Posted by on 10/30/2014

When I signed on to the Rob Keffer for Mayor team in July, we knew we had a fight on our hands. In a hypothetical replay of the 2010 mayoral race, Rob would’ve lost to Doug White by about 270 votes. With a growing town, Doug must’ve felt like he had reelection sewn up: the new people were his voters—commuters with young families like himself.

            But…I saw weakness. As deputy mayor, Rob had been something of an “opposition leader” against Doug, fighting him on rampant development, wasteful spending and high taxes. These were potent issues, and Rob owned them. Rob had a base of motivated supporters, eager for change. 

            And Doug, at the risk of rubbing salt in the wound, seemed to have lost his touch. This first became clear when Rob challenged his rivals not to accept developer dollars, and prove it by publishing major donations on a bi-weekly basis. Doug said nothing for days. When he finally responded, I was boarding a flight to New York. I couldn’t believe our luck: not only was Doug saying he wouldn’t accept developer dollars, he falsely claimed he never had in the past, and refused to go all the way and take the transparency commitment. Our supporters pounced. Suddenly the question “can we trust Doug?” was on everyone’s lips. 

            Doug’s next mistake was one of phrasing, not policy. He published twelve bullet points as a platform. The first point was that tax increases would be kept to the average of the previous four years. Now, that’s probably a defensible commitment—but his phrasing was bad. It let Rob say that Doug’s first priority was to increase taxes, with no plan to first find savings. 

            We knew that Rob might have a motivated base, but he was still largely unknown to many. We started with a major speech and rally the first official day of the campaign, with over 400 people. Then, we set out to control the agenda. It would be a two-pronged approach: Rob would outline, in detail, the failings of the past eight years, and then propose solutions. We started with Rob’s strengths: heritage preservation and seniors’ housing. But we came at both with a bit of a twist: heritage preservation was good for tourism, which is good for jobs, and seniors’ housing could only be addressed by a mayor with strong relationships with the county and the provincial government.

            Doug’s supporters would howl that we were “mudslinging” and “slandering” their guy in these papers, which was nonsense. Challenging a two-term incumbent is necessarily about showing why a change is needed. Our attacks were about policy failings, whereas theirs, very soon, would be nasty and personal.

            Plus, we were—while tough—pretty honest, even to the point of offering Doug some credit. For instance, Doug did a lot of good on recreation, completing the new leisure centre former mayor Frank Jonkman started. We conceded that—but exactly as phrased. As deputy mayor, it might have been a cute game, but Rob could claim the successes were a team effort and the failures were because Doug insisted on going in that direction. This might have been a bit unfair, but—by and large—it had more than a kernel of truth to it. 

            Rob’s recreation policy, interestingly, wasn’t really about any more new, big projects. He was pledging to renovate, to fix up the old community centre and clean up the Holland River with trails. People who felt neglected in older areas of town were paying attention: here was a mayoral candidate speaking about fixing the park in their backyard, rather than building some expensive new facility all the way across town.

            I knew we were hitting a nerve when we got to the “big guns” of transportation and jobs. Rob decided that he wasn’t running for mayor simply to oppose the Fifth Line interchange. He’d fought it at Council for four years, but Council had voted and Rob wasn’t prepared to run on cancelling an infrastructure project—this isn’t Toronto City Council where every decision is final until it isn’t. So, Rob said as much, with the caveat that he preferred to move quicker and cheaper with economic development at Cty Rd 88, and he’d have a more accountable process. It was a sensible plan and a mature decision not to continue a quixotic fight against the interchange.

            And Doug fell right into the trap. Meade Helman, our social media coordinator and general factoid, sent me an SOS alerting me to a scathing press release from Doug accusing Rob of flip flopping on the interchange. I practically jumped for joy: here was Doug telling his base of commuters with young families that Rob Keffer was a safe vote if you wanted that new interchange. The new subdivisions were now in play, and we had no better verifier than Doug White himself. Add to that a plan to improve the GO station, and we had a great policy offering for commuters, which were Doug’s base of supporters.

