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How Nick Kouvalis turns candidates into winners

Nick Kouvalis got Rob Ford elected. Now, he’s the brains behind Kellie Leitch’s populist campaign.

The Toronto municipal election of 2010 is best remembered for the improbable victory of Rob Ford. A conservative populist known for his rambling speeches, wide smile and impressive girth, Ford took the mayor’s office by way of a galloping, respect-the-taxpayer populism, upending the once predictable machinations of municipal politics in the process.

His rallying cry of “stop the gravy train” was a shot straight from the very suburbs where Ford had lived all his life, reflecting his belief that the city’s soft-left establishment was a mess of red tape and blue blood.

But the selling of the Ford persona—the catchphrases, the shambolic campaign stops, the practised disdain for the media—was the work of Nick Kouvalis, Ford’s campaign manager. A former auto worker from Windsor, Ont., Kouvalis, who was 34 at the time, had only a few campaigns under his belt before he signed on with one of the least likely mayoral candidates in Toronto history.

Six years after his win and two years after Ford’s legacy devolved into a mess of crack cocaine consumption, criminal acquaintances and booze-fuelled hubris, it’s important to remember that Ford’s campaign was as precarious as his eventual legacy. Kouvalis’s main problem wasn’t Rob Ford but brother Doug, Rob’s de facto gatekeeper, who was both protective of his younger brother and wary of anyone from outside the tight-knit Ford clan. As Kouvalis found out, Doug was willing to defend the family honour with his fists.

RELATED: How Rob Ford won Toronto

It was July 2010. John Tory, a popular Toronto politician who ran for mayor in 2003, was considering another run. Kouvalis met with the Ford clan—Rob, Doug, their eldest brother Randy and mother, Diane—in a room at Deco Labels, the family’s printing business. According to sources knowledgeable about the incident, Kouvalis informed the family that he believed Tory would win the race if he entered. Should this happen, Kouvalis said, Rob Ford might consider dropping out of the race and running again for his council seat. (Toronto mayoral candidates can’t simultaneously run for city council.)

Doug, sources told Maclean’s, became apoplectic. He accused Kouvalis of undermining Rob Ford and secretly supporting Tory. After several moments he pushed Kouvalis, who pushed him back. They yelled at each other some more. Doug then swung at Kouvalis, hitting him in the head. Kouvalis punched back. Diane hollered at them to cut it out. Kouvalis quit on the spot and drove to his home in Windsor.

When asked recently about the incident, Doug Ford denied it happened. “Ask Nick. There were no fisticuffs. If there were fisticuffs between me and Nick there would have been two hits: me hitting him and him hitting the ground. By the time he’d have woken up I’d have been prime minister. And you can quote me on that,” Ford said. (Kouvalis wouldn’t comment for this article.)

Toronto City Mayoral Candidate Rob Ford (middle) is photographed flanked by his campaign staff, (L to R) Campaign Manager Nick Kouvalis, Director of Communications Adrienne Batra during an interview at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on September 27, 2010. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/CP)
Toronto mayoral candidate Rob Ford and campaign manager Nick Kouvalis on Sept. 27, 2010. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/CP)

Whether it was loyalty to his often put-upon campaign staff or a dawning understanding of Kouvalis’s impact on his political fortunes, this much is true: Rob Ford convinced Kouvalis to come back to work. Three months later, Ford was mayor of Canada’s largest city. And Kouvalis has become one of the more sought-after political strategists in the country.

Today, Kouvalis is performing roughly the same task for Kellie Leitch, one of 14 candidates vying for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. On the surface, Leitch and Ford could not be more different. Ford, who died of cancer in March, was a loud, outsized body slam of a man whose bad habits often overshadowed his evident delight in the practising of retail politics.

Leitch, 46, has a line of letters after her name. Her voice is nasal, high-pitched and spoken with a slight lisp. She is often awkward during appearances and speeches. As a former cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government, she could be high handed. Three of her former staff told Maclean’s she would often preface conversations by reminding her audience that she was a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.

Yet their campaigns are remarkably similar. Both Ford and Leitch suggest, not at all subtly, that their respective communities have gone to government-subsidized hell. Whereas Ford stood for lower taxes, Leitch has positioned herself as a flag-waving populist whose main plank is to screen all immigrants to Canada to ensure they possess “Canadian values,” which she defines as equal opportunity, hard work, helping others, generosity, freedom and tolerance.

