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“The issue has been resolved – it has been clarified – and I don’t need your permission to make that any more true than it is,” Lamarche says, with a sneering emphasis on permission. “So, with all due respect,” and he trails off, suggesting that he owes me very little.
It’s the first time I’ve evoked a hostile response from the man. I make mental note of the scene, to be described later: bathed in the orange glow of the alley lights, November mist falling around us, the infamous Cletus tugging at the end of his leash, Lamarche’s eyes are ablaze, but his expression is cold.
“I haven’t seen you like this before,” I tell him. “Why is that? Help me understand.”
“You’re giving legs to something I purposely didn’t want to give legs to, and now you’re coming back trying to revive this thing again. I have no interest in that, so if you have anything else, cool. If not, I’m going to go get ready for this debate.”
It will later occur to me that Lamarche views me as a vulture, circling the scandal that’s overshadowed his campaign, looking to fill my belly with the death of his candidacy. Given our original agreement and the unfortunate evolution of this series, I might think the same, but the truth is there’s simply nothing else to write about. At this point, following the Lamarche campaign and writing an inspirational story about municipal politics would be like writing a biography of Charlie Manson and only mentioning the music.
Embedded, I dreamed of an exposé of democracy’s tender, naughty bits. With the young, buccaneering Lamarche I thought this might even be possible, so keen was he to talk about running a different kind of campaign, of being a different kind of candidate. His narrative, as it’s referred to in politics, is heavy on youthful differentiators: skateboarding, renting – the tech-savvy social media king. It all pointed to a romantic story, full of underdog potential. But as the days passed, so too did the prospects of writing the tale I had envisioned: dark horse candidate squeaks into City Hall following daring, open campaign.
Those are my thoughts, standing silently face to face behind Jason’s apartment, the stink of my questions and his evasiveness weighing heavy on the both of us. “Okay then,” I finally shrug, “I’m sure we’ll be in touch.” He offers an unconvincing nod before walking back to his building, leaving me to wander the damp alley, contemplating the significance of his stonewalling and the future of this series.
My aim, as with every story, is to tell the truth. But with this assignment, more than any other, I’m utterly confounded as to what that might be. One of the few things I can say with absolute confidence is that municipal politics have chewed me up and spat me out.
Here’s what else I know:
To win in Vancouver requires a heroic effort, involving a team of dedicated volunteers; a contingent of professional strategists, managers and communications experts; months of tireless and mind-numbing pavement-pounding, sign-posting, hand-shaking, baby-kissing, telephoning, debating, scheduling and coordination; and of course, a party with a couple million dollars in the war chest doesn’t hurt.
Independents don’t stand a chance.
Vancouverites vote for a party, a mayor, then councilors – in that order. The more engaged among us may toss a few votes to a rival party to balance out power, but even then, most voters have no idea what separates individual candidates, short of their party affiliation.
The power of the machines aside, all civic campaigns focus on one unsexy task: voter identification. Central office stores the names of the hands shaken and babies kissed by individual candidates in a massive database. Bored-looking volunteers (and candidates themselves) sit in plastic lawn chairs in rooms full of endlessly-dialing computers waiting for a human voice in their headsets. Will you be voting November 19? Can we count on your support? Can we put a sign on your lawn? Do you need a ride to the polling station?
In municipal politics, where the winners and losers are separated by a thousand votes, the “ground game”, as it’s called, is the foundation of any successful campaign. Identify your supporters and get them into the ballot box. It’s no secret, and there’s nothing flashy about it.
But at this task is where the simplicity ends. Far less obvious, and far more interesting, is that blurry line between fact and fiction – spontaneity and cold calculation, truths and half-truths – always lingering in the public’s mind during a candidate’s bizarre quest to rule. Some might call it strategy; others, the bloodsport of politics.