            That’s when a superior ground game took over. Rob’s motivated base had swollen to 100 volunteers. Betty Lou Vanderpost had nearly every street covered with a volunteer who lived on that street. Rob and Doug were canvassing each other to a stalemate, but our volunteers were doing their third wave of canvassing before Doug could do his first sweep of town. If Doug knocked on 8000 doors, we knocked on 10,000—twice. Momentum started to show. We ran out of signs. 

            And then, things got nasty. A ham-fisted attempt by Doug’s supporters to “leak” a conflict of interest allegation—not any formal case—against Rob before the debates was a disastrous boomerang. First, by floating the allegation on social media, they gave us the weekend to prepare for the debate. Second, the two “witnesses for the prosecution” were hardly sterling standard-bearers. Finally, Rob’s response hit the right notes: full disclosure, clear statement of the facts, complete declaration of innocence and a general disgust with such nasty politics. People noticed. People didn’t like the nasty politics. Plus, his attackers had clear motives and shady pasts. The attack boomeranged on Doug: his campaign was now the nasty, desperate team willing to do or say anything.

            Rob’s father passed away at 95, and he took a few days to be with family. Doug’s refusal to offer condolences and his decision to continue campaigning further turned people off his candidacy. Politics isn’t a blood sport: people want to see decency and human authenticity. Doug was desperate, and clearly despised Rob. No one likes meanness.

            We came back for the final push focusing on the Bradford Bypass, given Doug’s (again) ill-advised comment that getting it back on track was “laughable”. But the Bypass was more than just a single policy issue: it was the locus for the notion that Rob Keffer had the better relationships at Queen’s Park, in Ottawa and at the county. Our diehard Conservative supporters howled when Rob posted a few pictures with Premier Kathleen Wynne. But the Liberal candidate actually won Bradford in the spring provincial election, and we needed to reach out to those voters, too. Rob was then endorsed by a senior Tory MPP, and the claim that Rob was collaborative and able to work for us regardless of party became a selling point.

            The final week, we made over 2000 phone calls to ID more voters and spread the word. We organised a final “Super Saturday” canvassing blitz of all wards, knocking on 2000 doors in one day. We bought the front and back of The Times to further push our message out in a positive way. Doug, on the other hand, bought a 1/4 page ad below the fold on page 5 attacking Rob. The only charge that seemed able to stick was Rob’s vote against the new medical office. But Rob’s explanation that it was a vote against the debt-financing budget, and not the goal of bringing new doctors to town, struck a chord: people where conditioned to believe that Doug White didn’t respect their tax dollars, and Rob did. Again, Doug’s attack largely fell flat.

            The Friday before E Day, from a café near my law school in the UK, I emailed lists divided by wards to our team. I told Rob we had the votes to win, if we got our vote out, but that it would be close. I told the editor of The Times the same thing. But I told our E Day chair something a bit different: I said I figured we were guaranteed to win by 300 votes—we had the data—but to leave it all on the field, because there was the possibility we could win big.

            And win big we did, by a thousand votes. Doug plummeted 13% off of his 2010 total, while Rob grew by 5%, obliterating Doug in the rural wards 3 and 5 as expected, but also in ward 2, 4 and 7, and fighting to a near draw in ward 6, Doug’s old ward as a councillor. In the end, only ward 1 went solidly to Doug, but even then by 10% less than in 2010, with Rob gaining some 200 new votes. 

            In the process, Rob won more votes than any candidate in our town’s history—a thousand votes more than the previous record set by Doug White in 2006. With voter turn out at a record high (albeit still only 41%), Rob had a decisive mandate from all parts of town. 

            The campaign, though, was the easy part. Leading this town for the next four years…that will be the hard part.

Jonathan Scott was campaign manager for Rob Keffer for Mayor.

(Originally published on BWG Live.)