Jane Taber

Ties that bind federal, Ontario Tories run strong, deep

The Globe and Mail

It was like déjà vu all over again when political attack ads popped up during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final – reminiscent of the Harper Tory strategy in the lead-up to the federal campaign when ads attacking Michael Ignatieff played prominently during the Super Bowl, the Oscars and the Grammys.

Only on Wednesday night it was Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty who was under attack. His attacker? Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak.

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It should come as no surprise, however, that the provincial Tories are borrowing from the federal Tory script as the October provincial election approaches – the ties that bind Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and their provincial cousins in Ontario are tight.

Harper partisans and prominent federal Tories, such as Guy Giorno, Doug Finley and John Baird (just to name a few) have tentacles reaching into the provincial Tory camp.

Mr. Giorno, the Conservative national campaign chair and mastermind of the Tory majority, for example, readily admits that he has been meeting with his “Ontario counterparts to share learnings from the last three federal campaigns.”

“I recently spoke at a fundraising reception for the provincial party,” he told The Globe and Mail.

Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, one of the Prime Minister’s most effective cabinet ministers, mentioned he has promised his team to Randall Denley, the Ottawa Citizen columnist who is running against Ontario cabinet minister Bob Chiarelli in Ottawa West Nepean – the riding Mr. Baird represents federally.

In fact, Mr. Baird’s former chief of staff and one of his key strategists, Chris Froggatt, is running Mr. Denley’s campaign.

It is just one of the ridings the provincial Tories are targeting along with several others, including York Centre, Scarborough Centre and Glengarry Prescott Russell, according to a senior Ontario Tory source.

And talk about the ties that bind – the PC candidate in Glengarry Prescott Russell, Marilissa Gosselin, is married to the federal party’s communications director, Fred DeLorey.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hudak’s chief of staff, Lynette Corbett, is best friends with Jenni Byrne, who, along with Mr. Giorno, ran the last federal campaign. Then there’s Nigel Wright, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, who has made it clear to the Ontario Tories that he will do what he can to facilitate a win.

It gets better. Last weekend, at the federal Conservative convention in Ottawa, party president John Walsh was the host of a suite for Mr. Hudak. Reports are that it was packed, Mr. Hudak was mobbed, and at least 11 federal cabinet ministers attended.

Mr. Hudak is back in town on Thursday for a $350-a-plate cocktail reception – wine, beer and hors d’oeuvres – at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier. The invitation notes that “Tim will be joined by senators, MPPs and MPs throughout the evening.” Tory Senator Bob Runciman, a former provincial cabinet minister, is one of the organizers.

But the most important connections come from the person at the top of the campaign chain: Senator Doug Finley, the wily veteran who ran the Harper 2006 and 2008 campaigns.

A mentor to many in the campaign business, he is a good friend of Mark Spiro, Mr. Hudak’s campaign manager. Mr. Spiro founded the consulting firm Crestview Public Affairs in 2004 – but seems to spend an awful lot of his time working political campaigns.

Mr. Finley has known Mr. Spiro for 14 years, having worked with him on provincial and leadership campaigns in the 1990s. The two lost touch for several years.

But then he turned up one day in Ottawa, Mr. Finley recalled, and said, “Okay, boss, what can I do for you?”

During the 2006 and 2008 campaigns, Mr. Spiro ran the Conservative war room’s so-called “target seat management team,” in which he focused through special messaging, strategy and communications on ridings the Tories believed they could win from their opponents.

Mr. Finley says he has a nickname for Mr. Spiro – Eeyore – lifted from the pages of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh.

“He always looks on the black side, there is always a storm coming … yeah, he’s famously grumpy,” says the senator, adding that Mr. Spiro is also “absolutely brilliant.”

A veteran provincial Tory says the federal contribution is significant, especially since so many Tories are pumped from finally winning a majority government in May.

As far as influence, however, Ontario Tories say they have their own script – cookie cutter doesn’t work. But they are not afraid to borrow best practices from their federal counterparts.

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