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BC Politics

NDP Bars Appadurai’s Leadership Bid

David Eby is on track to become premier, but legal challenges are still possible.

Andrew MacLeod 20 Oct

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at .

The BC NDP’s provincial executive has rejected Anjali Appadurai’s bid to become leader after the party’s chief electoral officer recommended she be disqualified.

The party’s decision paves the way for former attorney general David Eby to become leader of the party and the next premier of the province.

Ahead of the decision Appadurai had encouraged party officials to avoid “the nuclear option” of disqualifying her.

“Don’t make the ‘Democratic’ in NDP the object of mockery by the public,” she said in a written version of her presentation to the party’s executive council.

“Don’t give our opponents this cudgel to batter us with from now until 2024. Don’t subject yourselves and the Provincial Executive to the inevitable smears that the next premier of B.C. was chosen in shadowy back rooms, not in the sunlight of democracy.”

Party chief electoral officer Elizabeth Cull, a former BC NDP cabinet minister, detailed her reasons to recommend disqualifying Appadurai in a 24-page report leaked to media ahead of Wednesday’s decision by the provincial executive.

Cull’s main concern was that the Appadurai campaign had improperly co-ordinated with third parties, particularly the environmental groups Dogwood and, to sign up new members.

“The CEO’s overriding concerns resulting from this investigation are that the integrity of the membership list is tainted by fraudulent signups, and that Ms. Appadurai and her campaign did not display the honesty or candour in responding to the allegations that they would expect of a leadership contestant,” she wrote.

Even at a point where Appadurai was assuring Cull that she welcomed the membership audit and supported the party’s process to protect the integrity of the leadership election, Cull wrote she was making “directly contradictory statements to the media.”

The investigation began after a complaint that the two organizations were promoting membership signups for the Appadurai campaign to the public using paid social media ads, she wrote. “This raised concerns about unlawful contributions to the campaign if these campaigns were not being conducted independently of the Appadurai Campaign as well as concerns about compliance with leadership campaign spending limits.”

There were also complaints that Dogwood and, as well as some individuals, were encouraging people “to fraudulently join the BC NDP despite being members or supporters of other political parties.”

Cull wrote that it is improper for someone to apply for party membership to influence the outcome of a leadership election while continuing to support a different political party, even if that person’s formal membership in the other party has been cancelled or paused.

A spot check of new members found 25.3 per cent were ineligible to be members of the BC NDP since they confirmed they were either members or supporters of other political parties. Another 2.5 per cent were ineligible because they hadn’t paid their own membership fees, a contravention of the Election Act that Cull's report said will be referred to Elections BC.

A wider check of new members is still underway, but as of the time Cull wrote her report 18.5 per cent had been found to be ineligible.

For comparison, a similar check of people who had been members at the start of July — before the leadership signup efforts began — found 98.5 per cent had valid memberships.

“Based on the spot checks and audits of the membership list, the CEO has already concluded that the solicitation of fraudulent memberships by Dogwood and others has seriously undermined the integrity of the BC NDP membership list,” she wrote. “This of course has serious implications for the integrity of the leadership election itself, depending on whether this corruption of the voter list can be remedied adequately.”

Cull also detailed the connections between Dogwood and the Appadurai campaign and said they contradicted the claim that Dogwood was independent of the campaign and that there was no formal connection between the two.

George Radner was serving as both a Dogwood board member and assistant campaign manager for Appadurai, Cull found. Dogwood communications director Kai Nagata and campaigns manager Alexandra Woodsworth were also volunteering with the membership drive.

“Mr. Radner confirmed that he was on the board of directors for Dogwood until he resigned on Sept. 2 upon learning that this was not permitted under the rules,” she wrote. He knew about the membership drive from a July 5 meeting, but said he did not share any information or strategies from one campaign with the other. Nor was he involved in Dogwood’s actual membership drive.

“Mr. Nagata confirmed his decision-making role in Dogwood’s membership drive as communications director,” Cull wrote. “He told the CEO that he also provided communications support to the Appadurai Campaign between Aug. 6 and 16 and that he offered advice about the B.C. political landscape.”

Woodsworth as well confirmed her decision-making role in Dogwood’s membership drive and told Cull she began volunteering on Appadurai’s campaign on Aug. 15 with roles that included communications support and drafting communications.

“In her role with Dogwood’s membership drive, Ms. Woodsworth encouraged individuals who do not support the BC NDP, and are thus ineligible for BC NDP membership, to join the party fraudulently in order to vote in the leadership election,” Cull wrote.

The report also goes into detail about an Aug. 6 meeting of around 100 people on Zoom that included Appadurai, representatives of Dogwood, people from other organizations and others to assess whether she could generate enough support to mount a bid for the leadership and discussing what they could contribute.

