David Bertschi, an unknown who wants to lead the country

David Bertschi's only electoral experience consists of losing in the last election. But he says he's always been an underdog and that he's in the federal Liberal leadership race to win.

Liberal leadership candidate undeterred by finishing second or small crowds

David Bertschi, an Ottawa insurance lawyer, is one of nine candidates competing to lead the federal Liberal party. (Economic Club of Canada)

David Bertschi is a member of a club among the federal Liberal leadership candidates — roughly half of them — whose most recent electoral experience, or only one, consists of losing in the last election. 

But Bertschi is able to turn his second-place finish in Ottawa-Orléans into an asset. Although he lost to Conservative Royal Galipeau by almost 4,000 votes, he outpolled the three leadership candidates who actually won their seats.

"If you look at the numbers," he said in a phone interview, "When I ran last, 2011, I had more votes than anyone on stage (during the Liberal leadership debate) with me, and I've always been an underdog." He added, " And I had the (NDP) surge and I had robocalls, and I didn't have national media touting the virtues of my lineage."

Bertschi doesn't seem to be deterred by small crowds as he travels the country campaigning. One local media report noted that he met with six people, including his staff, in a coffee shop in Kamloops.  "As opposed to large crowds, as the media is promoting, I'm on the ground meeting people and having substantial discussions with them," he said.

Liberal leadership

This is the first in a series of profiles of the federal Liberal leadership candidates.

The nine candidates will be showcased at an event in Toronto April 6, commencing a week of voting by party members and supporters. The winner will be announced April 14 in Ottawa.

His website is impressive, replete with a couple of professionally produced videos entitled Bertschi TV. There is also a section entitled Bertschi gear, although the T-shirts and hoodies with "Team Bertschi" lettering aren't available yet.

"I was born in the small town of St. Adele, Quebec, and from the age of 8 I was raised by a single mother with my younger sisters," he said. He worked a couple of jobs every summer to pay his way through college and then law school.

"For the past 28 years, I've been a civil trial lawyer, a human rights prosecutor and a crown attorney." With his wife, Debbie Orth, also a lawyer, he founded a law firm specializing in insurance. The couple has six children.

Pledges a debt-free campaign

He has pledged to run a debt-free campaign, although he said that the $75,000 entrance fee for the leadership race was "self-funding," meaning he borrrowed from himself. His spokesman Kevin Chalmers explained that since tax receipts for donations can't be issued until registration for the race, borrowing was the only option. Chalmers said that the self-loan will be paid down as the campaign progresses.

Chalmers added that other figures will have to be adjusted as well, such as the two $5,000.00 contributions Bertschi has made to his campaign, as well as a $2,500.00 contribution from his wife, both over the legal contribution limit.

However, Bertschi, like many of the other candidates, refused to say how much money he has fundraised. "Those that release that kind of information historically are trying to squelch the enthusiasm of others," he said. (Justin Trudeau's campaign is reported to have raised $600,000 before the end of 2012.)

A two-camera video of Bertschi's leadership launch shows him shifting between two teleprompters, transitioning seamlessly between French and English, his delivery animated, as he promises "to close tax loopholes" and pledges not to "back down from fighting for Canadian families."

His websites lists six areas in point form under the heading "Restoring the Canadian Advantage." One is what he calls "muscular peacekeeping" as a role for the armed forces. Asked how that concept would have applied to the Afghanistan mission, he said, "We could have been involved in assisting Médecins Sans Frontières, helped organizations rebuilding schools, and helping those that were doing that kind of ... important work."

On his vision for the country, he said, "I believe that Lester B. Pearson had it right. He parked his ego at the door. I'm someone who works with everyone. I put the party first, that's key. Pearson did that, he parked his ego."

On the aboriginal file, he says, he'd appoint a minister who is "substantive" and he'd have an active role himself as prime minister. "I'd also have a special advisor, someone like Paul Martin, who's developed a lot of good will."

He nixed the idea of a merger with the NDP, but, like many other Liberal leadership candidates, favours a preferential ballot.

Bertchi wouldn't say directly if he favours a price on carbon. He said he is for "strong environmental regulations." As for a carbon tax, he said, "I believe that the right carbon pricing system occurs, it'll be considered, but right now I'm focusing on enforcing, strengthening (regulations), and I think everyone's leaning for the sexy solution for everything."

When former Chrétien-era cabinet minister Martin Cauchon decided to run for the leadership at the very last minute, it was Bertschi that organized an emergency roundup of signatures required for the registration. "I thought it would be appropriate to help Martin to get the signatures," he said.

"I don't want to win on a technicality. I want the best people to run against me."