It probably says more about me than Lamarche that I struggled to accept that every act, opinion and manoeuvre was precisely as it seemed. He never admitted to anything approaching strategy. According to him, every word was the truth and every motive pure. Cynical fuck that I am, and without a baseline from which to judge, this left me suspicious of everything – even more so once I had established contacts who I determined spoke frankly and honestly, even if only off the record.
Poor Lamarche, however, was always on the record, and the more he pronounced of his guileless campaign strategy, the less I believed it. Surely our boy was in possession of at least some of the wit and cunning required to win in this cruel arena? Surely he was not ignorant to the techniques that would ultimately prove his downfall?
Cue the Puppy Presser. A slick media moment if I’d ever seen one – Lamarche’s black lab Cletus decked out in a t-shirt and “Vote Lamarche” button, goaded to “speak” for the cameras if he supported his master’s plan to ban the retail sale of dogs. In spite of my relentless prodding, Lamarche held firm to the claim that the press conference was not a calculating attempt to grab headlines, but rather an honest reflection of his desire to help animals.
Regardless of his claims, my analysis of the event was cruel and sarcastic; I hated what I wrote, but it was what I saw.
With the “different campaign” promised by Lamarche failing to materialize, I was ready to end this pitiful series, rather than write another negative installment, when suddenly the first arrow of the campaign was slung, and it landed in our boy’s camp:
The Date Matrix.
I’ll admit, I read the headlines with a sick sort of glee. Policy, door-knocking and spot-rezoning debates are intensely boring, I’ve found, whereas a good old fashioned scandal is something we can all get behind. And get behind it we did. Running first at 11.40 pm, CTV’s shocking exclusive on Lamarche’s online rating system for ex-girlfriends, including a category evaluating (gasp!) their sexual performance, ran as their lead story the next morning, and featured a surprised Lamarche confronted on camera with a printout of the now-infamous blog post. That afternoon, it ballooned from a small, local story, carried by a single media property, into a national headline, with Lamarche following along on his smartphone while trying to concentrate on his job as a TD small business banker. I could only imagine the horror of seeing a minor transgression from my online past dragged up and aired out on the national news…or worse, turned into a joke.
I felt for the man, and thought the media’s pounce cheap and opportunistic.
Inside the NPA there were immediate calls to cut Lamarche loose, but by the end of the day the panic had given way to a kind of novelty. You better hope they spell your name right, son, ‘cause that’s more name recognition than all the street signs and our entire advertising budget could get you.
Needless to say, I looked forward to our conversation that night. With plans to meet at English Bay and take Cletus for a walk, I was surprised to find Lamarche’s black lab replaced by his smart and personable girlfriend. I interpreted it as a sign that he was finally opening up to me, and that I might still get that cutting insider’s story I had envisioned. Over dinner the three of us discussed the “attack”, as Lamarche called it, and speculated on its effect: had all that outrage from his opponents actually backfired, giving his campaign a shot in the arm instead? Our boy was loose and glowing, exuding the confidence of a man who’s been fired at without result.
He was in the finest form I’d so far witnessed, and I left the restaurant optimistic about the future of this series.
But on the walk home something about the sudden introduction of the girlfriend began to nag at me. I could put her in the story, she said, so long as I didn’t reveal her name. She even had a nice quote for me: “What was my reaction [to the Date Matrix]? Well, I had already seen it a long time ago – he had showed it to me. You know, it’s this satirical comment, it’s just this witty kinda way of economizing something that’s not normally economized.”
I struggled to imagine Lamarche one day pulling up this lame joke from his internet past and showing it to the missus. And a quote from a female – better yet, his girlfriend – declaring the whole thing to be a harmless joke, played rather well, didn’t it?
Had I just been Hillary Clintoned?
There was little time for reflection – CTV wasn’t done with our boy yet. And this go ‘round their revelations wouldn’t be so easily shrugged aside.
