Mark Marissen: On the mark


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Image by: Sandra Leung

In America, Mark Marissen would be a star: a man who, for better or worse, battled his foes to usher in a whole new kind of professional politics in B.C., and came out on top.

Good looking in a scrubbed, cheerful way, the youngish Marissen is half of a B.C. power couple – his wife, Christy Clark, is a former provincial cabinet minister, a federal Liberal and a political wiz. For his part, Marissen has a killer reputation as a political strategist and organizer, maybe a little too literally for some past opponents. Marissen’s insider status and power base were built as he locked up B.C. for Paul Martin in the long battle for the federal Liberal leadership, leaving the ruins of Chrétienite camps – and some bitter enemies – in his smiling wake. Then came a nice underdog twist. When Martin’s short, unhappy time as prime minister ended, Marissen didn’t sign on with any of the favoured leadership candidates: Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff or even Ken Dryden. Instead, he stepped up to run the campaign for long shot Stéphane Dion, a geeky policy wonk from Quebec whose English was, on good days, described charitably as “better than people expected.” Dion won. And Marissen was right alongside him, now firmly at the centre of Liberal power in Ottawa, charged with co-chairing the party’s national campaign when the election finally comes. If Marissen succeeds – that is, if the Liberals can reclaim power so quickly – he’ll be hailed as a political hero. Marissen’s emergence as a force comes as a clutch of factors – a booming economy, the coming Olympics, opportunities in Asia and a provincial government interested in flexing B.C.’s muscle – propel B.C. toward the centre of the national stage. His rise partly reflects the province’s increased importance on the federal scene. But B.C.’s new prominence is also thanks to the work of Marissen and a clutch of young Liberals – a new breed whose lives and careers revolve around politics – who grabbed control of the party and set out to make it matter more. Along the way, they played rough and trampled some long-time federal Liberal party members. Not everyone has forgiven and forgotten. As the corruption trial of Bob Virk and Dave Basi, both part of the federal Liberal B.C. machine along with Marissen, unfolds in B.C. Supreme Court, past opponents are waiting to see how much mud gets thrown around and where it lands. Still, Marissen’s Dion triumph won him the job of co-chair for the party’s national campaign and the attention of a grateful leader. Both are good news for B.C. The province’s issues are front and centre and so are its opportunities – the star candidates who could be wooed, the opportunities for Dion to pay a little attention or make a timely phone call and get some good results. Veteran political scientist Norman Ruff says Marissen’s place at the centre of federal politics will undoubtedly make a difference to the province. “There will be more sensitivity to B.C. issues, especially in the campaign,” he predicts. But there’s only so much you can accomplish from the wrong side of the House of Commons. The election, whenever it comes, will be the real test. You could say Marissen has been getting ready for that day for his entire adult life. Now 41, he’s among the first of a new wave of political types in Canada who discovered party politics in high school. They revelled in the political games at university – the equivalent of Junior A hockey for would-be NHLers – and then moved into political jobs in government and took on roles as provincial and federal candidates, consultants and organizers. Their careers and lives continue to revolve around partisan politics. Marissen was on the federal Liberal party payroll through the winter and early spring, travelling between B.C. and Ottawa. By May, when opinion-poll results chilled enthusiasm for a vote, he had returned to Burrard Communications Inc., his small consulting and lobbying business based in the United Kingdom Building on Granville Street. Marissen has operated the consultancy since 1998 and was a busy lobbyist and communications consultant when the Liberals were in power. His client list has included the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority (TransLink), the Vancouver International Airport Authority, the British Columbia Railway Co. (BC Rail), British Columbia Ferry Services Inc. and Encorp Pacific. But really, his life’s work has been politics. Political parties have always had loyal organizers and strategists. But they tended to have careers, often unrelated to politics, that they returned to between campaigns, notes Alan Warnke, a former Liberal MLA and political science professor. For the new wave, politics never stops. And inevitably, Warnke observes, there’s extra pressure to win – in both internal and external battles – when career success and political success are so intertwined. Marissen doesn’t just fit the mould; he practically defines it. His success in B.C. came largely from tapping the talents of young men like him to create a formidable political machine. Marissen’s fascination with politics all started with Pierre Trudeau. Marissen grew up in St. Thomas, Ontario, a city of about 35,000 near London. He was raised in a strict Dutch Calvinist household; he jokes that it was practically an act of teenage rebellion to become involved in the Liberal party. In those days, Marissen was enthused by Trudeau’s push to patriate the Constitution and introduce the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “The Liberal party is the party that’s pragmatic,” he still says, “and middle of the road brings good government.” Marissen’s skills and enthusiasm were recognized, notably by legendary Liberal rainmaker Keith Davey. He began working on local and national campaigns as he studied political science at Carleton University. The program gave him more than a degree. It included a year at SFU, where he met future wife Christy Clark – a gung-ho young Liberal and student politician. SFU is also where Marissen got his first taste of politics in B.C., working as a volunteer on Jean Chrétien’s successful leadership bid in 1989. He then went on to do various political jobs, most notably serving four years as an executive assistant to Victoria MP and cabinet minister David Anderson, a powerful Liberal figure in his own right. The job gave Marissen the chance to build his own political network. By the time he signed on to help run Paul Martin’s long leadership campaign in B.C. in the late ’90s, Marissen was ready to start putting his connections and organizing skills to use. One of his strengths, according to those who have worked with him, is an ability to cut through all the side issues and clutter to quietly focus on the one or two elements critical to success. In the leadership battle, the focus was on taking control of party organizations across the province – riding associations and university and college clubs – that would send delegates to the leadership convention. And Marissen and his team were good at taking control. A few phone calls, some favours called in or promised and suddenly a college Liberal club had 250 new members and a pro-Martin executive, guaranteeing their convention delegates would be on the right side.


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