Nick Kouvalis, the man credited with building Ford Nation, is fomenting a revolution—Tea Party–style
Hey you. Yeah, you on the bike. You, NOW magazine reader, fair trade lentil soup eater, citizen of the People’s Republic of the Annex-Riverdale-CBC Consensus. Allow me to introduce you to the guy who wants to destroy your world. His name is Nick Kouvalis. He’s quite the amiable fellow.
Kouvalis, a former Chrysler assembly line worker, autodidact campaign strategist and long-time Conservative organizer, was the field marshal behind Rob Ford’s election victory. Together with Richard Ciano, the former VP of the Conservative Party of Canada and his business partner in the polling and marketing agency Campaign Research, he figured out what Toronto voters wanted and found a way to package Ford as the embodiment of those desires. For a few months after the election, he was the mayor’s chief of staff. Then, last January, he stepped down in preparation for a bigger act on a bigger stage. He’s building a new organization, tentatively called the Respect for Taxpayers Action Group. He aims to make the Ford Nation phenomenon permanent and take it national. He claims he already has several hundred thousand dollars in pledges, and he hopes to gain support not just from conservatives, but from populists across the political spectrum.
Kouvalis plans to steal a page from his enemy’s playbook. The enemy is the Working Families coalition, a collection of unions that for the last eight years has targeted the Ontario Progressive Conservatives while helping—though not officially—the Liberals. “We’re way behind the Left,” Kouvalis told me. “My opponents hate everything that we stand for and that we want to do. But they’re already doing everything we want to do.”
As a citizen lobby group, Working Families enjoys a kind of fence-straddling legal status: it isn’t a political party but sure behaves like one, running effective campaigns to unseat political opponents and support friends, while operating outside of the constraints of election finance rules.
Thanks to union dues, Working Families has an almost bottomless war chest. In the 2003 election, it helped defeat the provincial Conservatives with TV ads portraying Ernie Eves as a sly elitist, under the tag line “Not this time, Ernie.” In 2007, it hammered John Tory for “putting public education at risk” with his plan to fund religious schools. Earlier this year, it began its most ambitious and expensive ad campaign yet. The 30-second TV spots, launched during the Academy Awards broadcast, aim to do to Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak what the federal Tories’ “Just Visiting” campaign did to Michael Ignatieff: frame him.
One of the ads features a triumvirate of old white guys in suits—Evil doesn’t believe in employment equity, apparently—giving a political toady named “Tim” his marching orders. He’s told to “cut, cut, cut!” to protect their “human right to make as much money as possible.” When he agrees, they praise him as one might a newly housebroken golden retriever: “Attaboy!”
The Tories have for years urged Elections Ontario to treat Working Families as an arm of the Liberal Party. Under Ontario law, individuals, corporations and unions may donate a maximum of $15,500 a year to a party and its candidates—a rule that, if imposed on Working Families, would shut down its costly ad campaigns. So far, Elections Ontario and the courts have disagreed with the Tories’ view, and they probably always will: constitutional rights to free speech and association should trump election finance laws, especially outside of an election.
While political parties are stuck working within those fundraising and spending rules, Working Families has effectively built a parallel track, where you’re free to raise as much money as you can, from whomever you want, and to spend it however you like. So far, all of the action has been on one side of the ideological divide. Which is where Kouvalis comes in. He wants to improve on Working Families’ methods and defeat it in the court of public opinion. He’ll also be stealing some of the Left’s most cherished buzzwords—such as “grassroots.”
Kouvalis has a built-in audience in the voters who swept Ford into office, the so-called Ford Nation, people who coalesced around the “gravy train” and “respect for taxpayers” rhetoric. He thinks he can form them into a standing army, one that will eventually have more money, votes and influence than Working Families. Why? Because it will be a voluntary movement. He describes Working Families, not entirely inaccurately, as a case of the unions getting together, deciding what or whom to oppose and allocating the money. “People at the grassroots level aren’t engaged,” he says. And parties that rely too much on a small number of big donors eventually run into big trouble.
Consider what happened to the Liberals when outgoing prime minister Jean Chrétien brought in tough new federal election finance rules. In the old days, fundraising was a game the Liberals always won, thanks to deep-pocketed corporate donors. Even the NDP could hold its own, because of union backing. But the new rules prohibit corporate and union contributions to federal parties and cap individual donations at a mere $1,100 a year. The main beneficiary of Chrétien’s parting gift? The Conservative Party. With its Reform Party DNA—Reform being an insurgent movement built from the ground up—it has far more individual supporters than the Liberals or the NDP. The federal Tories consistently raise more money than their two main rivals combined. Right now, the Conservatives are the grassroots party. Kouvalis is counting on that fact to power the Respect for Taxpayers group.
He’ll start at the municipal level, with something basic: organizing like-minded neighbours to lobby city council, issue by issue. “Let’s just say the mayor’s got 22 votes on something, and the Left has 22 votes. We’d pick a few councillors who are vulnerable and who might change their vote, and we’d go out and persuade them. The best way to do that is for real people to phone their offices.” He’ll back those calls up with polling, to persuade wavering councillors that what he’s pushing represents mainstream opinion. And then he’ll repeat the process on another issue, and in another city, and eventually at the provincial and federal levels.
Respect for Taxpayers is one more step toward a politics of permanent election, in which elected officials are constantly pressured, attacked or influenced by opponents who don’t sit next to them or across the aisle at city hall, at Queen’s Park or in Parliament. It’s also a move away from parties as the sole vehicles for politics, to a politics that is more and more outside of the legislature, in what 19th-century British parliamentary reformers called “out of doors.” Unlike those in the early 19th century, who were on the outside because they didn’t have the vote, today’s out-of-doors groups are there by choice. It’s easier on the outside—you can spend as much as you like, and your fundraisers don’t have to wear straitjackets. Going direct to voters may even deliver greater influence.
Of course, to lobby is not to govern. Compromise among competing interests—you know, politics—has to happen somewhere. And if Respect for Taxpayers is to be as big and influential as Kouvalis would like it to be, it can’t just be red meat for the base. If he takes the campaign against Liberal-allied Working Families too far, too soon, he risks alienating Liberal voters, and those are the people Conservatives ultimately have to win over. In a nod to what Tories and New Democrats alike hope could be the future of Canadian politics—one with a diminished Liberal Party, or no Grits at all—Kouvalis will try to frame things in voters’ minds as Conservatives and Liberals against the NDP. “That’s a fight we can win nine times out of 10,” he says. Assuming that voters are willing to let their minds be so framed. And that somebody else isn’t persuasively framing things in the opposite way. And that his own base of motivated volunteers won’t be outraged if their demands are watered down. There will be a lot of tensions to manage.
All of that comes later. Right now, Respect for Taxpayers is still assembling its troops. Citizens living in the pre-Ford era, consider yourselves warned.