Q&A: Nick Kouvalis, the kingmaker behind both Rob Ford and John Tory’s mayoral wins
If you’re planning on becoming mayor of Toronto at some point, you might want to call up Nick Kouvalis. As an architect of Rob Ford’s mayoral campaign in 2010, he took a city councillor best known as a right-wing loner with occasional anger problems and turned him into a viable candidate. Kouvalis was a core player in the Ford administration until early 2011, when, after a falling out, he left his post as the new mayor’s chief of staff and returned to his private political consultancy, Campaign Research. The break with the Fords became more apparent last year, when Kouvalis switched allegiances, taking on the role of John Tory’s chief political strategist—a job where his main duty was to engineer Doug Ford’s eventual defeat in the 2014 mayoral election. Kouvalis has been called a “Ford whisperer,” a “campaign wizard” and a “dirty trickster.” Whatever the case, he has a winning record and a knack for explaining the minutiae of elections.
How did you go from being a naval reservist to being a political strategist?
I grew up in Windsor and I got a job in a factory. I wanted to be a toolmaker. So when I got married, I was working at Chrysler and also doing the naval reserve stuff. I didn’t like my job, and I got invited to volunteer on a political campaign. I worked for Belinda Stronach when she ran for leader of the federal Conservative party, and that was interesting. I liked it. Then I ran a campaign in Essex county for the Conservatives, and we won, and we hadn’t won in 46 years. So then I figured, not only do I like this, I’m obviously pretty good at it. So I started thinking about making it into a business.
You’ve campaigned against John Tory in the past. Was it weird when you decided to work with him?
No, I like John. I always have. John’s such a conciliator. In 2007, he had lost the provincial election and there was a call for him to resign as leader of the party, and I worked against him when he was trying to keep his job. But after that fight was over, John reached out. Internal party fights are normal—maybe not normal to the public, but when you’re the member of a party, you vote at conventions for policies, and you vote against other members. At the end of the day, when the voting is done, we’re all on the same team. He went out of his way to keep the relationship positive and strong, so it was easy for me to go work for him.
But you also played a bit of a role in keeping him out of the last mayoral election.
Not really. That’s the folklore, but not really. He had already decided that he wasn’t running. People were asking him to reconsider, and John had said that he wasn’t running. At the same time, I wanted to make sure he wasn’t running, and so we played politics.
What was your thought process like in joining Tory’s team? Were there any temptations to work with the Fords?
No. I like the Fords. I liked them when I worked for them in 2010, and even though we had our falling out in 2011, I still like them. I still respect them. But when we found out about the gangs and the guns, that was when I decided I wasn’t going to be working for them again.
What was the nature of the falling out in 2011?
My primary job as chief of staff was to advise the mayor, and I found myself not able to implement the agenda that was set by Mayor Ford. I found myself not able to run the office, and I found that my advice wasn’t being taken. So there was no point for me to be there anymore.
You came into this election knowing quite a bit about the Fords. What was your plan of attack?
We did the research, and it was very clear to me that transit was the biggest issue. We needed a meaningful transit plan that was doable and believable, and it had to be done fast. Faster than any other plan. The concept for SmartTrack has been talked about for a decade; we didn’t come up with it. And John Tory gave us clear direction that he wanted something that went across the city, something that was not middle-of-the-road and was fast—faster than a streetcar—and something that would ultimately provide relief to the Yonge and Bloor lines. We came across a regional relief line plan that was proposed years ago, and we looked at it and we ran with it. That was the attack.
What sort of weaknesses on the Ford side were you looking to exploit?
There weren’t any real weaknesses that we were looking to exploit. Two-thirds of the city didn’t vote for Doug Ford, and polling has showed that forever. So we knew that he couldn’t get beyond 32, 33, 34 per cent. We never thought for a second that he would hit 35.
In July, before Rob Ford withdrew from the mayoral race, you tweeted that he would win in Ward 2, and that Doug would lose the mayoral election. How did you predict that?
In fairness, Bob Rae predicted it in May on Twitter. And there was another gentleman who predicted it as well. It started to seem to me in July, when Rob came back from rehab, that he just wasn’t in it anymore, and that he wasn’t going to sit and lose. He was going to get out of the race. And I knew Doug always wanted to run anyway. So I just assumed it.
I keep seeing the word “wizard” used in conjunction with your name. Are you actually a wizard?
No. That’s funny. No. Look, I’m really good at campaigning. I’m really good at research, and I’m good at getting along, getting people to do things and building teams. When you love what you do and you’re good at it, and you’re having fun, it’s just great. I’m lucky. I’m blessed to have worked with so many great people on this campaign.
What were some of the most important moments for you during the election?
Rob Ford going to rehab allowed us to launch into second place. Launching SmartTrack was big, and putting all of our chips on Kathleen Wynne in the middle of her election campaign and not putting our chips on Tim Hudak. We dovetailed to Wynne’s regional express rail plan. She won a majority, and I knew she was going to win. That was a major, major event. That put us in first.
It seems like everyone was surprised by those election results.
Do you ever get surprised?
Yeah. I was surprised this past election night when Doug Ford got 33.7. I wasn’t expecting us to get 40.3. I was expecting us to get 43.
How would this election have panned out if you hadn’t joined Tory’s campaign?
I still think he would have won. It’s John Tory’s time. He’s had great accomplishments, and this man wants to serve. That’s why he keeps running.
What does he need to do as mayor to get re-elected?
Is it feasible?
Of course it is.
Where did Olivia Chow go wrong?
Everything from the beginning. Her branding as a fiscally conservative lefty—you can’t brand somebody something they’re not. You have to go with the strengths in politics and mitigate the weaknesses. She kept flip-flopping on the relief line stuff, and that cost her. And at the end, Warren Kinsella’s behaviour, calling John Tory’s transit plan a segregationist track, should have never happened. It cost her the opportunity to get back in the game.
The media has reported on some “tricks” that you’ve used in the past: fake Twitter accounts, anonymous calls to radio shows. Any ploys that didn’t make the papers this time around?
I think that you guys in the media like to spin this stuff up, but how many anonymous Twitter accounts were there in this election campaign? Hundreds. Nobody wants to talk about Olivia Chow’s army of fake Twitter accounts, or Doug Ford or Rob Ford’s fake Twitter accounts. People have fake Facebook pages. I don’t think a fake Twitter account can win you a mayoralty in Toronto.
You once remarked that you thought that Rob Ford would make a good mayor. Do you think he was a good mayor?
No, he wasn’t. He had all the potential, and he did do some good things. Please write my whole answer and not part of it here: no, he wasn’t a good mayor, but he did do good things. There was too much drama, too much energy spent on him and his personal life, and not enough on the taxpayers. His behaviour took away from him accomplishing his agenda, because his behaviour ensured that councillors didn’t vote with him.
Seeing the way things panned out with him, do you ever regret helping get him elected?
I have no regrets about helping him get elected. Rob Ford got himself elected; I helped. I didn’t just wave a magic wand and do it by myself. There was a whole team of people and 10 years of Rob Ford being a councillor and building his brand. The only thing I regret today is that I wasn’t able to preserve the friendship with him. He’s very ill, and I’m very sorry about that. I hope I have enough time to try to rehabilitate the relationship.