MIKE HARRIS, WHIZ KIDS INVOLVED IN HUDAK ELECTION CAMPAIGN AT HIGHEST LEVELS
by Susanna Kelley
Directly contrary to what PC leader Tim Hudak's advisors have been saying publicly for two years, a number of former Premier Mike Harris' so-called "Whiz Kids" were involved at the highest levels of the Tim Hudak election campaign, crafting strategy both before and during the fall election, ontarionewswatch.com has confirmed with multiple sources.
(From right to left: Mike Harris, Paul Rhodes, Leslie Noble, Tom Long)
Mr. Harris himself spoke to Mr. Hudak at least once a week during the campaign, say several sources. He and Mr. Hudak conferred even more frequently before the election; from the time Mr. Hudak became leader in 2009.
As well, Mr. Harris spoke to Mr. Hudak's wife Debbie Hutton on virtually a daily basis. Ms. Hutton was one of the highest-ranking aides in the Premier's Office after 1995, serving as Mr. Harris' director of issues management. She and Mr. Harris remain close friends.
"Tim would go home and there was a back-channel to Mike and the Whiz Kids," said one source, and not only through his wife, Ms. Hutton.
"Mike spoke regularly to Tim."
Several others of the Harris group, Paul Rhodes and John Toogood, both held senior positions in the Hudak central campaign war room though out the election and worked there on a daily basis, many PC sources confirmed.
Mr. Rhodes ran the Premier's Office communications machine during Mr. Harris' time as Premier.
Sources also say it was Mr. Rhodes, along with campaign aides Chad Rogers and Jason Lietaer, that pushed hard for Mr. Hudak to use the controversial phrase "foreign workers" to describe those who would benefit from the Liberal promise to subsidize the salaries of professional immigrants for a year.
However, two sources who were at the table at the time said there was no discord in the room, and the war room depended on high quality research done by a team under the direction of Chad Rogers.
"It was bad research," another source disagreed.
Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Rogers bragged to colleagues they'd found the "silver bullet" to take down the Liberals, the source said.
Mr. Hudak eventually stopped using the phrase, and during the Oct. 27 Leaders' debate, even denied he had ever called immigrants "foreigners."
The "Whiz Kids" were well represented in other ways in Hudak's inner circle.
Tom Long, a charter member, headed up Mr. Hudak's transition team.
As well, Leslie Noble, who co-chaired Mr. Harris' successful 1995 and 1999 campaigns, regularly attended campaign strategy meetings held before the election along with Mr. Rhodes, Mr. Toogood and about 10 or 12 other people, according to several senior Conservative sources.
There were many campaign strategy sessions held at Tim Hudak and Debbie Hutton's house in Niagara.
Ms. Noble was there more often than not, according to several sources that attended.
Ms. Noble denies that, however.
"No that's actually not true," she told ontarionewswatch.com.
"I've never been at a meeting at Deb and Tim's house. I once, about four years ago, had brunch there, before he was leader, does that count?"
"I went to a couple (of strategy meetings) here and there, nothing regular."
"Did I attend one or two? Yup, absolutely."
Ms. Noble denied having any significant role in the campaign.
"If you're asking me were Leslie Noble, Paul Rhodes and Tom Long running that campaign? Not a chance in hell. Am I glad I'm not running the campaign? Yup," she told ontarionewswatch.com.
"I don't need to take calls like this on a Sunday fucking night...What kind of a horse-shit story is this?" she asked.
However, one source says Mr. Harris "was on the phone every day" to the Whiz Kids.
Many pundits noted the Hudak campaign was very similar in style to Harris' 1995 and 1999 campaigns, with its use of hard-right wedge issues such as the chain gang policy, as well as the use of language such as "foreign workers" and cheesy props.
The Hudak campaign even re-cycled one of those props from 1995 - the McGuinty "Spendometer."
The Whiz Kids played a major role in the Mike Harris years.
They are credited with devising the Common Sense Revolution for the 1995 election, a plan to save taxpayers' money and reform many of Ontario's key institutions. Two of them, Mr. Long and Ms. Noble, ran Mr. Harris' winning election campaign in 1995 and 1999.
However, their high profile stint in power eventually ended in disgrace.
After fashioning Harris and the PC's as "tax fighters" and advocating smaller government, freedom of information requests showed firms associated with Mr. Rhodes, Mr. Long and Ms. Noble were awarded untendered contracts totaling millions of dollars with Hydro One and some provincial ministries.
Mr. Rhodes, for instance, received monthly payments of up to $15,000 from Hydro One, collecting $335,237 for 18 months work, including a lump sum payment of $56,000 for "strategic communications advice."
Mr. Long's employer at the time, the headhunting firm Egon Zehnder International, received $83,000 to recruit Ms. Hutton as VP of the utility's corporate relations (she was not married to Mr. Hudak at that time.) Mr. Long and Ms. Hutton had worked together in Mr. Harris' inner circle for years. Other consulting contracts brought the total for the firm to $1.3 million.
As well, Mr. Long subsequently had to abort a run for the leadership of the now-defunct Canadian Alliance party when it was revealed his campaign had paid for memberships in Quebec. Mr. Rhodes was handling the public relations on that campaign.
Ms. Hutton herself charged Hydro One for a $600 meal with Mr. Harris at Canoe restaurant in Toronto.
Ms. Noble's firm strategycorp received $250,980 to build support for Hydro One.
Mr. Rhodes, Mr. Long and Mr. Lietaer did not immediately return messages to ontarionewswatch.com. Mr. Toogood could not be reached for comment.
The "foreign workers" issue, the release of a central campaign-approved pamphlet some called homophobic, as well as a controversial promise to make provincial prisoners do work cleaning up parks etc. - dubbed the "chain-gang" policy- are often blamed for Mr. Hudak losing a campaign many said he should have won.
However, a senior campaign source says it was actually three other things that lost the election for the Tories.
First, their focus on "change" became the wrong the ballot question, unexpectedly falling flat because global economic shockwaves over Greece made Ontarians long for stability.
Secondly, millions in television ads paid for by Working Families drove home an anti-Hudak message.
Finally, it was Mr. Hudak's proclivity to stick to scripted, message-track answers despite pleas by the campaign team for him to loosen up. His fear of making a mistake made him sound like a robot, the senior campaign source said.
Senior campaign sources say had Ontarians been able to see the real Tim Hudak, the party would have fared better.
You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley