Getting into a big, messy brawl in the media about Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson's separation from his wife wasn't how the city's ruling party planned to kick off its election campaign.
Vision Vancouver went on the offensive over the weekend against its main opponent, the Non-Partisan Association, claiming the NPA is behind a campaign to spread false rumours about the mayor's life.
"It's not really how I wanted to start," said Marcella Munro, Vision Vancouver's communications director, speaking about the party executive's decision to go to battle over something that Mr. Robertson and his wife of 30 years, Amy, had hoped would remain private.
But, said Ms. Munro, the party isn't going to sit back the way the NDP did during the provincial election and let its candidates get trashed by the opposition.
"This kind of stuff can shift the way candidates get covered," said Ms. Munro, who also worked on the provincial NDP campaign last year that saw then-leader Adrian Dix go from an almost guaranteed victory to one of the most unexpected defeats in recent political history. One of the most effective tactics the B.C. Liberals used was to remind voters about a memo that Mr. Dix had fabricated about the casino scandal under premier Glen Clark, 15 years earlier.
Ms. Munro said that drove home the point that parties can't afford to let anything negative go unchallenged.
"We're not going to sit by quietly while the NPA [the main opposition party on the civic scene] or their allies run an underground campaign of gossip and lies."
So, in an unusual move, the party released an e-mail that NPA vice-president Rob Macdonald sent to city hall that made several unproved allegations about how and why the two separated. The party also issued a brief news release from both the mayor and his wife about the separation, saying it was mutual and amicable.
That set off a bizarre round of back and forth between various spokespeople and supporters of the two over the weekend, providing an indication of how combative the next four months of election campaigning is likely to get.
It also demonstrates how social media and the eternal life of e-mails make it difficult for mainstream Canadian media to keep to the practice of avoiding stories about the private messes of prominent figures, unless those messes directly affect the public.
Mr. Macdonald told one radio station, via e-mail, that "The NPA is not involved in any personal attacks on Gregor Robertson, nor am I. I think very highly of Amy Robertson who has been very kind to my son, and I wish her all the best."
Supporters have made the case that the e-mail sent to city hall was private and isn't evidence of any campaign. As well, they say, Vision seems to be using the mayor's personal situation for its own political purposes.
Vision called on the man who is widely expected to be the NPA's mayoralty candidate, journalist Kirk LaPointe, to repudiate the NPA's tactics. And a Vision supporter, Bob Ransford, went on Twitter opining that Mr. Lapointe wouldn't want to "associate himself with a political organization devoid of policy and dedicated to a rumour-filled smear campaign." That appeared to take the Vision defence into new territory of trying to get NPA candidates to abandon ship.
Mr. Lapointe, who noted he is still not a declared candidate, responded to The Globe and Mail through a Facebook post, saying that Mr. Macdonald's e-mail was private, adding: Nothing positive comes from the discussion of personal issues. Respect for public life includes a respect for private lives.
"As a journalist, I have had many opportunities to report on the private lives of public figures. I long ago concluded that, unless there is an impact on duties, those matters are irrelevant."
That view reflected what Vancouver news editors had concluded a few weeks earlier. Reporters who regularly cover city hall were called at the beginning of June by people in the mayor's office to let them know the mayor and his wife were separating and that the mayor had moved to a condo in the West End.
Pressed for details about why, the mayor's staff talked only about a long marriage and the couple's four children being grown and out of the house. But reporters were told Ms. Robertson would continue to provide the same level of support for the campaign in the fall that she always had.