Saturday, August 7, 1999

John Saunders
The Globe and Mail, Toronto

p. D3.


The dirty-tricks man

Toronto-born Marcel Wieder is revealed as the mind behind recent controversial political campaigns in Ontario. Is he depressed? Naaah.

Marcel Wieder: I don't consider it underhanded. I bring issues to the attention of the voters. I let the voters ultimately judge.

Marcel Wieder: 'I don't consider it underhanded. I bring issues to the attention of the voters. I let the voters ultimately judge.' JOHN MORSTAD/The Globe and Mail

Marcel Wieder, who brought stealth politics to Toronto's first megacity election and ethnic-crime imagery to the latest Ontario vote, is having breakfast at McDonald's and talking about life as a political gun-for-hire.

At 38, he has worked for federal, provincial and municipal candidates and been unmasked in one of the most elaborate dirty-tricks campaigns in Canadian history. He hasn't let it get him down. "That chapter, as far as I'm concerned, is closed and I'm moving forward."

There are things he still won't discuss (his lawyer is at the table to make sure), but he does not hide his scorn for the conventional campaign leaflet, the kind bearing a politician's picture, a party logo and "a lot of copy about different issues, sort of like the old kitchen-sink approach."

A student of U.S. political techniques, he looks for other ways to grab voters' attention and "get them to think, for a split second, that 'Hey, maybe there's something I should be paying attention to.' "

Asked if this involves underhanded efforts to make opponents look bad, he says: "I don't consider it underhanded. I bring issues to the attention of the voters. I let the voters ultimately judge."

Mr. Wieder, who works out of a two-bedroom Toronto apartment, represents a new trend in Canadian politics, or would like to. His is the mind behind:

  • A leaflet titled "How much does it cost to buy a City Councillor?" distributed in the name of Citizens for Decency in Politics, a fictitious organization, just before the 1997 municipal election. It suggested that former Toronto budget chief David Hutcheon was open to bribery.

  • A transborder telephone blitz by an Alabama firm whose employees claimed to represent pollster "Argus Read," another Wieder invention. The callers asked Toronto residents whether they would be likely to vote for Mr. Hutcheon if they knew he had received illegal campaign contributions. Mr. Hutcheon did not win a seat on the amalgamated council.

  • A subway poster produced for the Toronto Police Association this spring featuring what turns out to be a 1991 photo of five members of a Latino street gang in Culver City, Calif. The caption: "There's only one thing that these guys fear. Your vote."

The poster urged people to send law-and-order candidates to the provincial legislature, implicitly supporting Premier Mike Harris and his Conservatives. (The police union endorsed no Liberals or New Democrats.) Mr. Wieder has worked most often for Liberals but does not play favourites.

One City Councillor, willing to
trade a few votes, make
concessions, deal with bureaucrats
and help smooth over community
groups. Delightful company and
requires little attention. Please
respond with best offer at
362-9901 before November 10

How much

does it cost

to buy a

City Councillor?

Unlike the leaflet and the phone calls, the poster involved no deception, except to the extent that people who watch too much American television might think it showed criminals they are likely to meet in Toronto, where Hispanics do not loom large on the gang scene.

The fact that it was Mr. Wieder's handiwork came to light only recently. Union president Craig Bromell -- who for weeks ignored Globe calls about the consultant -- confirmed that Mr. Wieder is in an inner circle advising the union executive on election campaigns.

Mr. Bromell said he is not worried about Mr. Wieder's past. "Any time there's a next election, we're going to use him again, if that answers your question."

Mr. Wieder declines to discuss his work for the union, citing client confidentiality and what he calls an outside chance of hate-crime charges arising from the poster, which alarmed Hispanic groups. He talks instead about his philosophy of persuasion.

Above, a Wieder attack leaflet distributed in Toronto in the name of Citizens for Decency in Politics, a ficticious organization. [Right], a photo of California gang members used to urge Ontarians to elect law-and-order legislators. Its caption read:'There's only one thing that these guys fear. Your vote.'

"What I try and do is cut through the clutter of competing messages with a strong, focused approach. Any good advertising tries to do that, and I think campaigns are starting to mature in the same way as the ad industry."

As Mr. Wieder tells it, he got his taste for politics as student president at Ledbury Park Junior High in North York, just beyond the former Toronto boundary, and as a teenaged canvasser for Liberal fixture Mitchell Sharp in the old federal Eglinton riding.

A photo of California gang members used to urge Ontarians to elect law-and-order legislators. Its caption read:'There's only one thing that these guys fear. Your vote.'

A Young Liberal in his University of Toronto days, he went on to do campaign work for such figures as Frances Nunziata, now a Toronto councillor, former MPP Tim Murphy, now president of the Ontario Liberal Party, and Art Eggleton, now Defence Minister.

Increasingly, he drew inspiration from south of the border, frequenting seminars organized by Campaigns & Elections, a monthly magazine for U.S. political professionals, and eventually becoming a speaker at the seminars.

