OTTAWA – Dean Del Mastro lumbers to the back of the 3 Brewers bar, sits down and orders an Italian sausage flatbread (“no stereotyping,” says the man whose grandparents immigrated from Carpino in 1927), and starts to praise the leader of the Green Party.
“I see Elizabeth May in a completely different light,” says the now-independent Peterborough MP, dressed in a striped blue and white shirt, powder blue patterned tie, and grey suit with subtle stripes.
“I look at her and think, well I don’t have to agree with everything Elizabeth May says. I don’t disagree with her on everything, either.”
Del Mastro, 43, resigned from the Conservative caucus last September, after being charged with breaking campaign contribution rules during the 2008 federal election. He faces a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
He repeatedly contends he did nothing wrong – even if his defence could be construed as a tacit admission.
“Most people in politics, when they’re under investigation, are under investigation for doing something with the taxpayers’ money,” he says, looking deep into the eyes.
“In my case, it’s suggested that I donated too much money to myself and didn’t report it.”
But for now, the former parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper sits banished in a corner of the House of Commons beside the NDP.
Who – by the way – he has high praise for, too.
“A number of them have really impressed me by how hard they work,” he says.
Freed from the “blinders” (his term) of the prime minister’s office, Del Mastro recites a mental list of his unlikely defenders: NDP MPs John Rafferty, Glenn Thibeault, Megan Leslie, Peggy Nash (“Oh my gosh, Peggy Nash is such a wonderful person”); Liberals John McCallum, Dominic LeBlanc, Scott Simms.
“I may disagree with them on a few things, but I like them as people.”
If it all sounds rather conciliatory for the one-time partisan point man – well, it’s supposed to.
Over the course of more than two hours – at times through tears as he recalled both his late mentor Jim Flaherty and his dad, Hank, who died 20 years ago from cancer – the politician who hates to be labelled as such says his time-out has taught him the value of debate and the power of the grey zone.
“I see things much better today than I did before,” Del Mastro says, slowly sipping an in-house brewed blonde beer.
“It’s very easy, especially when you’re elected into a minority Parliament as I was, to adopt this mentality that it’s us against them. We are all good, they are all bad.
“And that’s not true.”
The same goes for the Conservatives. “I frankly think some of them are not wonderful people,” he says.
He chooses an unlikely metaphor: the final episode of his beloved 1990s sitcom, Seinfeld.
“These characters that you’ve come to love and know – they’re not good people. They’re actually really bad people,” he says. “You look at it and you go, wait a minute I remember the marble rye incident, that was awful.
“I guess in some ways I’ve had that awakening.”
But if there is one body Del Mastro cannot bring himself to forgive it is the one he will be battling in court when his trial starts on June 23.
“Elections Canada, in its assessment, and in its practices, isn’t even-handed,” he says.
“Not all the parties are treated fairly. There’s a different standard.”
‘No evidence’ Sona responsible for robocalls
As the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary during the robocalls affair, Del Mastro was tasked with defending the Conservatives against allegations of voter fraud in the 2011 election.
“I took a lot of hits,” he says. “That is one of the most difficult jobs in Parliament, because you’re never going to get the easy file. You’re never going to get the easy announcements.”
In April, Elections Canada determined there was no widespread conspiracy to interfere with voting, although charges have been laid in Guelph, Ont. against former Conservative staffer Michael Sona.
“Were there problems in Guelph? Everybody knew that, and we weren’t going to deny that,” says Del Mastro. “But the allegations of things beyond Guelph were simply not true.”
Del Mastro deems what happened in Guelph a “scattershot” – calls placed to a database of non-Conservative supporters using a list that isn’t regularly maintained.
“It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. It’s done by people who never thought of the consequences, and there is no upside to it. It doesn’t work,” says Del Mastro.
“For anyone that suggests that the prime minister or the party would think that this is a good idea – they wouldn’t.”
As a result, Del Mastro says the “best outcome” happened in Guelph: Liberal MP Frank Valeriote beat the Conservative candidate Marty Burke. By a lot.
“If (Valeriote) had lost, people would say ok he lost, but it’s because of this call,” Del Mastro says.
But Del Mastro isn’t convinced Sona, the 25-year-old staffer who goes on trial next week, is the culprit.
Allegations of a proxy server, for instance, and a burner cellphone, while “ham-fisted,” strike Del Mastro as more sophisticated machinations than would be thought up by a lone campaign volunteer.
“It doesn’t describe to me a young person who was working on their own. It just doesn’t. It describes somebody, or people – a group of people – that have an understanding of how to do it and make sure you don’t get caught,” he says.
