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Canada: Expose’ on CCA lobbyist.
The Man Behind the Curtain
By John Lorinc
Saturday, October 29, 2005
Special to The Globe and Mail

'It's a good story," concedes Bay Street lawyer Ralph Lean as he considers an unexpected switchback in his long career as one of Canada's most adroit fundraisers.

A few weeks ago, it was revealed that this ultimate conservative insider and occasional lobbyist had signed on as a bagman for David Miller's 2006 re-election team.

So what's he doing shaking down business leaders on behalf of an indisputably left-of-centre mayor? He pauses for several moments before answering. "I'm thinking," Mr. Lean chuckles, when prompted. "That's a good question."

Politics, as the old saying goes, often makes for strange bedfellows. But the showy non-partisanship that's become a tradition in Toronto's mayoral politics often produces unexpected alliances that more closely resemble adventurous threesomes than marriages of convenience. (Consider, for example, Barbara Hall's 2003 campaign team, which was headed by long-time partisan combatants George Smitherman, the current health minister, and Jaime Watt, former adviser to Premier Mike Harris.)

A senior partner with Cassels Brock, Mr. Lean has sat on numerous corporate boards, including those of the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan and Sterling Centrecorp, a large Toronto-based commercial developer. He cut his political teeth chairing Art Eggleton's 1980 run for mayor against John Sewell, and has since played key fundraising roles for some of Canada's most prominent and outspoken Tories, including Peter Pocklington, Brian Mulroney, Mike Harris and Mr. Miller's predecessor Mel Lastman. He also helped John Bitove Jr. win the Toronto Raptors NBA franchise, and has served as a fundraiser for several charities, including Vince Carter's foundation for at-risk youth.

On the cusp of Barbara Hall's 1994 dark-horse victory against June Rowlands, he opined that Toronto voters would "never hand the city over to the NDP." And yet, almost a decade later, Mr. Lean took a liking to Mr. Miller when the former High Park councillor was campaigning to succeed Mr. Lastman.

Mr. Lean sees his presence on the 2006 campaign as a means of "bringing a different perspective" to the mayor's clutch of advisers. "I'm a very strong economic, fiscal conservative. Some of that needs to be on the Miller team."

Mr. Lean says he consulted with some of the city's most prominent business leaders before taking the plunge. "People you know," he adds suggestively, without naming names. He refuses to say if one of those calls went out to Toronto Blue Jays president Paul Godfrey, the former Metro chairman whose unrivalled influence at City Hall during the Lastman era was the stuff of legend. "Without exception," he adds, "all of them said, 'Yes, get involved.' "

While Mr. Lean insists he doesn't want to get involved in policy, he's not short of trenchant opinions about the most contentious issues facing the city. He wants more police on the streets to deal with gun crime. "That," he says, "was a campaign pledge of John Tory's in the last campaign."

Mr. Lean is also a big proponent of a "strong mayor system," part of the governance reforms promised for later this year by Queen's Park which will grant the city new legal powers and more independence from provincial oversight. Mayor Miller has been cool to the idea of significantly expanding the powers of his office. But Mr. Lean cites the example of Chicago where, he says, Mayor Richard Daley and his councillors "meet once a month for an hour. Outstanding. It works."

The sharpest ideological cleavage between Mr. Miller and his new money man involves the thorny topic of privatization. In the past, the mayor -- who had the backing of several large public-sector unions during the 2003 campaign -- has been unequivocal about his opposition to the contracting out of public services such as garbage collection.

Not so Mr. Lean, who has lobbied on behalf of two U.S. corporate clients looking for privatization deals in Ontario. "I'm very much in favour of looking at any alternative that saves the taxpayer money," he says. Mr. Lean adds that he's discussed the issue with the mayor in private. "I would hope that every member of council will look at every [option] to see if the private sector can do it more effectively."

Given that Bay Street has been frustrated in its bid to find privatization deals in recent years, Mr. Lean's presence on Team Miller may represent a new strategy on the part of Canadian firms looking for private-public partnerships. As he explains, "The business community should have a voice with the administration of the City of Toronto."

But, Mr. Lean allows, the case for privatization deals varies from contract to contract, and the numbers don't always add up.

That unexpected admission raises a question: Which of these two ideological opposites shifted towards the middle? Mr. Lean muses, "Maybe we both did."

Lean years

Ralph Lean has had a long, successful career in the back rooms of local, provincial and federal politics. A few milestones:

1980 -- Member of a clique of Liberal and Tory development insiders pulled together by Metro chair Paul Godfrey to back Art Eggleton's bid to unseat lefty mayor John Sewell.

1983 -- Senior adviser to Edmonton millionaire Peter Pocklington in his ill-fated, long-shot bid to win the federal Tory leadership. Mr. Pocklington vows to sell the CBC and disparages his opponents as "socialists."

1986 -- Appointed chair of the Canadian National Exhibition board during a period when Metro is seeking new tenants and private development opportunities in the wake of the decision to build the SkyDome near the CN Tower.

1991 -- Backs June Rowlands's successful run against Jack Layton in a nasty mayoral contest. Other key members of her team: veteran Tory strategist John Laschinger (architect of Miller's 2003 win); former NHLPA honcho Alan Eagleson; and lawyer/fundraiser Jeffery Lyons, who went on to play a murky lobbying role in the MFP computer leasing scandal.

1993 -- Joins board of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., a patronage appointment by outgoing prime minister Brian Mulroney.

1993 -- Key player in assembling investors for John Bitove Jr.'s bid to win an NBA franchise for Toronto.

1994 -- On learning that then-city councillor Barbara Hall may be challenging Ms. Rowlands in a long-shot bid for the mayoralty: "If Hall runs for mayor, getting money for June will be easy." Hall wins.

1995 -- Senior fundraiser for Mike Harris. Mr. Lean is later described as "a close friend and confidant" of the premier.

1999 -- Retained as a lobbyist by Corrections Corporation of America, a large private prisons operator seeking to expand into Ontario as the Harris government looks to contract out prison facilities. "I think the private sector runs everything better than the government," Mr. Lean says at the time.

2001 -- Provincial Tories appoint Mr. Lean to the board of the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation.

2002 -- Hired by a large Texas law firm that handles lucrative contracts with U.S. municipalities that outsource their tax collection. The company recruits Mr. Lean to help win similar business from Ontario cities, including Toronto.

2002 -- On the verbal dexterity needed to raise cash for a candidate as ideologically cryptic as Ernie Eves: "I can't figure out if Ernie is far to the right or far to the left," Mr. Lean tells Toronto Life. "I'm phoning around raising money, and people are saying to me, you know, is he a right-winger or a left-winger? My response is always dependent upon who I'm talking to. I'll give the guy the answer he wants, because I'll get a bigger cheque."

2003 -- Considered an obvious fundraiser for cable guy and mayoral aspirant John Tory. Word in political circles is that Tory asked Lean to sit out in order to distance himself from insiders with ties to Mel Lastman. Mr. Lean says he was too busy raising money for the provincial Tories.

2005 -- Formally signs on with Mayor Miller's rainbow coalition. His strategic presence on the mayor's team also ensures that he won't be helping to bankroll anyone else.

-- John Lorinc

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