The Ontario Liberal Party is launching an investigation into allegations of harassment on one of the 2020 leadership campaigns based on the accounts of two organizers who now say they're particularly disappointed because the candidate had set out with a promise to "do politics differently."
Kate Graham, a progressive standard-bearer and rising star in the party, finished third in the leadership race despite never having held elected office, and is now the Liberal candidate for London North Centre.
One of the complainants, Sam Nami, president of the University of Toronto Scarborough Young Liberals, spoke about his experiences on her leadership campaign on an episode of the Total System Failure Podcast and in an interview with QP Briefing. The second, who was a senior campaign volunteer, emailed his complaints to Graham earlier this summer, but declined to go on the record with QP Briefing.
Nami, the campaign's lead youth organizer, officially lodged a complaint with Graham's campaign manager, George Roter, in February, prior to the Liberal convention in early March. He alleged bullying and harassment by Max Rubin, a senior campaign organizer, including an incident in which Nami alleges Rubin physically prevented him from entering an office at campaign headquarters.
"I asked him to stop but he didn't, it just felt violating," Nami told QP Briefing.
Nami said part of what made him feel that way was that Rubin had allegedly made inappropriate sexual remarks during the campaign. That includes comments about a young male Liberal’s sexuality — saying that he is gay but just hasn’t figured it out yet, in front of volunteers who reported to the young man.
Both Nami and the other complainant alleged that there was a climate of bullying and harassment on the campaign and that they were targetted in particular because they are not white. The second complainant said he believes people of colour were treated especially dismissively by the campaign team's leadership and were unfairly blamed for problems. He outlined these complaints to Graham in an email over the summer.
Nami alleges the campaign tried to cover up his complaint. When he initially reported it to Roter, the campaign manager said there would be an investigation and a report. And while Nami was interviewed by a lawyer, Graham eventually told him that no report was ever completed because Nami had initially said he did not want his name shared with Rubin.
Nami said he's also concerned that Rubin wasn't disciplined — instead, his role was elevated and he was put in charge of volunteers at the convention. According to Nami, Graham eventually told him that the actions the campaign took were changing the reporting structure in an effort to ensure distance between Nami and Rubin, and to seek the guidance of the lawyer who spoke with him.
Nami said he is also concerned that Roter now works for the central Liberal campaign.
"I take these allegations seriously, and I took action when the complaint was raised with me and the campaign," Roter said in an email to QP Briefing. "I'm concerned these individuals feel this way. I heard from the Ontario Liberal Party [on Friday] and I'm glad that they are launching an investigation."
Roter's involvement is how Nami came to record the podcast about his experience, which was released by the Total System Failure Project on Monday morning. Roter is the former CEO of Engineers Without Borders and while in that role oversaw the organization's response to a woman's complaint of sexual harassment. She has since accused him of covering it up. That complainant, Chelsey Rhodes, now leads the Total System Failure Project, which describes itself as "an independent research project on abuses of power, systemic harassment, and cover-ups in the humanitarian aid, development, and NGO sector."
On that podcast, Nami spoke of his disappointment in how his experience on the Graham campaign turned out, partly as she had talked about equity and used the campaign slogan "Let's do politics differently."
"I really liked what Kate had to say and I went into the campaign with really high expectations about how her attitude was going to be going forward," he said.
In an emailed statement to QP Briefing, Graham said she asked the party to launch another investigation to see if any further action is needed. "I was aware of a harassment complaint during the campaign, and we took immediate action to address it. I take racism, bullying and harassment very seriously," she said.
Two senior Liberals who were part of Graham's campaign — Pat Sorbara and Tiffany Gooch — echoed that in their comments to QP Briefing.
Sorbara, who worked on the campaign as a senior advisor, said that when issues were brought forward they weren't covered up — they were openly discussed with the senior team, including Rubin.
Sorbara also said the allegations don't reflect the kind of campaign Graham wanted. “It was important to Kate to have a welcoming, open office where everybody felt comfortable and wanted to be there," she said. “In my experience, she would never tolerate any sort of abuse or even people feeling uncomfortable."
Gooch, an early supporter of Graham, was the first person Nami contacted with his complaint. She said that she, Graham and the campaign staff initially thought Nami was satisfied with how the complaint was handled, but now that it's clear he wasn't, she's happy that the party is doing an investigation.
"I believed at that time that we were doing the very best we could for what was needed, but I can absolutely see how there is better to be done," she said. She said that all parties need to do better when it comes to dealing with these kinds of complaints, particularly when it comes to volunteer-run campaigns.
Gooch, who is Black, said she didn't experience any racism on the campaign, but added that one person's experiences are not universal. She said this isn't the first conversation she's had about race and politics within the party and there's more work to be done to properly bring diverse people into the political fold.
Like Sorbara, Gooch said Graham set out to run a different kind of campaign.
"I think Kate's heart and her values have always spoken for themselves and that's why I ended up on her campaign and supported her for leadership and wanted to see that fresh and empathetic leadership at play," she said.
Brian Johns, president of the Ontario Liberal Party, said in an emailed statement the party is taking the complaints very seriously and cited its workplace discrimination, harassment, and violence prevention policy.
"As we have only recently become aware of the allegations, we will immediately launch a full investigation under this policy. The party will draw on external resources or counsel as required," he said. "The results of the investigation will be reported directly to the campaign director and party president for any necessary action.”
QP Briefing reached out to Rubin by phone and email prior to publication, but he didn't respond until after deadline. After the story was published, he emailed the following statement:
"I joined the Kate Graham campaign because I wanted to do politics differently. I am proud of our campaign and the inclusive team we built across the province. As a member of the Jewish and LGBTQ community I know what it is like not to be welcomed at the table. That is why I always strive to create a positive and inclusive environment. I look forward to the party's review on this matter."