Windsor MP Joe Comartin's entry into the already overcrowded race for NDP leader is just plain weird. Weird enough that many NDPers suspect the rookie MP is a stalking horse to bleed off Ontario votes on behalf of an anyone-but-Layton movement.It's true many party members believe you can't find a more principled and stalwart guy than Comartin. But when he walked into a big field outside Windsor this week and announced he was in the race, they couldn't help asking each other, "What's Joe thinking?"
Even those who know him well are puzzled, including well-known NDP organizer Joe MacDonald, who ran his unsuccessful by-election campaign in 1999 (Comartin first became an MP in the 2000 election) and is now managing Lorne Nystrom's leadership effort.
"I really don't know why Joe is running," MacDonald says. "I don't know where he expects to be at the end of the campaign. It's kinda like this: if I'm going to be the critic for widgets at the end of the campaign and I'm already the critic for widgets, why would I spend the money and go through the effort to be the critic for widgets?"
Those who have worked with Comartin on other campaigns are notably absent. For example, Windsor's local 444 of the Canadian Auto Workers -- the union for which Comartin used to work as a lawyer -- says it's not at present supporting its local MP and may not ever. "I simply told him that our union's position is our first priority," 444 president Ken Lewenza says. "If at the end of the day our union supports Joe Comartin, he'll get my support. If he doesn't get the union's support, he won't get it from me.'
Howard McCurdy, who used to be MP for the riding Comartin now occupies, is no longer an NDP member but will be making a financial contribution to the Blaikie campaign. McCurdy shares the puzzlement of those who wonder why the rookie MP is bothering. "Those who have been involved with my past campaigns are equally stunned,' McCurdy says. "The motivation may simply be the need to develop a profile. I quite simply don't see him leading a party.'
Ontario Federation of Labour president Wayne Samuelson has worked on many NDP campaigns with Comartin, but he's supporting Layton and says the Windsor MP's entry is a distraction -- or worse. "I think members are looking for some energy, drive and vision. It doesn't appear to me that Joe has any of that. This is the time in our party's history to step out of the box and look at how we build this party from the bottom up. This is what Jack's campaign is all about, and it's exactly what Joe Comartin's is not."
Samuelson says Comartin may even be hurt by his ill-advised campaign, because he'll be dogged by suspicions. "While it's hard to believe that someone could get him to play this game, I think it will raise questions in people's minds, especially in Ontario."
For his part, Comartin says his motivation is simple: he has looked at the field of candidates and concluded he's as good as any of them. "There is a malaise in the party and a lack of willingness to speak out on issues, to take risks," says Comartin. Furthermore, the party's decision to support the Liberal "Clarity Bill" was a sellout of party policy on Quebec. And on trade issues, the party has not worked closely enough with the social movements.
"There were times when we were turned off by the tactics used by some in the anti-globalization movement. But it's like what you say to your kids sometimes when they turn you off: you still love them, you still persist in pursuing the agenda."
Comartin says that personal history might explain criticism from naysayers like Joe MacDonald. "Joe ran my 99 by-election campaign. He came into that campaign thinking I had no chance of winning and he was here simply to get the percentage of the vote up. His analysis of me was wrong then and it's wrong now."
(For his part, MacDonald says he's outraged at suggestions he doesn't fight campaigns to win, and claims that problems in the 99 campaign were caused by by "interference by Comartin family members.")
As for Samuelson, Comartin says, "Wayne is motivated by an early decision to support Jack. I don't get into these battles without intending to do my utmost to win."
Meanwhile, the Layton camp claims not to be worried about the danger of Comartin becoming a spoiler for their candidate, who was in Saskatchewan this week, where he picked up the support of Nettie Wiebe, former president of the National Farmers Union.
Iain Angus, campaign manager for Bill Blaikie, says Comartin's entry may have little effect on the outcome, since no province belongs to any one candidate. Angus says the biggest mark against Comartin is inexperience. "All his experience in law and labour in the Windsor area doesn't set the stage for him to become a national leader. One of the successes Joe Clark has had is that he has the experience of the House, and the media look to him for comment. They didn't look to Alexa, they didn't look to Audrey. They will look to Bill or to Lorne."