Is Ian Davey the new Rainmaker?

His dad made Trudeau a winner. Davey wants the same for Michael Ignatieff.

Michael Ignatieff doesn’t have much political experience, and it often shows. The brainy author and Toronto MP who is leading the Liberal leadership race generates plenty of publicity, but not without taking rookie risks. One day he muses about the need for a “carbon tax” — fighting words out Alberta way. On another he remarks that he’s “not losing sleep” about the Israeli bombing of Qana — a callous-sounding remark, even if he also called the death of civilians in the Lebanese village a tragedy. So how come Ignatieff’s front-running campaign doesn’t seem to have been slowed by the verbal speed bumps? His fans gush that his momentum is fuelled by daring ideas and intellectual heft that count for more than the occasional Iggy gaffe. But party insiders tend to point out that behind the sometimes undisciplined candidate is a very disciplined team, led by campaign director Ian Davey.

He is the son of none other than Keith Davey, the legendary Liberal organizer of the sixties and seventies known as “the Rainmaker.” The senior Davey, now 80 and living with Alzheimer’s disease, was the quintessential Canadian election strategist in the era when Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960 codified and mythologized the task of political image-making for the new TV-driven campaign era. It’s impossible, of course, to avoid comparisons as his son now takes up the family trade. But there are big differences. Take the way each signed on to guide a high-maintenance intellectual-turned-politician. Keith Davey was recruited into Pierre Trudeau’s inner circle only after Trudeau’s government was knocked down to minority status in 1972, showing his new boss the way back to a majority in 1974. But Ian Davey, 48, was in on the ground floor with his would-be philosopher king: in fact, Davey is largely credited with coaxing Ignatieff to make the jump from Ivy League academia to the Canadian political arena.

The story involves his father. In delivering a guest lecture at the University of Toronto in 1998, Ignatieff had so impressed Keith Davey that the old pro remarked to a friend that he saw in the expatriate author the makings of a prime minister. Six years later, with the federal Liberals mired in the sponsorship scandal, Ian Davey was part of a group of worried partisans who took it upon themselves to cast around for fresh leadership talent. His father’s assessment of Ignatieff was passed along to him by party stalwart Rocco Rossi, and so in late 2004, Davey and two Liberal lawyers from Toronto decided to visit Ignatieff in Cambridge, Mass., where he was teaching at Harvard. That meeting led to his decision to return to Canada, after spending most of his adult life in England and the U.S., to win a seat in Parliament, and then seek to succeed Paul Martin as leader.

As his father’s son, Davey might be expected to be a classic political operator. But he doesn’t quite fit the mould. He isn’t a lawyer or a lobbyist, but a Toronto TV producer, whose credits include programs like September 1972, a two-hour documentary on the epic Canada-Russia hockey summit series.(His current project as a producer and co-writer is a planned made-for-TV movie about the Second City comedy troupe.)He has dabbled at the fringes of the Liberal party, briefly backing John Manley’s short-lived bid to deny Martin the leadership in 2003. Davey quit, though, when his calls for a more hard-hitting approach to try to upset Martin were rejected. His bailing out is still resented by some Manley loyalists.

But other Liberals are more likely to mention the fact that Davey was not a hard-core supporter of either Martin or Jean Chrétien during their long battle for control of the party, which allows him to position himself — and by extension Ignatieff — as untainted by that bitter internecine struggle. Still, having largely sat out the Chrétien-vs.-Martin decade, Davey didn’t build up credentials as an organizer. One senior Ignatieff backer says any misgivings about that inexperience were assuaged by the prominent role given in the Ignatieff camp to the likes of Senator David Smith, a formidable Ontario campaign chieftain under Chrétien. Anyway, Davey doesn’t sell himself as an expert on campaign machinery. “I’m interested in the message,” he says.

A key of the aim of that messaging now has to be avoiding another round of divisive Liberal infighting. Ignatieff has an interest in keeping the campaign tone polite — he’s the obvious target should it turn nasty. The 10 leadership hopefuls are now gearing up for all-important delegate-selection meetings at the end of September. Those delegates will be committed to a candidate for the first ballot, and Ignatieff is widely thought to be solidly in the lead. After that, though, they are free to change their votes. Those trailing Ignatieff — and the next tier includes Gerard Kennedy, Bob Rae and Stéphane Dion — will almost certainly hatch anybody-but-Iggy schemes. What’s unclear is whether their bids to position themselves to leap over him on later ballots will be limited to behind-the-scenes deal-making, or evolve over the next few weeks and months into more open attacks.

