When should a political candidate be ousted by a party for something they did in the past? It’s a fine line, political analysts say, and comes down to balancing the expectations of voters with what a party stands for and its need to keep a full slate of candidates.
And in the social media age, more and more candidates may find their pasts coming back to bite them.
In little more than a week, both the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives during the provincial election campaign have had to confront reports of several candidates’ problematic histories.
Last week, the Ontario Liberal party fired three candidates in three days after reports emerged of past controversial behaviour, including instances of homophobia. At the same time, Stephen Lecce, the Progressive Conservative candidate for King-Vaughan and minister of education, faced reports he participated in a “slave auction” event at his university fraternity in 2006. Lecce has since apologized. This week, accusations emerged about homophobic articles written in a church publication previously overseen by PC candidate Will Bouma. In the cases of Lecce and Bouma, Ford has opted to stand by his candidates.
We can blame the staying power of social media for putting the spotlight on candidates and the parties they represent, said Dennis Pilon, an associate professor of politics at York University.
“Nothing ever really goes away,” said Pilon. “A lot of people have raised the question about (if) anyone is going to survive the kind of social media scrutiny that is being put forward today.”
When parties vet candidates before elections, they undertake an extensive process which considers the candidate’s social media presence and requires them to participate in interviews or fill out lengthy questionnaires about their past. The question of how far back in time to go when checking social media posts, however, is a judgment call.
And most people have something “that looks a bit sketchy” in their past, Pilon said.
Whether you can recover from a scandal can hinge on how acceptable the situation is to the public, he added. If egregious, some past comments are impossible to recover from, he said. But not always.
“Voters are not some sort of unity of opinion or reactions to these things,” he said. While some might turn their backs on a candidate who is under scrutiny, others could accept a lot, Pilon added, pointing to former U.S. president Donald Trump’s 2016 victory in spite of allegations about his behaviour.
That said, voters who lean to the left on the political spectrum are typically less tolerant than those on the right, Pilon argued. Similarly, centre and left parties are brand conscious and typically try to protect their image from incidents which could damage them in the eyes of voters, he said.
Pilon believes the trend is likely to continue. “I think we’re going to see centre and left parties continue to be very brand conscious,” while parties to the right are less likely to see the same risks, he said.
Del Duca addressed his decision to oust his candidates in a meeting with the Star’s editorial board Wednesday. The Liberal leader said the party’s vetting process is “rigorous.” Voters, he said, should know the party is putting forward a team which shares the values he espouses.
“We can’t just talk the talk, we have to walk the walk,” Del Duca added.
Scott Reid, an adviser to former prime minister Paul Martin and principal at consultancy firm Feschuk.Reid, said parties consider three categories when deciding to part ways with a candidate: objective, subjective and situational.
Objective considerations are those where a candidate has done something so cut and dry — such as hiding criminal conduct or lying during the vetting process — that a party must walk away, Reid said.
Subjective considerations would focus not just on what happened, but who was involved, such as in the case of Lecce, he said. “The party and the party leader will contort themselves if it is to save somebody that’s more essential to their government.”
Situational considerations, such as that of Liberal candidate Noel Semple in Etobicoke Centre, Reid said, are where the judgment to keep or remove is considered based on the context of what was said or done.
Semple was not fired by Del Duca despite reports emerging last week of a “hurtful” and “offensive” column on the gay community in a student newspaper in 2004. Meanwhile, Alec Mazurek, the former Liberal candidate for Chatham-Kent-Leamington who used a gay slur on Facebook eight years ago when he was 15, was dropped by the party.
Parry Sound-Muskoka candidate Barry Stanley was removed by the Liberals after it was revealed he wrote an unsubstantiated, self-published book claiming homosexuality is caused by infants “rebreathing” their own air after birth. And 18-year-old Liberal candidate Aidan Kallioinen from Sault Ste. Marie, was removed less than 24 hours after being selected to run in the riding, reportedly for comments he made on a gaming forum at age 13 or 14.
When to keep or condemn a candidate is about a party making a judgment call in the moment, Reid said. “There’s as much alchemy as science involved” in managing these calculations.
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