Leitch “is the only leadership candidate willing to talk about and stand up for a united Canadian identity,” reads part of her campaign literature. When she launched her campaign on Oct. 15, her lack of profile and relative distance from the Conservative party establishment had many writing her off as an also-ran. She currently leads the pack in fundraising and in most opinion polls.

Kouvalis himself has had a similarly improbable rise. He was born Nectarios Kouvalis in the summer of 1975, the son of first-generation Greek immigrants who moved separately from the old country only to meet in Windsor in 1969. (They married in 1971.) The eldest of four children—he has three sisters—Kouvalis’s working life began by building minivans on the line at the Chrysler plant in Windsor. He walked away from his unionized job to support Belinda Stronach, the scion of the auto parts giant Magna, who was running to lead the nascent Conservative Party of Canada in 2003.

“He was losing his mind working in a factory and was looking for new opportunities,” says friend and business partner Richard Ciano. Kouvalis first met Ciano at a Conservative training session for the 2004 election. At the time, Ciano was national vice-president of the Conservative Party of Canada and running the campaign of Conservative candidate Peter Van Loan in the Toronto-area riding of York–Simcoe. Kouvalis was doing the same for Conservative candidate Jeff Watson in Windsor’s Essex. Both Van Loan and Watson won.

A year later, Watson alleged that Kouvalis had threatened to kill him. Kouvalis had gone to work for a Conservative candidate in a neighbouring riding. Watson and Kouvalis had a falling out over a fundrasing BBQ to be held there. According to two campaign workers, Kouvalis said, “If I could … kill Jeff Watson with my bare hands and get away with it, I would.” Kouvalis was charged with uttering a death threat.

It was during the ensuing trial that Kouvalis and Ciano truly bonded. “After the Jeff Watson thing, I started getting calls from cabinet ministers telling me that I should distance myself from the guy. That was bulls—t. The charge was nonsense, and he didn’t quit or fold. I liked that,” Ciano says. (A judge acquitted Kouvalis in 2007, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Kouvalis spoke the words to intimidate anyone.)

The friendship between Kouvalis and Ciano resulted in the forming of Campaign Research in 2008. It was a merger of two skill sets; Ciano’s background in market research and Kouvalis’s knowledge of call-centre polling, which might be called the “secret sauce” of his political insight.
Kouvalis’s knack for distilling complex issues into memorable slogans like “stop the gravy train” would be useless were it not underpinned by soft skills he deploys to figure out what messages resonate: asking voters the right questions; cajoling candidates to try phrases they’d normally never utter.

They are skills he acquired in his early career as a pollster, a craft that colleagues say is his most underappreciated asset. Mark Towhey, the chief strategist on Ford’s mayoral campaign, recalls the stark difference between what everyone else assumed were front-of-mind issues during that 2010 race and what Kouvalis was seeing in his polling data.

“In all the newspaper-sponsored polls, transit was No. 1,” recalls Towhey, who went on to become Ford’s chief of staff. “What Nick was able to divine by asking different questions was that, though transit was the No. 1 issue, the next five were all money-related: taxation and spending.”

MORE: Mark Towhey: The man behind Rob Ford

That insight helps Kouvalis win and—perhaps more important—choose candidates who have the best chance of winning. With his long history of railing about property taxes and councillors’ office expenses, for example, Ford was ideally positioned to channel the tax anger of working-class Torontonians. His bull-headedness was an asset, Towhey likes to point out, because it signalled to voters that he’d never compromise. Then, four years later, after Ford embarrassed Toronto before the eyes of the world, a chastened electorate looked about for a composed and stable antidote to Ford. Enter mayoral candidate John Tory, who quickly drafted Kouvalis onto his campaign team.

Kouvalis and Tory had an inauspicious start to their relationsip. In 2008, Kouvalis had led an attempt to oust Tory as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.

Today, though, Tory makes no bones about his debt to Kouvalis, even as the vitriol pours in over the values-test talking point the strategist has encouraged Leitch to take up. “He’s one of the smartest people I have available to me,” Tory recently told the National Post editorial board. He has publicly voiced hope that Kouvalis will be back to help him when he runs again in 2018.

Kouvalis has the reputation of a whisperer to so-called “low-information voters”—code, to some ears, for a guy who knows how to stir up stupid people. That charge is heard frequently in reference to the values-test pitch.

Chris Eby, who was Tory’s communications director during the 2014 campaign, thinks it sells both Kouvalis and the voters short. “People are busy in their lives,” he says. “They’re actually being bombarded with information, but they’re highly cynical about politicians, and skeptical about promises. So it’s not treating voters as if they’re dumb. It’s understanding how much time they’re going to give to a political message, then shaping that message so it breaks through the noise. Nick does that exceptionally well.”

