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Why the NDP's Catherine Fife won the Kitchener-Waterloo byelection

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As a rule, we New Democrats love byelections. Both our national leader Tom Mulcair and our Ontario leader Andrea Horwath were first elected in byelections. Both of those byelections were breakthroughs, one establishing a beachhead for the party in Quebec and the other restoring official party status at Queen’s Park.

Unlike general elections, where the NDP is outspent by the Conservatives and Liberals in the vast majority of ridings, byelections allow the party to compete on a level playing field with the Liberals and Conservatives. They offer an opportunity to concentrate organizational and financial resources in one riding, rather than spreading them across 107 or 308 ridings.

Last week, the party found a new reason to love byelections, when Catherine Fife won a victory for the NDP in a provincial byelection in my home riding of Kitchener-Waterloo. In doing so, it denied the McGuinty Liberals their coveted majority and won a seat that had been firmly in Progressive Conservative hands through successive NDP, Conservative and Liberal majorities. It also confounded pundits and pollsters who initially wrote off the seat as unwinnable for the party.

So, how did it happen? And, equally important, what does it mean?

One thing no one seems to be acknowledging is that the NDP has a strong history in the riding. We held it federally in the ’60s and ’70s and, based on current boundaries, would have won it provincially in 1990 (coincidentally, 22 years to the day before we eventually did win it).

The riding association ran consistently strong candidates, backed by well-managed, well-resourced campaigns (not on the scale of the campaign that we just ran, but much more than a token “wave the flag” effort). It was heavily involved in the community, attending festivals, organizing events and even “adopting a road.” These factors helped to create the conditions that made victory possible.

The Friday night that Elizabeth Witmer resigned, more than 25 local New Democrats met to discuss the upcoming campaign. We met again the following Monday and we didn’t stop.

It is to the great credit of the Ontario NDP that it recognized the opportunity being presented to it. One party official assured me in May that the party intended to “throw everything we have” at the byelection. Horwath was in the riding so often (13 times, in fact) that she actually started to figure out our uniquely convoluted urban geography.

Enthusiasm from donors, both locally and across the province, was incredible. And, yes Tim Hudak, some of those donors were public sector unions. But, no, that doesn’t mean those unions (or their “bosses”) bought the election.

First of all, the campaigns of the three main candidates all would have spent the maximum allowable, so it’s difficult to see how contributions to the NDP would have made that much of a difference. Second, what does Hudak expect teachers and other public employees to do when the Liberals openly attack them and the Conservative response is to urge that the attacks be intensified? Surely, his own supporters have chosen his party because they see it as the best hope to protect their own interests. Why shouldn’t every Ontarian have the same right? Third, and most important, Hudak’s complaints show a tremendous lack of respect for the voters of Kitchener-Waterloo and their free will to vote for whoever they choose. In this byelection, 40 per cent of them chose to vote for Fife.

Clearly, a large share of the credit for the win goes to Fife. Her decision to run was the real game-changer of the campaign. Her performance on the campaign trail was poised, confident and professional. She has the ability to thoroughly shred an opponent’s argument, but in such a way that they seem almost compelled to thank her for it.

But, Fife did not appear in a magical puff of smoke. She was heavily involved in a series of NDP campaigns. It was local New Democrats who first urged her to run for school board, and helped get her elected in 2003. When she ran for the party in 2007, she increased party support by more than 60 per cent (nothing like the results from last Thursday, but still impressive). Last municipal election, she won every single poll. Voters in the riding were used to marking an X beside her name and used to liking the results when they did.

A number of pundits have suggested that Fife’s victory will be a one-hit wonder — that the NDP will not be able to hold the seat, let alone translate the win into broader support across the province. Those people are underestimating Fife, and they are also underestimating the NDP and its leader. Don’t be surprised if, after the next Ontario election, we are calling Andrea Horwath “premier” and calling Catherine Fife “minister.” If the NDP can win Kitchener-Waterloo, anything is possible.

This article first appeared in The Toronto Star.

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