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Robocalling: Power Behind the Throne

US-Style Campaigning in Toronto

by Toronto Media Co-op

Kouvalis and Ford
Kouvalis and Ford

Toronto - Concerns released today by Elections Canada about campaign tactics are part of a growing trend of political accusations - many of which have a Toronto connection.

Edmonton-based communications company Racknine has been fingered in an Elections Canada report as the origin of calls sending voters to fraudulent polling stations in the 2011 Federal Election.  The callers falsely claimed to be from Elections Canada.

Racknine has worked on Conservative campaigns in the past, including campaigns of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  Opposition parties quickly compared the tactics to US-style electioneering.

The accusations are eerily similar to those leveled against a company co-headed by Nick Kouvalis, Mayor Rob Ford's former election campaign manager.

Campaign Research, of which Kouvalis is a principal partner, was hired in 2011 by federal Conservatives to conduct surveys in a Liberal Montreal riding. Constituents in the riding said they were told the Liberal MP had resigned and that a by-election was to be held soon, which was not accurate.

Investigating the incident, The Speaker of the House of Commons, Andrew Scheer, ruled that the action was "reprehensible" but not a violation of parliamentary privilege.  Scheer did not recuse himself from the ruling, even though Campaign Research also worked for Scheer along with 40 other Conservative candidates during the last election.

Similar accusations about fake polling station calls, also involving Racknine, were made by constituents in the Kitchner-Waterloo area before the last federal election. Calls refering voters to fake polling stations were traced back to a Conservative Party number.  The candidate in the region, Conservative MP Peter Braid, used Campaign Research for "phone calling to constituents and voter identification," though he denied being involved in the calls.  Kouvalis has so far refused to comment on the campaign tactics he used for Braid.   

Are Kouvalis and Conservative campaigners going too far in political campaigns?

Kouvalis is a former Chrysler auto worker from Windsor who first began campaigning for Conservatives in 2004.  The candidate he campaigned for (who won his riding) took him to court for uttering death threats in 2005.  The case was eventually thrown out.

Since then he has helped elect Rob Ford as Mayor of Toronto, switched sides to stop some of his cuts and been linked to various Conservative campaigns across the country.

Kouvalis was asked directly if he runs dirty campaigns in a November 2011 issue of Toronto Life.

Toronto Life: A lot of people have the impression you ran a dirty campaign. What’s your reaction to that?

Nick Kouvalis: The fact of the matter is, all your downtown champagne-sipping socialists can’t understand how some kid from Windsor came in and kicked the shit out of them. It happened. They should get over it.

Kouvalis was considered to be the mastermind behind Ford's campaign, employing a steady stream of new tactics.  His "Robocall" advertising and "Telephone Town Halls" are now used by many other campaigners and City councillors, which added thousands of names to his database of supporters.  His firm also hit upon anti-tax voter sentiment and "gravy-train" buzzwords through focus groups and surveys.

Ford won by a significant margin in an election with the highest number of Canadians participating in a direct vote for a single candidate. 

However, in the aftermath of the election Kouvalis publicly disclosed a number of controversial tactics, including setting up a fake Twitter account and profile for “queensquaykaren” to secretly obtain a recording of a phone conversation Ford had previously made.  

He then had someone under that moniker, Karen Philby, call into the John Tory radio show.  Tory was the former leader in of the Provincial Ontario Conservatives and widely considered to be considering a run for Mayor.  The caller, working for the Ford campaign, challenged Tory's integrity.   

"John decided not to get into the race and that was a huge victory for Rob, so he took John out and Rob won because of it,”  Kouvalis said after the election.  

At the time, he said the tactics were not "dirty" but a normal part of campaigns.  

"It's probably more common than it should be but I would say that it is not something that it's not as common that people think it is," says Elliott Anderson, Director of Strategic Planning with the Ontario NDP.

"What I found surprising is that Ford's [people] bragged about nasty camapigns that they were proud of," he said.  "Tory is out of politics but still influential in the Conservative Party and the Conservative movement, and that the fact that they would spit in his eye afterwards...I found [that] very strange."

Anderson says that campaign managers and political parties will typically distance themselves from these types of tactics, pointing to the Jack Layton-bawdy house scandal last year.  

Kouvalis has remained connected to the Mayor since leaving the Ford campaign.  He recently went after Karen Stinz when she defeated the Mayor on his transit plan, saying on Twitter that she was betraying the mayor in favour of Provincial Liberals and unions.

Although Kouvalis spent the campaign boosting Ford and attacking City spending, he quickly jumped ship after the election and crossed over to the Fire Fighters union - supporting them against Ford's push for budget cuts. "It’s...silly to think I’ll never work for a company that has competing interests with a previous client," he said in the Toronto Life interview.

While it's unknown what's next for Kouvalis and Campaign Research, both are still very entrenched in the Conservative party.  Kouvalis' Campaign Research partner, Richard Ciano, is a previous vice-president of the federal Conservative Party and is currently running for the presidency of the Ontario Conservative party.

Speaking in CTV after the Montreal riding incident, Kouvalis was unrepentant.  "“My job is to end Liberal politicians’ careers," he said. "That’s what I get paid to do. It’s not pretty, it offends some people, but that’s what I get paid to do.”

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