By BRETT POPPLEWELL, Toronto Star
Published On Fri Dec 10 2010
He is the calculated brain behind the gravy train. A big man with a small stomach. A bare-knuckle political boxer with a dash of charm and a gruff demeanor and one of only a few people able to keep Toronto’s self-proclaimed “rebel” mayor in check.
He is Nick Kouvalis, Rob Ford’s 35-year-old deputy campaign manager turned chief of staff. A Windsor resident who, until recently, has been sleeping in a slapdash bedroom at Deco Labels & Tags, the Ford family’s printing factory in Etobicoke.
He is the former Chrysler auto worker known at City Hall as the mastermind behind the straight-talking populist that is this city’s new mayor.
As one councillor puts it, he is the Karl Rove to Rob Ford’s George W. Bush.
Even Paula Fletcher, the former leader of the Communist Party of Canada in Manitoba and one of Toronto’s most left leaning councillors, recognizes his political savvy.
“He is controversial, but I think he is extremely smart,” she says.
Kouvalis’ value to Team Ford is indisputable. He is, after all, the genius who tested the term “gravy train” on focus groups before writing it into Ford’s speeches.
His post-election boastings on how he tricked John Tory out of joining the mayor’s race left other political spin doctors shaking their heads. But like him or not, Kouvalis is one of the only people able to dictate terms to Mayor Ford and his councillor brother Doug.
The political strategist worked on Frank Klees and Christine Elliot’s failed leadership bids for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in 2004 and 2009 respectively.
He is the same aggressive campaigner who was charged in July 2005 with uttering a death threat after allegedly telling campaign workers that he would kill Essex MP Jeff Watson with his bare hands if he thought he could get away with it.
A Windsor judge later acquitted Kouvalis, saying there wasn’t enough evidence he actually meant what he said.
At the time of the charges, Kouvalis was a thicker man. He’s since had a surgical procedure that brought his weight down by a reported 180 lbs. Now trim, he still carries himself around press conferences and public meetings with the grace of a night club bouncer.
But he’s not always gruff.
Married with three young sons, Kouvalis dutifully drove home to be with his family in Windsor on weekends during and immediately after the mayoralty campaign.
The photo on Kouvalis’ Twitter account shows him smiling, sitting on the floor with three young boys and a dog, suggesting there’s a gentle side to this political hired gun. It’s a curious image that doesn’t exactly mesh with the accompanying words he chose for his bio: “Thunder with Style!”
If his tweets are any representation of his inner thoughts, then nearly everything he has thought of late is political. Few of his tweets from the past few years give any hint of a life beyond the campaign trail.
Hardly anyone at City Hall questions his thunder. But his style? That’s another question.
It’s Dec. 7. Ford has just been sworn in as mayor. A few hundred people have gathered in the main lobby to be a part of “history” and catch a glimpse of “the people’s mayor.”
Ford descends from council chambers into the crowd for photo ops with the crowd. Kouvalis is there with his elbows up, clearing the mayor’s path through the throngs of media.
A crowd of Ford supporters forms near the mayor. All are waiting their turn to get a photo taken with the man who just likened himself the second coming of William Lyon Mackenzie.
An altercation breaks out less than a metre away from the mayor.
“Everyone just back up,” says Kouvalis, his hands up, brows pinched. The designated city hall security officials — the ones who are standing around Ford and whose actual job it is to keep the mayor safe — are calm. Kouvalis is not.
“Give him some space.”
A middle-aged Ford supporter is suddenly angry.
“Why are you pushing me?” the man asks Kouvalis.
“Give him space,” Kouvalis repeats, his hands up, his brows pinched.
“I campaigned for (Ford) for three months,” the man rebuts. “I’m just trying to take his picture. Don’t push me.”
The two men stand face to face in what looks primed to erupt into a playground scuffle. Then Ford, one of the only people still smiling, looks to Kouvalis: “Can you get me a Diet Coke?”
Kouvalis looks to another of the mayor’s staffers. “Can you get him a Diet Coke?”
It’s dark and windy outside. Josh Matlow, the newly elected councillor for Ward 22, St. Paul’s, is having dinner with his wife at the Duke of Kent pub near Yonge St. and Eglinton Ave.
