withdrawal from the race -- stepping aside to make way for new voices in the party -- is a positive sign he intends to reflect greater diversity and outreach.

She acknowledged Keating's concerns that candidates must have fundraising "chops," but added that capital comes in various forms, not simply money. "We all have access to different forms of capital, whether people capital or financial capital," she said.

Oreck said she's overheard a number of people complaining about the BC NDP "not looking like people want it to," and the one-horse race being symptomatic of a lack of diversity in leadership. But her message for those critics is that "politics is not a one-way street" -- and that people can have influence if they engage.

"The fact that there will not be a leadership race makes some people feel there isn't space to have the conversations they want to have now. It's important the party hear and know that," she said.

"Does this moment require special attention to reaching out and consulting? That's incumbent on the party and the new leader, but I also think it's going to come from other places too."

With an entry deadline of May 1, Keating also reminded would-be candidates that there's still time to throw their hat in the ring.

"The race is still on, and there's still three weeks left to get in," Keating said. "We're ready for a leader."  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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