“Even if he’s responsible – which again I’ve seen no evidence that indicates he is – but even if he is, that’s not why he got into this.”
Del Mastro, who knows a thing or two about humility, says he has sympathy for Sona.
“I just feel awful that this young kid is in that position…I hope that when this is all over, I hope we actually find the truth in Guelph and that the parties responsible are held accountable,” he says.
“I don’t know, sitting here today, that that’s going to be the outcome of this trial in June.”
But his relationship with Elections Canada is different.
Even before 2011, Del Mastro repeatedly clashed with Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand in House of Commons committees. To “call him out,” in colloquial terms.
“I entirely reject the notion that Marc Mayrand is a good person that Conservatives attack. I think the opposite may be true. Exactly the opposite,” Del Mastro says.
Del Mastro points to the so-called “in-and-out” scandal of the 2006 election as proof there is bias against the Conservatives. He alleges the Bloc Quebecois also reported national expenses under those of candidates. (In 2011, the Conservative party pleaded guilty to exceeding campaign spending limits in the 2006 election, but more serious charges were dropped).
I ask if he thinks it’s personal between him and Elections Canada.
“I think there’s an element of that. I’ve said that many times. There’s no question that they leaked information about me,” to two Postmedia reporters who broke the robocalls story, he says.
He won’t comment on the specifics of his four charges – allegations that he intentionally overspent on his 2008 campaign by $21,000 and reported it as $1,575, and also that he over-contributed by nearly $19,000 to his own campaign. (A campaign staffer is also charged).
“From the get-go I’ve never been afraid of any of this. I’ve sought to bring it before the court. A guilty person, in my view, would have taken the deal. I was offered the deal. The deal I couldn’t refuse, only I refused it,” he says.
A deal, he says, that would have amounted to the equivalent of “a parking ticket” and a press release to put it all behind him.
But he says he wouldn’t do it.
“If what I’m saying is true, that Elections Canada is not even-handed, then the only expectation I can have if I cut a deal is that they’re going to continue to do the same thing.”
‘An overwhelming sense of guilt’
Del Mastro stares out the window onto the downtown pedestrian mall of Sparks Street, his dark brown eyes filling with tears.
At 18, Del Mastro believed he was the “smartest person God ever put breath into.” He didn’t push himself. He thought knew everything.
Then, when he was 23, his father died. Hank Del Mastro was 51.
“I felt this overwhelming sense of guilt that I had never shown him what I was capable of,” Del Mastro says, choking up.
“It profoundly changed me, in the same way that what I’ve gone through now has changed me.”
His parents met in Toronto at 15 and although they were both Catholic, they were forbidden to date each other because his mother,Yvonne, was French-Canadian, and Hank (Henry) was Italian. They married five years later.
“They had in my view, a perfect relationship,” says Del Mastro, who has been married to his wife Kelly for almost 18 years.
Del Mastro, who grew up on a farm and proudly proclaims that he still owns a bulldozer, went on to study business at the University of Windsor. In his third year got a job at a car dealership in Scarborough, in east Toronto. He sold 78 cars in one summer.
“I’d never sold a thing in my life,” Del Mastro recalls. People asked him how he did it. “I dunno,” he’d reply. “I just make friends.”
Del Mastro’s father had managed a Chrysler dealership in Peterborough and after he passed away, Del Mastro opened a dealership with his mother and three brothers. He ran it for 13 years. “It just grew from there,” he says.
First elected in 2006, Del Mastro says he helped shape policy on everything from ending provincial tariffs to opposition to fee-for-carriage.
“The prime minister’s not the dictator that some suggest. And I’ve seen us re-write bills in caucus,” he says. On that note, he says he supports fellow MP Michael Chong’s Reform Act: “So empowering for backbench members.”
In weekly caucus meetings, Del Mastro was a regular voice at the microphone.
Now – not so much.
“It’s kind of like going from being on the starting lineup on the football [team], and being told not only…are we going to start somebody else, but ultimately you’ve been cut from the team,” he says.
But he’s still got close ties: he shares an apartment with Conservative Edmonton MP James Rajotte, both the third of four boys, born three days apart.
Once his trial is over and if he achieves his desired result, Del Mastro says he expects to run for the Conservative nomination for the 2015 federal election. The party has pledged to hold his riding nomination in the fall, he says.
And if he is challenged in the nomination?
“I’m a person that does well under pressure,” a smiling Del Mastro says, eyebrows arched.
“I don’t like to lose.”
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