Four years ago, a user by the name of “downtown j” posted a number of crude and childish definitions on the site UrbanDictionary.com. “Downtown j”, CTV claimed, was a name used by Jason Lamarche. What’s more, the “downtown j” on Urban Dictionary wrote that he moved from Ottawa to Vancouver, participated in the Vancouver Zombie Walk, and made numerous mentions of skateboarding. CTV noted the similarities to our boy. The links were indeed curious, but by no means conclusive, and Lamarche immediately denied the connection. But then, shortly thereafter, he came forward with a bizarre claim that he had received an email from a former neighbour who admitted to using his computer and making the posts. Oh, and one more thing: the neighbour refused to talk to the media.
Regardless of whether it was true, the whole thing defied credulity, and Lamarche manned his flimsy barricade against a furious onslaught of media, declaring the whole thing a Vision smear campaign and publicly naming the staffers he deemed responsible.
Then, he disappeared.
I waited for him at the West End candidates debate – perhaps the most significant event of his campaign, held in his very own neighbourhood. He had often told me that the West End was key to victory, but he stayed home rather than confront another assault by the media, who turned the NPA platform announcement earlier that day into the Jason Lamarche show.
Next was the NPA’s showcase fundraiser dinner, which he also neglected to attend.
He stopped returning my calls and ignored my text messages. His Twitter account went silent. His Facebook page disappeared. The irony of our boy – the new breed of candidate, the Social Media King – undone by the very device that he claimed as his competitive advantage, was not lost on me. Nor was the significance of his silence.
I plied my contacts, both inside the NPA and out. By all accounts the Lamarche campaign was over, even with nearly two weeks to go. The team I had been introduced to as his core campaigners were no longer at work, and most predicted that Jason would finish last in the party, with one source suggesting anyone finishing below him will have accomplished something very shocking indeed.
When I finally meet Jason again, bathed in the orange glow of the alley lights, Cletus on his leash, the blaze in his eyes, he’s no longer the same human being – a humbled version of the energetic and opinionated young man I met months ago, evidenced by his refusal to cross a quiet sidestreet before the signal has changed, citing his fear that someone might see and report it to the media.
When I make the obligatory demand for an interview with the mystery neighbour it becomes clear that our relationship has now officially soured, and it’s with a strange sense of guilt that I take leave of him.
“If you have anything else, cool. If not, I’m going to go get ready for this debate.”
A week or so later, I coax him into one last telephone call with the following text message: “Dude, I’m not going to slam you with less than a week to go. Help me out here.”
Late on the Sunday night before the elections I ask him how he feels about my coverage.
“I think you wrote a story that wasn’t very well read and then you changed the angle…”
I assure him that my intention was not to generate reads, but rather to offer insight, and I re-state my difficulty in separating the truth from the “truth” in politics. The realization that, after weeks in the trenches, having spoken to dozens of people both on and off the record, after hearing from campaign managers, reputation managers, politicians and staffers, that, when it comes to municipal politics, I still don’t have any idea what’s real and what isn’t.
In response, he relates to me a story about an old friend:
“I had a friend who worked for the government in comms [communications] and he always used to tell me: ‘Dude, you’ve got no message.’” The implication being that Lamarche is precisely as he appears.
And for the first time it occurs to me that, here at the end, there are two possibilities with Jason Lamarche. The first is that he’s been playing me the entire time, that his honest insistence about Puppy Pressers and altruistic politics was nothing more than an economy-sized bag of bullshit. But the second, and perhaps more horrifying, possibility is that maybe Jason Lamarche really did stick to the truth this entire campaign – oblivious to the potential outcome. Maybe he torpedoed his entire campaign with that unbelievable yarn about his neighbour using his computer because it was the truth; maybe he really was totally naïve to the cynicism that a press release about puppies might generate. And maybe I’ve become part of that machine I loathe so much, serving up cruel commentary on a human being guilty of nothing more than a desire to make his city a better place.
I ask him if, in spite of it all, he thinks he’s still got a chance.
“If five of us get in, I’ll think you’ll see me in there,” he says.
And with this, I’m less certain than ever about when I’m being spun.