I may be making assumptions here, but it is my firm belief that if you ran a potted plant in the riding of Vancouver East that bore the NDP banner in the upcoming federal election, it would win handily. A pair of shoes hanging from a power line or a tattered plastic bag in a tree bearing the same orange logo would do as well.
That is not a comment on the quality of voters in the riding. They are a smart lot, and certainly political. They know what they want.
Nor, by the way, is it a comment on the quality of the candidate the NDP is fielding in the riding: Jenny Kwan is ridiculously electable. Should she be elected federally, she will succeed the woman who has been the riding's MP since 1997, Libby Davies, another person who has proven to be impossible to dislodge.
But this isn't a story about the woman who will likely win the riding. No, this is a story about the underdog.
His name is James Low.
James Low is listed as the candidate for Vancouver East on the Conservative Party of Canada's website. This we know. There is even a small picture of him, depicting him as a jolly-looking, bald and bespectacled man in a boxy Gorbachev-style grey suit.
Beyond that, when I first went to the site, I could find literally no other information about him. Clicking on "Learn More" produced his campaign office address and a phone number connected to what sounds like an old-timey answering machine. Clicking on the Twitter or Facebook icons took me to the party's main pages. Clicking the website icon brought up a broken link.
Mr. Low does make a second appearance on the party's "Meet the Conservative Candidates of Chinese Origin" page. The backgrounds and occupations of the nine other candidates are described in a couple of lines each. James Low? Not a word. He's an international man of mystery.
It was later that I learned that he was being referred to as "JPEG James" and "No-show Low" on Twitter, and that in late August the website Some Random Political Blog flagged him as "Officially the most obscure candidate in all of Canada."
I shot off an e-mail and left a message with no real hope of ever hearing back. (For the record, I did not identify myself as a journalist or columnist, but rather as a constituent.)
I visited his East Hastings Street campaign office at 11 on a Saturday morning and on two weekday evenings. The doors were locked and the place was empty, save for a few lawn signs leaned against a wall, a hammer, and a framed portrait of the Queen propped up on a plastic Rubbermaid chair.
Maybe the rumours were true and the candidate was nothing more than a piece of clip-art and an answering machine.
Then the unthinkable happened. While I was making dinner last Saturday night, my cellphone rang. A cheery voice on the other end said, "Hi, is this Stephen? It's James Low calling."
I was, needless to say, flabbergasted, and pretty much forgot everything I had intended to ask him.
I told him about the difficulty I was having finding any information about him. He was surprised to hear that the web link was broken, and he gave me a URL so I could find it directly. "Do you have a pen? Okay so, it's h-t-t-p, colon, backslash, backslash …" Seriously.
He told me he wasn't so much into social media.
When I asked what he did for a living, he said he was an engineer by trade, and that he graduated from the University of British Columbia. (I can report that on page 83 of the 1991 edition of Slipstick, the UBC engineers' yearbook, there is a photograph of a person named James Low who bears some resemblance.)
I asked him where he was currently working. He declined to tell me "for privacy reasons." But he wanted me to know that he has delivered many projects on time and on budget.
I asked him what it was like door-knocking in a riding where an NDP win was virtually assured. He told me: "It's hard work."
I have seen no evidence of a campaign at all.
Not a single lawn sign (outside of his office), not a quote from an all-candidates meeting (which the Conservatives famously avoid in unfriendly ridings) – he wasn't even there this week when Stephen Harper held an unpublicized meeting at an East Vancouver brewery and invited only select (for lack of a better word, "ethnic") media outlets. Local candidates Alice Wong, Wai Young and Jojo Quimpo were all in attendance.
But here's the thing: If you put your name forward to represent the people of a riding, then do you not have an obligation to let them know who you are and what you stand for?
I get that politics is a cynical, divide-and-conquer, winner-take-all game. But even I'm not that cynical.
And what message does a party send to voters in a riding when it puts up a candidate that people actually believe might be fictional?
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.