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Itching to regain Mulcair’s ‘symbolic’ Montreal riding, Hill staffer is first in expected crowded Liberal nomination race

By Samantha Wright Allen      

Rachel Bendayan, most recently chief of staff to the small business and tourism minister, is trying to run for the Liberals a second time, after coming about 10 points behind then-NDP leader Tom Mulcair in 2015 in Outremont, Que.

Rachel Bendayan, pictured in 2015 as the Liberal Party candidate for Outremont with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, will again vie for nomination in the riding.
Photograph courtesy of Rachel Bendayan

A cabinet minister’s chief of staff is throwing her name in the ring to again become the Liberal candidate to fight in what’s expected to be a tight two-way race against the NDP in a byelection in Montreal to be called once former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair steps down as a Member of Parliament in June.

 It’s shaping up to be a “highly symbolic” contest as the Liberals fight to regain their historic stronghold in Outremont, Que., and the NDP seek to retain the riding that many credit as the precursor to the so-called Orange Wave.

Before Mr. Mulcair took Outremont in 2007, the NDP had only once before been elected in Quebec. That 2007 victory overturned decades of rule by Liberal MPs in the riding’s various iterations over the last century, including more recently by well-known cabinet ministers Martin Cauchon and Jean Lapierre. Outremont is one of four NDP-held ridings in Montreal whose borders touch what Mr. Mulcair called the “beating progressive heart” of the city and one he has “every hope” the NDP would be able to maintain.

Rachel Bendayan, who, as the Liberal candidate in 2015, trailed Mr. Mulcair’s 44.1 per cent share of the vote with her 33.5 per cent, said she never really stopped campaigning after the loss, always intending to try again in 2019. She’s been door-knocking and said she’s hearing support for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) and the government’s policies. She’ll be one of the three to five Liberal candidates Outremont riding president David Marshall said he is expecting to run for the coveted seat.

“I certainly am encouraged by the response that I’m getting,” said Ms. Bendayan, adding she’s now a “known quantity in the community,” and said she feels many appreciated how seriously she took her run against her “formidable” opponent in 2015.

She said her experience following the election as chief of staff to Small Business and Tourism Minister Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.) makes her even more prepared for the role of MP.

Ms. Bendayan, who is on parental leave from that job, made headlines this week for other news. While serving as Ms. Chagger’s chief of staff, she was told by a woman that a then-staffer made sexual comments to her during a supposed interview for a job in the office. Ms. Bendayan said she told the woman the former staffer’s alleged behaviour was inappropriate but she did not take any further action because the staffer had already left the job and she had received no other complaints.

Mr. Mulcair’s former principal secretary Karl Bélanger said in the eventual Outremont byelection the Liberals will want to show the party “is back” in Quebec, but if the NDP has any hope of rebuilding its reach in the province, it will need to find a strong candidate.

“It is highly symbolic,” Mr. Bélanger said. “The party will have to invest resources and mobilize the base and do everything it can retain the seat but they’re going to face a difficult challenge.”

Mr. Mulcair announced months ago that the current sitting will be his last. The Liberal and NDP Outremont riding associations said they have taken advantage of the advance notice and are preparing for the byelection, which could come as early as this fall.

Mr. Marshall said the NDP took Outremont in the Grits’ “dark days,” when then-leader Jack Layton presented a strong left-of-centre option and the “stars kind of aligned” for the New Democrats.

“I think the NDP will have a hard time maintaining the numbers,” he said, noting 2015 was “tight to begin with.” With Mr. Mulcair out of the equation and the groundwork his party has been doing over the last two years, it’s theirs to lose.

Former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has held the Montreal riding of Outremont, Que., for a decade, earning 44.1 per cent of the vote in 2015 to beat Liberal candidate Rachel Bendayan. The Hill Times file photograph

Several predicted Mr. Trudeau will call a quick byelection after Mr. Mulcair vacates his seat. Mr. Bélanger said the NDP would be wise to announce a candidate as soon as possible and involve Mr. Mulcair so the two can be seen together. Mr. Mulcair said he would be willing but would not “presume” his involvement without a request from the party.

Both the Liberals and NDP tout Outremont’s diverse and changing make-up as working in their favour. The riding straddles different socio-economic areas, with very affluent sections including a strong business community in the Mile End that Ms. Bendayan called the “Silicon Valley of Montreal.” It is also culturally diverse, with a large Hasidic population as well as the Côte-des-Neiges, where Mr. Mulcair said many live when they first arrive in Canada and has 137 different first languages spoken.

Mr. Mulcair’s former deputy chief of staff Steve Moran said it’s “hard to parse out” how much of the last decade in Outremont was due to “Tom,” the party, or the Jack Layton effect. When a riding has a strong MP it’s hard to predict what the partisan makeup is, said Mr. Moran, adding having a two-way contest without either the Bloc Québécois or Conservatives having much of a shot is rare in Quebec.

Several NDP MPs dismissed the party’s poor showing in four December byelections as any hit to new leader Jagmeet Singh, because the ridings were never in NDP hands. But they were also cautious about putting too much weight in Outremont, preferring to focus on 2019.

NDP MP Matthew Dubé said the NDP are playing the long game in Quebec. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

“It’s no secret the Liberals are very popular in Quebec right now,” said NDP MP Matthew Dubé (Beloeil-Chambly, Que.). “We’re focused on the long game and it’s not always pleasant in the short term.”

While the seat has “sentimental value,” Mr. Dubé said it’s important to acknowledge there are “ebbs and flows in politics.”

For the Liberals’ part, Mr. Marshall wouldn’t offer candidate names but along with Ms. Bendayan, they’ve had interest from university professors and a journalist. A “vibrant nomination process” will help the party gain momentum, he said, and a loss “would be a major setback for the NDP.” Local mayor Russell Copeman’s name has come up as a potential candidate and former Liberal MP Mr. Cauchon said by email he would not be running.

NDP insiders declined to share the names of potential nominees, and while some mentioned Mr. Mulcair’s longtime constituency staff Graham Carpenter as a possibility, Mr. Mulcair said his aide “laughed out loud” at the suggestion.

As the party’s Quebec lieutenant, Alexandre Boulerice (Rosemont-La Petite Patrie, Que.), whose riding borders Outremont, said he’s been actively seeking out strong candidates and he’s “confident” they can keep it, “but it’s going to be a fight.”

Quebec NDP director, Anne Marie Aubert said by email the party has started organizing its “ground game.”

“Even if, prior to Tom’s first election in 2007, Outremont was seen as a Liberal fortress, we believe the NDP will be able to keep the riding after his departure as our local team has been doing tremendous work and developing a very strong relationship with the community over the last decade,” Ms. Aubert said.

swallen@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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