Veteran campaigner looks to dismantle 'massive advantage' of incumbents

The Open Democracy Project is currently raising money to create a “DemocracyKit” for first time candidates — a toolbox of resources that would help people new to the process navigate the stages of municipal races that he hopes will level the political playing field.

Campaign veteran Chris Cowperthwaite wants to level playing field for first time candidates

Chris Cowperthwaite, seen in a still from his crowdfunding campaign video, wants to assemble a kit for candidates new to municipal races. (Open Democracy Project/Indiegogo)

Chris Cowperthwaite remembers the moment that convinced him that something had to change in municipal politics.

It was 2014, and he was working on Alex Mazer's Toronto city council campaign in Ward 18, Davenport.

Mazer, who was young and tech-savvy, "had a lot of support." remembers Cowperthwaite. "But we found that even given all of that, because he was trying to build from scratch, it was too much to do in the time we had."

He lost the race by 800 votes, "so close," said Cowperthwaite, "that it was heartbreaking."

Mazer wasn't the only first-time candidate who was defeated that election season. Thirty-seven of 38 council seats that year went to incumbents.

That's a problem that needs to be fixed, says Cowperthwaite, who is the co-founder of a non-profit group called the Open Democracy Project as well as the son of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

The Open Democracy Project is currently raising money to create a DemocracyKit for first time candidates — a toolbox of resources that would help people new to the process navigate the stages of municipal races.

Volunteers for Alex Mazer's 2014 campaign, which Cowperthwaite said was a turning point in convincing him municipal politics needed to change. (Open Democracy Project/Indiegogo)

Incumbents have 'massive advantage'

"I think if we'd had a head start, that would have made the difference," said Cowperthwaite of Mazer's unsuccessful run.

Cowperthwaite worked on 17 other municipal campaigns in B.C. and Ontario that year, and said he found strikingly similar challenges in all of them: incumbents were able to hit the ground running where new candidates took longer to hit their stride. 

"Name recognition is huge" for incumbents, he said on CBC Toronto's Metro Morning. "Studies also show that fundraising and access to donor lists is a massive advantage." 

Cowperthwaite feels the result of those advantages are city councils that don't reflect the places they represent.

For example, "almost three-quarters of councils are made up by men," he said. "What we would like to see is the gap closed in terms of increasing the rate at which new candidates get elected, as well as connecting candidates across the province in order to share resources."

DemocracyKits will make elections 'accessible' 

Cowperthwaite's DemocracyKits, which he hopes to make available by Spring 2017, would be a free resource for candidates and campaign workers unfamiliar with the ins and outs of mounting a challenge.

"The DemocracyKit will provide resources from the beginning of the process right to the end, through three stages: the exploration stage, the preparation stage, and the campaign operation stage," he said.

Those resources will include a blueprint for building voter contact databases, fundraising plans that can be scaled up or down depending on the size of the race, and digital tools for creating websites. 

Councillor Joe Cressy is one of many politicians who have signed on to contribute ideas to the DemocracyKit. He was elected to city council in 2014, replacing interim councillor Ceta Ramkhalawansingh. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

The Open Democracy Project is raising money to assemble the DemocracyKits on crowdfunding site Indiegogo, with aiming to pull in $25,000.

Several Toronto councillors have signed on to contribute expertise, including Coun. Joe Cressy, who is quoted on the Indiegogo page as saying that DemocracyKit "will make elections not only accessible but winnable for aspiring politicians of all stripes." 

Cowperthwaite said he hopes the kits will be ready in time to benefit the campaign teams working towards Toronto's 2018 municipal election.


With files from Metro Morning