MORE: Fear, loathing and the race for Toronto’s city hall

When the mayoral race got under way in March 2014, Tory was running third in the polls to former New Democrat MP Olivia Chow and a renascent Rob Ford. The scion of one of Toronto’s venerable political families, a former campaign aide to Brian Mulroney and former executive at Rogers Communications (which owns Maclean’s), Tory personified the establishment that Ford had feasted upon back in 2010.

Worse still was Tory’s record as a candidate, which included a failed run at the Toronto mayoralty in 2003 and an excruciatingly unsuccessful turn as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. Yet Kouvalis decided he was the man of the moment—a consensus builder with a steady hand. And all that angst about transit was an opportunity, because Ford was seen as pro-automobile.

Tory settled on a plan to build city transit lines on the existing rail corridors of GO, the provincially owned regional commuter service. The challenge, recalls Eby, was packaging it in a way that didn’t make it look like an expensive perk for wealthy downtowners—in short, a fat target for the Ford brothers.

Photograph by Cole Garside
John Tory at his victory party in 2014. Photograph by Cole Garside

The solution was “SmartTrack,” a label that played to Tory’s image as clever and organized, versus the scattered, anti-intellectual bent of Ford. SmartTrack reflected how Tory was seen as smart, and Ford was seen as, well . . . stupid.*

The end result: Rob Ford bowed out of the campaign after a cancer diagnosis. Doug Ford took his place. Tory won.

Last April, Kouvalis was arrested for drunk driving after he crashed his car into a culvert near his Windsor home. He pleaded guilty, paid a fine and acknowledged his issues with alcohol, which began in 2011. “I’m very sorry to all those that I let down. I ask for all of your help and advice in dealing with this difficult addiction,” he wrote in a series of tweets following the incident.

It was a rare bit of contrition from Kouvalis, who has otherwise followed other well-known politicos in picking fights and stroking his ego via Twitter. Kouvalis has a wide range of targets from across the political spectrum, from Angus Reid pollster John Wright, to former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak, to Justin Trudeau adviser Gerald Butts, to . . . Doug Ford, who still hasn’t forgiven Kouvalis for his treachery.

“Nick goes where it helps Nick,” he says. “Rob Ford made Nick Kouvalis, Nick Kouvalis didn’t make Rob Ford.”

To this day, Doug Ford says he could’ve beaten Tory and Kouvalis if the campaign had been a little longer. “Nick didn’t win the race for Tory. I just needed two more weeks. Even with all his money and gurus and strategists, all I needed was to get 3.5 points off John and I would’ve won. Nick helped us out [in 2010] and he’s a smart guy, but is he a game-changer? No.”

Still, Ford gets wistful when he thinks of the 2010 mayoral campaign. Kouvalis, Ford admits, was responsible for many of the novel campaign strategies that helped his brother win. As a city councillor, Rob Ford made a point of calling back everyone who ever called him. It was Kouvalis’s idea to harvest the handwritten records of these calls for phone numbers and volunteer information.

It was also Kouvalis’s idea to have Ford host “telephone town halls,” in which voters were invited to listen in and question the candidate. Finally, Doug credits Kouvalis for putting up with the Ford brothers. “We aren’t the easiest guys to deal with,” he says. “Nick slept on the floor in our basement. I respect a guy who does this.”

RELATED: How Kellie Leitch touched off a culture war

Kellie Leitch, an admittedly reluctant user of Twitter, until recently utilized the popular social media platform to send out pictures of pie cuttings, seniors’ home visits and other day-to-day banalities of the campaign trail.

Leitch’s voice has become noticeably more aggressive since her campaign launch. Now many of her dispatches have the decidedly Trumpian construction of one declarative line then a summary judgment punctuated with an exclamation point.

“The Liberal government decision to fund UNRWA, a group with alleged ties to terrorist organization Hamas, is outrageous and dangerous. Bad judgement!” she tweeted on Nov. 17. She has also taken to blasting what she has called the “Liberal and media elites” while talking up the importance of Canadian values—something she never did on Twitter prior to Oct. 15.

Doing so is perhaps as big a part of Leitch’s campaign as her Canadian values gambit. In a sense, the issues complement one another. As pointed out by Richard Ciano, Kouvalis’s partner in Campaign Research, screening immigrants for “anti-Canadian values” is appealing to the exact type of voter who is likely to mistrust the mainstream media and Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in equal measure.