“Dogwood committed to using its resources — including access to the contact information of tens of thousands of its supporters (not its constitutional members) in British Columbia whom it would email, text and call — to sign up BC NDP members in support of Ms. Appadurai’s leadership bid,” she wrote.

“Dogwood estimated it could sign up thousands of BC NDP members and that it would ‘go all out until that signup deadline,’” she said. “A representative of Force of Nature similarly stated: ‘we have a list that we can mobilize of probably tens of thousands of people.’”

Former federal NDP candidate Avi Lewis, who Cull said appeared to chair or lead the discussion, said “I’m excited to have folks from organizations bringing the power of their organizations.”

It’s fine for a campaign to co-ordinate with individuals to sign up new members, she wrote, but it’s improper to co-ordinate with organizations and use their resources to sign up new members on behalf of the campaign.

“Without the personnel overlap between the Campaign and Dogwood, perhaps it would have been possible for the Campaign to credibly say that it had no additional knowledge of what Dogwood was doing beyond what was visible to the public,” said Cull.

“However, the Campaign’s responses went further and state something that the CEO has difficulty accepting as true: that it has no knowledge of what Dogwood has been doing. Dogwood’s campaign has been highly visible. It has included mass emails and text messages, paid social media ads, organic social media activity, website postings, earned media, and volunteer and paid phone banking.”

Cull said it was her view that it was apparent that Appadurai had agreed to accept the help and knew it was happening.

“On a balance of probabilities, the CEO finds that the Appadurai Campaign was aware of, accepted, relied upon, and took into account the membership drive activities of Dogwood in relation to its own campaign activities and strategies regarding the membership drive,” she said.

“Ms. Appadurai asked Dogwood and other organizations to commit to signing up members for her,” she said. “They committed to do so, and proceeded to carry out their commitment. That was improper co-ordination with third parties.”

“It is simply not credible that Ms. Appadurai, her Campaign Manager, and her Financial Agent, as they moved forward with the campaign after Aug. 6, simply disregarded the Aug. 6 membership drive strategy that was so significant to Ms. Appadurai that it apparently made the decision for her regarding launching a leadership bid.”

Cull considered options, but in the end decided disqualifying Appadurai’s candidacy was the only remedy that she could recommend. “The improper co-ordination with third parties... played such a significant role in the Appadurai Campaign that it is impossible to create a level playing field at this point, and thus impossible to restore the Leadership Election Campaign to a state of integrity in which I could have confidence.”

Appadurai in a response prepared to present to NDP officials, said she was unsurprised to have to defend her candidacy.

“This narrative of disqualification has been carefully cultivated online and in leaks to journalists for weeks, keeping my campaign in a state of crisis and distraction,” she said. “That a recommendation of disqualification is finally happening is distressing and destructive to both my campaign and to our party’s future credibility with the voters of this province.”

The real active third party in the leadership contest was the provincial government, she said. “Specifically, our NDP government’s series of fateful decisions on issues of deep concern to longtime NDP members.” She cited the decision to continue building the Site C dam, the failure to change to a proportional representation voting system, the continued logging of old-growth forests, the export of liquefied natural gas and the collapse of the health-care system.

“That deep disappointment with the direction of the NDP government was the silent but effective recruiting partner that brought in the many thousands of British Columbians who flocked to my campaign,” she said.

Appadurai accused Cull of being biased against her. “From the very first communication my campaign received from the CEO, we were dismayed to discover that in place of a fair and neutral arbiter of our party democracy, we were instead facing bias.”

The pattern of bias extended to how Cull viewed the evidence in front of her, including the recording of the Aug. 6 planning meeting, she said.

“When I look at that Zoom call... what I see is what I saw at the time: a public meeting to explore how much interest there was in a leadership bid by me,” Appadurai said. “I invited people from my climate justice and progressive communities. The enthusiasm was palpable, and the people who came expressed their deep desire to see not a coronation in the BC NDP, but a healthy and democratic contest of ideas.”

She said the meeting was spontaneous and happened before the essential elements of her campaign were in place. That Cull doesn’t see it that way is more evidence of her bias, Appadurai said.

“The CEO seems unwilling or unable to understand this dynamic of movement organizing, and presents it as suspect,” she said. “But the Zoom call is, in fact, a document of a candidacy giving expression to a movement — the very process by which both the CCF and the NDP were born.”

Ahead of the provincial executive’s decision a dozen protesters gathered outside the party's Vancouver headquarters. Some held signs saying "Let Her Run" and wrote similar messages on the concrete building in green and pink chalk.

Appadurai told reporters Wednesday morning that she was unsure what role she would play in the provincial NDP if she is disqualified. She did not rule out or commit to appealing the decision the executive makes, or taking other legal action.

— With files from Zak Vescera.  [Tyee]

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