It’s Nov. 19. A Friday. Three weeks have passed since the municipal election and Matlow has yet to have any interactions with the new mayor. His cellphone rings during supper. It’s Kouvalis on the line. He wants to talk about what committees the new councillor wants to be part of.
Matlow asks if it can wait.
Kouvalis arrives at the pub around 9 p.m. and sits down with Matlow, whose wife has gone home. The pleasantries are short.
Kouvalis tells Matlow he knew Matlow’s father. Matlow is intrigued as Kouvalis starts reminiscing. It’s not long before Matlow realizes Kouvalis doesn’t know his father at all and that Kouvalis thinks he’s talking with Josh Colle, councilor for Ward 15, Eglinton Lawrence.
Matlow corrects him.
Kouvalis then pulls out a notebook and starts interviewing Matlow. He wants to know how Matlow will vote on certain issues. Kouvalis needs to know which way Matlow swings — is he left or is he right? — before they can talk about which committees he should sit on.
Kouvalis orders a Bloody Mary cocktail. Matlow orders a beer.
Then Kouvalis asks: “Will you vote for a flat budget?”
Matlow is taken aback.
“Do you really expect me to vote on the budget over a beer with you?” the rookie councillor asks.
Kouvalis doesn’t say anything. Matlow soon realizes this meeting is pretty much over.
A Star reporter tells Rob Ford in June that the newspaper has been given a recording of a conversation between Ford and Dieter Doneit-Henderson, an HIV positive man who suffers chronic pain from fibromyalgia, in which Ford seems to imply that he will help the man obtain street drugs to quell his pain.
Worried the Star might publish the story and derail Ford’s campaign, Kouvalis has a campaign staffer create a fake Twitter account under the guise “QueensQuayKarren.”
A supporter of George Smitherman, Ford’s main rival during the election, “QueensQuayKarren” befriends Doneit-Henderson online and coaxes him into sharing the recording that had been obtained by the Star.
Kouvalis releases the tape to a Ford-friendly columnist at the Toronto Sun who writes the story as if Ford were set up by a disturbed man.
Kouvalis later brags to reporters about the way he played the story.
On Nov. 5, Kouvalis is on the 44th floor of the Scotia Plaza on King St. addressing a packed room of lobbyists, journalists and PR people.
Having just won the mayoralty race, Ford’s new chief of staff is in a revealing mood and boasts about how he tricked John Tory from entering the mayor’s race back in July.
Kouvalis smiles as he tells the gathering how he devised a four-point plan to attack Tory’s integrity when he sensed in July that the radio host was itching to enter another mayoral race.
That plan, he explains, included the release of a YouTube video in which a cartoon Tory is run over by the “gravy train.”
For optimum damage, Kouvalis tells the crowd he had a Ford supporter call into Tory’s radio show and slam the would-be candidate’s integrity on air.
“They were talking about some issue that had nothing to do about the campaign,” Kouvalis boasts.
“But the first call he took was from one of our guys — Karen Philby? Anybody know who Karen is? The Twitter account that was a fake person? Well, that person called into the radio show and challenged his integrity . . . And then John decided not to get into the race and that was a huge victory . . . Rob won because of it.”
Following the revelations, longtime Liberal Party spin doctor Warren Kinsella criticizes Kouvalis.
“Don’t talk about how you make sausages,” Kinsella writes on his blog. “People don’t want to hear it. Just serve ’em, and hope they like the taste.”
The Star reporter writing this profile e-mails Kouvalis on Wednesday asking if he has time to speak for this story. Thirteen minutes later, Kouvalis declines by way of a staffer.
The next day, the reporter introduces himself to Kouvalis outside a committee meeting room at City Hall.
“You still living in the Ford’s factory?” the Star reporter asks.
“I got a nice place now,” Kouvalis says.
“No profile,” Kouvalis says with a smile, slicing the air between the reporter and himself with his hand.
“There will be a profile,” the reporter says.
“Not on me,” Kouvalis says. “I wouldn’t talk to you even if you weren’t the Toronto Star.”
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