Last week, Province columnist Michael Smyth, acting on anonymous phone calls, reported Victoria-Hillside election candidate Rob Fleming had been a member of the International Socialists. But, in a candid interview with Public Eye, Mr. Fleming says he thinks British Columbians have a right to know about the other skeleton in his closet: while running to become the University of Victoria Students' Society's finance director eight years ago, he impersonated an election official to get his opponents' signs torn down.
Here's what happened: by the last week of the 1997 student election, the race between the right-leaning Putting Students First slate and the left-leaning A Strong Student Voice slate had turned downright nasty. Mr. Fleming, a member of the student voice slate, says the left's signs were being destroyed on a nightly basis. And his team suspected deputy chief electoral officer was bending the rules in favour of the right.
Of particular concern: the placement of two banners hanging from the second floor of the Commons Block building promoting right-wing candidates Kelly Sundberg and Ian Flemmington - banners which student voice members thought violated election rules. But when they weren't removed, Mr. Fleming left a message on the university janitorial service's answering machine late one night, claiming to be an electoral officer and ordering the signs torn down.
"It was poor judgement," the now Victoria city councillor said. "And we felt that others were getting away with things and not being punished. So we took the law into our own hands. It was a very vigilante-type action. And it made things worse in the campaign. And it was stupid."
Mr. Fleming was disqualified for his actions but the left-wing dominated student council overturned that decision and he won the election, earning him a $19,000 per year job. The whole affair was reported in The Martlet, the Times Colonist and on CH Television.
Reflecting on the experience, Mr. Fleming said, "There was a lot of pranks and trickery going on," during the election. "And I made the mistake - and it's personally embarassing to me - of getting down in the gutter and abandoning sportsmanship against my opponents. It was a bit of a wake-up call for me personally in terms of the way I've approached politics since."
"I think you should acknowledge your opponents strengths and be generous and try and bring some honour to the process because that's what the people want. And if you act with bad will and intentions you reap what you sow...And what I learned is that the high road is the best road to travel in politics. And that's something that was an absolute operating principle during my recent campaign in Victoria-Hillside."
Mr. Fleming added that, after the incident, "I worked very hard at repairing relationships and worked very hard at the students' society to put it in good shape. So that even people who felt bitter that I had won election would at least respect the work I did. And I think I achieved that."