Ignatieff makes a tempting target. As a supporter of the Iraq war, who more recently backed Israel’s right to go after Hezbollah, and who voted for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s two-year extension of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan, he is exposed on hot-button foreign policy issues. As the where-I-stand essay published in this issue of Maclean’s shows, the rest of his policy package ranges from blandly run-of-the-mill to fairly risky. Under the first heading, Ignatieff calls for lowering economic barriers between provinces and proposes — in a stroke even his most starry-eyed followers would have trouble casting as intellectually bold — regular meetings of the first ministers to fix the problem. In a more daring vein, he differentiates himself from Harper by calling for “strong financial and regulatory constraints to prevent free dumping of emissions into the atmosphere.” And where the Prime Minister has balked at calling Quebec a nation, Ignatieff endorses the “achieved balance” that allows many Quebecers to consider Quebec their nation and Canada their country.

Although he seems willing to take on thorny subjects like fuel emissions and Quebec’s status, his approaches to solving the real political problems they raise remain vague. “It makes no sense to target the Alberta energy sector alone,” he says, declaring that new emissions regulations “need to be fair.” But what does that mean if those rules target consumption of fossil fuels that Alberta disproportionately produces? Having accepted Quebec’s nationhood, he suggests ratifying “the facts of our life as a country composed of distinct nations in a new constitutional document.” But in the next sentences he pushes off that daunting negotiating task indefinitely, observing that “right now” Canadians would settle for co-operation among their governments. “Constitutional review is for the future,” he writes. If that’s the case, why bring up the sensitive subject now?

The answer could be that Ignatieff just likes to keep batting these sorts of ideas around. Davey denies much is being done to try to curb his enthusiasm: “I would never sit down with Michael Ignatieff and tell him what to say.” Tony Merchant, a Regina lawyer and long-time Liberal organizer who is backing Ignatieff, says trying to restrict him to safe messages would undermine the very appeal that has put him in the lead. “He’s a political iconoclast, which gets him into a little trouble, but it’s why some of us are excited about him,” Merchant says. “It makes for nervousness among the handlers.”

In any case, insiders say that between now and those late-September delegate selection meetings, messaging is less important than organization. When it comes to keeping provincial and riding workers on track, Davey is the linchpin. “Ian has a very solid, soft-spoken authority. National meetings [by conference call] run 35 minutes, even though lots of us tend to get off to babbling,” says Merchant. “His father was more of a cheerleader; Ian’s more rock-solid, succinct and to-the-point.”

If they differ in style, Ian Davey says he learned key lessons from his father. The Rainmaker was known for consulting widely in the party and, as Merchant’s memory of him as a cheerleader suggests, fostering team spirit. Asked to sum up what his dad taught him, Davey says: “Get every voice at the table and get every voice heard.” Not all Liberals, however, see that philosophy at work in the Ignatieff tent. Davey works closely with those two Toronto lawyers, Dan Brock and Alf Apps, who took the momentous trip to Harvard to lure Ignatieff back. The three had all worked together for Manley. Other core Ignatieff organizers include veterans like Smith, a few respected but anonymous backroom operators, and a sizable cluster of politically savvy MPs, such as Quebec’s Denis Coderre and Nova Scotia’s Geoff Regan. Perhaps inevitably, some Liberals are already grumbling about Ignatieff’s coterie coalescing into a clubby and exclusive group.

As loyalties firm up and the fall stretch run approaches, a more aggressive tone is expected to emerge in the race. The top contenders lug some obvious resumé liabilities — Ignatieff’s many years abroad, Rae’s as a one-time NDP premier of Ontario, Kennedy’s as former Ontario cabinet minister with no federal experience or much national exposure. If the adversaries decide to take off the gloves, it could get messy. “They want to make this a campaign about why you can’t choose somebody, rather than why you can,” Davey says. “This does an enormous disservice to all the candidates.” But of course the one with the most to lose is the guy who came out of the starting blocks fastest last winter, and, thanks largely to his well-run organization, is still out in front.

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