The work was unpaid but not without reward. The magazine hailed him last year as one of 69 "rising stars of politics," although its research appears to have been less than exhaustive. It described him as president of "Policomm, one of Canada's leading political consulting firms." North of the border, Policomm is such a well-kept secret that it lacks even a telephone-directory listing. According to Mr. Wieder, it is a division of Arrow Communications Group, the company he runs from his apartment.

When it comes to importing U.S. political styles, he is not alone. Former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt, a New Democrat, used Washington-based Democratic image-maker, Karl Struble. Ontario's Mike Harris owes his latest victory in part to Mike Murphy, a Republican attack-ad specialist who revels in the "pejoratively true."

During the campaign this year, Mr. Murphy, who shuttled between an office outside Washington and Harris headquarters in Toronto, helped to create unflattering portrayals of Liberal Dalton McGuinty, dismissed endlessly in Tory commercials as "just not up to the job."

Mr. Wieder says his U.S. exposure made him what he is. "I remember being the only Canadian down there at some of these seminars, and slowly built up relationships, learned more about the process and became a better professional."

In Canada, "you're going to see more and more professionals develop that specialize in elections. In the U.S., it's a billion-dollar-a-year industry. While we're not quite up to that number, it has been steadily inching its way upward."

Michael Izzard, a Toronto lawyer and friend to ex-councillor Hutcheon, boasts: "I'm the guy who found out who Wieder was."

As he tells it, he strolled into the work area of a Toronto postal station one morning near the end of the 1997 campaign and persuaded employees to let him see the paperwork that went with a bulk political mailing.

Mr. Hutcheon's office was getting calls from people who had received the first of 21,000 copies of Mr. Wieder's buy-a-city-councillor leaflet. Armed with the name of the distribution firm handling the mailing, Mr. Izzard traced it back to its source.

He says Mr. Wieder might not have been caught had he paid full postage in cash rather than using a distributor to get a bulk rate. "He outsmarted himself."

Mr. Wieder still refuses to say who paid him to do a number on Mr. Hutcheon and why, but he has acknowledged formally that he wrote the leaflet and credited it to the imaginary citizens group.

He has further acknowledged that he hired the Alabama outfit to conduct the phone campaign following a script he wrote using the name Argus Read, which sounds like a well-known polling firm, and that people "may have mistakenly concluded that the poll was being conducted by Angus Reid Group Inc."

He made the admissions in out-of-court settlements with Mr. Hutcheon and Angus Reid, both of whom sued him.

In the deal with Mr. Hutcheon, he agreed to sign a public confession of his deeds and an apology stating that the suggestions of corruption were unfounded. He also agreed to pay the defeated politician $30,000 toward his legal costs.

Mr. Hutcheon agreed to keep the financial part of the deal secret and to refrain from filing charges with the police or the Ontario Election Commission.

That seemed to be the end of it, but it wasn't.

Mr. Wieder now is suing Mr. Hutcheon for $40,000 on grounds that he violated the deal. In response, Mr. Hutcheon is again suing Mr. Wieder, asking $500,000 for defamation and $200,000 for loss of employment.

Exactly what led to this situation is in dispute. What is clear is that Mr. Hutcheon called a news conference in June of last year to publicize the apology, as he was entitled to do, and that he and his lawyer, Mr. Izzard, let slip that the settlement included money for legal costs.

As Mr. Izzard recalled it, two strangers, one with a video camera, the other with a persistent line of questioning, showed up among the news crews, and the second man asked repeatedly, "Did you get any compensation? Did you get any money?" until he and his client said yes. They did not reveal the figure.

When the session ended, the strangers left hurriedly and the regular crews packing up could not identify them, the lawyer said.

He asserted in a statement of defence filed on Mr. Hutcheon's behalf that Mr. Wieder "specifically hired a film crew to be present at the press conference to specifically embarrass the defendants and to entrap them into making statements which could later be used as the basis of this action," but he offered no proof.

At McDonald's, Mr. Wieder will not comment. His lawyer, Leonard Susman, says "any allegations of Mr. Hutcheon being set up by Mr. Wieder, as stated in the pleadings, are incredible and categorically denied."

Asked about his style, Mr. Wieder spoke in terms of marketing strategy, not political tricks, but allowed that his work has "a definite style" that does not involve boring leaflets.

"I try and see what are the salient issues for the voters and then design something that speaks directly to that. I try and minimize the amount of copy. And I prefer being more visual with photos that capture the voter's attention.

"Remember, my competition is not so much my opponent as it is what else is going through that mailbox. The competition at the mailbox is the Hydro bill, the Sports Illustrated magazine, the newspapers, the flyers, the pizza [ads]. I have to create something that will stand out among those different items."

His most famous job had nothing to do with slick design, but he said that he never again resorted to such tricks as attacking under cover of a fictitious organization.

His foes tend to point to unexplained happenings and say, "That's his handiwork," he said cheerfully. "I get blamed for a lot of things, and I'm sure people want to attribute everything they can to me. ... urban myths develop very quickly in this business."

Toronto Police clippings... [Fiona Stewart]

Created: August 8, 1999
Last modified: August 10, 1999

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