It’s also a crafty bit of subterfuge. In screening for a sentiment—an “anti-Canadian value”—the platform avoids the legal pratfalls of banning religious clothing like the niqab, as Quebec’s Parti Québécois government attempted to do in 2013. As such, it affords Leitch a fig leaf, however small, against the criticism that she is anti-Muslim. (One of Kouvalis’s sisters is herself a Muslim convert.)

RELATED: Leitch’s ‘values’ debate is all part of the plan

Through their polling, Kouvalis and Ciano found that the roughly 100,000 Conservative party members who will vote at the leadership convention next May tend to be white, overwhelmingly male with an average age of 66. Important issues to them include border security, personal safety and immigration. In short, it’s an ideal audience for a policy of screening immigrants, and has allowed Leitch to position herself against not only the media and the Liberal government, but most of the other leadership candidates as well. “Canadian values” have become her trademark.

Yet Ciano bristles at the suggestion that he and Kouvalis foisted the Canadian values issue onto Leitch. In fact, he says, the issue came about after the pair had long conversations with Leitch in August, during which she spoke of her belief in equality, hard work, freedom and tolerance. “People like to mythologize that we sit around and talk about this stuff and then tell the candidate what to say. That’s not what we do. What we do is figure out how to make what the candidate says into something ‘votable.’”

Ciano says he couldn’t be happier with the near-total condemnation of Leitch by the government, the media and even other leadership candidates. “Did we expect [the Canadian values plank] to be noticed and newsworthy? Yes. Did we expect the level of hysteria from media and the left Certainly not. But we did want to spur a debate about Canadian identity and values. We naively expected it would be opposed in a more measured way. And yes, I suppose you could say the overreaction has been helpful,” he says.

Nick Kouvalis and Kellie Leitch at the Toronto Garrison Officers Ball on April 2, 2016. (NickKouvalis/Twitter)
Nick Kouvalis and Kellie Leitch at the Toronto Garrison Officers Ball on April 2, 2016. (NickKouvalis/Twitter)

To some in Conservative circles, Leitch’s anti-elite conversion is particularly galling, given her own behaviour when she was in government. Felix Wong, who served as the Conservative senior political operations officer in Ontario in the 2015 election, remembers getting a phone call from Leitch in the early weeks of the campaign. Leitch, Wong remembers, was irate that her business cards didn’t say “Doctor” before her name. Wong, who was 27 at the time, said the card template didn’t allow for honorifics.

“You’re lying,” Leitch yelled, according to Wong. “This is unacceptable. Even the prime minister [Stephen Harper] introduced me as Dr. Kellie Leitch this morning. I’ve earned all these titles. Do you have these titles after your name? No.” Wong said Leitch then threatened to call Harper if the cards weren’t fixed. (Leitch’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Nor do the experts have much faith in enhanced immigration screening. Much of her platform on the subject is based on Points of Entry, a book published in 2015 by McMaster University sociologist Vic Satzewich. Leitch reached out to Satzewich before her campaign launch. “I told her that screening immigrants for anti-Canadian values was a bad idea and that it wouldn’t work,” Satzewich says. “It’s a phony issue. Immigrants to Canada actually tend to integrate into society very well.”

Such screening would also be very expensive. Currently, about one in five of the roughly 250,000 immigrants who come to Canada are given a face-to-face interview. Leitch proposes that these immigrants, along with refugees and all visitors to Canada, be screened—upwards of 1.4 million people. Satzewich estimates that just screening the 260,000 immigrants would cost extra $740 million every year. (Incidentally, Leitch also wants to cap government spending.)

Of course, it’s entirely possible that these contradictions and policy shortcomings do not matter a bit. Gut feelings, not hard facts, are more important in modern-day, post-Trump victory politics. In this context, Leitch’s campaign is thriving. A recent Washington Post report, written by political science Ph.D. candidate Eric Merkley at the University of British Columbia, found that Leitch’s rise corresponded with the cascade of mostly outraged media coverage surrounding the Canadian values business. “Leitch is benefiting not just from the larger share of coverage [than her opponents], but a greater volume of coverage to get her name and message out to potential supporters,” Merkley wrote.

If and when she wins the Conservative leadership, Kouvalis will have plenty of time to pivot Leitch toward more salient issues like deficit spending, carbon taxes and other alleged sins of the Liberal government.

But maybe he won’t. After all, Trump made a point of never pivoting. And look where he is today.


*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story attributed the SmartTrack idea to Kouvalis directly.