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Early Bets on the Next Liberal Leader

If there’s anything that Liberals love more than power it’s the pursuit thereof, which will help explain why some Liberals are already thinking about the next leadership race just days after the last one concluded. Once they catch up on their sleep, restock their political energies, and refill their bank accounts, political operatives and insiders from across the country will begin, if they haven’t already, to ask one question: who’s next?

The early bets are being placed on Gerard Kennedy, thanks to his crucial role as kingmaker, his relatively young age, and the fact that the next Liberal leader, if the party respects the tradition of alternance, must come from English Canada. While you can count on Kennedy playing a major role at the next Liberal leadership convention, be it in two years or ten, there’s already a potential challenger lying in wait. Christie Clark, the former British Columbia education minister, will soon announce her intention to run in the next federal election, and thereafter the leadership whispers will begin. I wouldn’t bet against her, either. She’s married to Mark Marissen, after all.

This isn’t meant to disparage the merits of a potential Clark candidacy, because there are many. She’s young, she has political experience, she’s photogenic, well liked, and perhaps most importantly, she’s a she. The Liberal Party of Canada has been waiting patiently for a candidate like Clark, a young, politically appealing female candidate with sharp elbows and a sharper mind. On her own merits, she might stand a chance. With the help of her husband, however, she’s already a strong favourite.

Mark Marissen, Christy Clark’s husband and a fine Liberal organizer in his own right, is a still mystery to most Canadians who aren’t Liberal insiders, but he should be at least somewhat familiar to British Columbians. He was Paul Martin’s former British Columbia lieutenant, his wife’s campaign manager when she nearly defeated Sam Sullivan for the NPA Mayoral nomination in 2005, and a peripheral player in the 2003 legislature raids. He was also a target of criticism for his thuggish organizing tactics which culminated in the takeover of former Cabinet minister Herb Dhaliwal’s riding association while Mr. Dhaliwal’s wife was dying of cancer.

Warren Kinsella, who worked for former Prime Minister Jean Chretien and now writes for The National Post, observed that “having written a book with the title “Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics, ” and having seen more than a few political donnybrooks in my day, I cannot claim to believe that politics is ever played with the Marquess of Queensbury rulebook. It is not, it has never been, and it never will be. But to humiliate a Cabinet colleague whose wife was dying of cancer? I’ve witnessed a lot of political thuggery, but I had never before seen anything as disgusting as that.”

If Marissen didn’t believe in Karma before the Dhaliwal incident, he probably does today. Almost immediately after the Dhaliwal takeover, Marissen ran into what was, for him, an unusual string of bad political luck. Paul Martin, the candidate for whom he had worked for almost a decade to steal the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada away from Jean Chretien, turned out to be a dud. First Martin dithered the majority government left to him by Chretien into a tenuous minority in the summer of 2004, and then gave the rest away in a defeat in the winter election of 2005/2006.

At the same time, he was the subject of scrutiny in connection with the BC legislature raids of late 2004. Both he and his brother in law, Bruce Clark, were questioned by police in connection with the raids, and his long history of involvement with David Basi and Robert Virk – Dhaliwal accused Basi of personally organizing the takeover of his riding association – as well as key crown witness Erik Bornmann damaged his reputation and, one can assume, the receipts at his private consulting firm, Burrard Communications.

None of this, however, deterred Stephane Dion – a former cabinet colleague of Herb Dhaliwal, no less – who hired Marissen as his national campaign co-ordinator early in 2006. Dion, of course, was hardly a front runner at this point, so perhaps it was a mutual leap of faith that led to their union. But whatever the reasons were behind both men’s decision to take a chance on the other, Marissen has emerged as the biggest winner in the recently concluded leadership convention, bigger even than his boss and the man, Gerard Kennedy, without whose help Dion would not have come close to winning. Stephane Dion, after all, would still have had a prominent place within the Liberal Party of Canada had he lost the leadership, and surely would have been given a senior cabinet position in any future Rae or Ignatieff government. Marissen, on the other hand, wouldn’t have been nearly so fortunate.

Today, thanks to Dion’s surprise victory, Mark Marissen is on top of his world. Where under Paul Martin he was one of many organizers who had the Prime Minister’s ear, today he has the leader’s absolutely undivided attention. His reputation has been repaired, his power restored, and his influence extended well beyond the Rocky Mountains. Marissen’s backroom rivals in British Columbia, most notably Bruce Young and Greg Wilson, will be forced to step into line or face his considerable wrath. His federal rivals, from the original Rainmaker’s own son Ian Davey to Senator David Smith and the Rae family, will have to do likewise.

For a time, it seemed like the Marissen-Clark dynasty had fallen apart, a victim both of its own excesses and some unexpected bad political luck. Today, it’s stronger than ever, and that doesn’t bode well for Gerard Kennedy, Ken Dryden, or anyone else who’s already looking forward to the next leadership race.

Toronto, December 12, 2006 – 965 w.

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Max Fawcett

Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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