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. In universities and colleges, the strategy mostly looked like students playing games.
At the riding level, however, things were nastier. According to Warnke, people who had spent years volunteering for the party showed up at meetings to find scores—sometimes hundreds—of people they had never seen before clutching party memberships and ready to vote in a new executive, one effectively picked by Marissen and the Martin team. Campaigning for the leadership or a nomination was no longer about sharing ideas or building support. It was about signing up instant party members who would vote the way they had been told. “It made it very difficult if you wanted to run a nomination meeting on the up and up,” Warnke says. “How do you get decent people into politics?”
Marissen agrees the battle got out of hand. “It became more of a fight than it was supposed to be,” he says. But he doesn’t concede the high ground. Some critics complain of unethical mass sign-ups of instant Liberals—often from within the Indo-Canadian community—to take over riding associations. Marissen counters that too much of the party in B.C. was run as an exclusive club, closed to new ideas or people. The Liberals needed to reflect B.C.’s changing population and bring in new members if it was to be successful, he says. “We tried to reflect that and to get a lot more people involved,” he says.
Liberal party memberships soared from 4,000 to almost 40,000 in three years. Critics say that reflected dubious mass sign-ups. Marissen says the growth created a stronger, more diverse party and helped the Liberals do well in B.C. in the 2006 federal election. Tim Murphy, former chief of staff for Martin, says Marissen broadened the Liberals’ base. He recalls travelling with Martin on a cross-country leadership campaign tour. The typical audience size was about 150, until the tour hit its first B.C. stop in the Lower Mainland. “There was a crowd of 1,200 or 1,500 people who were young, energized, diverse and excited by politics,” Murphy says. “I remember feeling at the event that it was Mark’s doing.”
There is no denying the Marissen team played rough. The most infamous episode saw the Martin forces take over the riding association of MP and Chrétien supporter Herb Dhaliwal in 2002, while Dhaliwal was out of the country and his wife was dying of cancer. The takeover not only locked up delegate support for Martin; it killed Dhaliwal’s chances of running again. He blames Basi and others on Marissen’s team, complaining of questionable mass sign-ups of instant Liberals.
The riding association swelled from 250 to almost 3,400 members during the campaign to get rid of Dhaliwal. Liberal insider and Chrétien loyalist Warren Kinsella called it the worst kind of political thuggery, grim enough to make him consider quitting the party. “It always seemed rough, a take-no-prisoners knee-cap approach. It’s a B.C. style,” says political scientist Norman Ruff. Marissen’s organizational skills helped shape the battles, he adds. “He conducted politics like a military campaign.” But Ruff agrees that the federal Liberal party was a comfortable, closed club in the province. (“If it was a club, it was a small one,” adds a Liberal strategist who watched the battles from outside the province.) Marissen downplays the conflicts.
But Christy Clark, no slouch at politics, is blunter. “Does anybody think that politics is just about being nice all the time? Politics is about winning,” she says. “In politics, in order for somebody to win, somebody has to lose. When winning requires you to be tough, that’s the style Mark will adopt.” But only when he has to, Clark adds.
The Dion leadership campaign is an example of a victory built on playing nice. The win came at a good time for Marissen. Once Martin was gone, their relationship had no currency. Lots of people in the party were still smarting from the blows endured during the leadership campaign. And Marissen had been unable to help Clark win the Non-Partisan Association’s nomination for Vancouver mayor in 2005. She lost to Sam Sullivan. Marissen’s enemies were delighted. He’s lost his touch, went the rumour mill. Burned too many bridges.
Then came the Dion campaign. Most observers gave the politician-professor from Quebec only a ghost of a chance. Not Marissen. “I thought he was a sure bet from the beginning,” he says. He praises Dion’s record as environment minister and his skills and judgment. But what Marissen also saw was that the camps of the two front-runners, Rae and Ignatieff, were divided along Martin-Chrétien lines. They included a lot of people nursing grudges, people who weren’t about to unite behind the other candidate if their first pick for leader faltered. Dion was a perfect second choice for all the other camps, Marissen says.
Selecting Rae or Ignatieff could have kept the camps divided for years. Dion, on the other hand, was no one’s enemy. “The party wanted to end the internal fighting,” he says. As rough as Marissen played in the Martin-Chrétien wars, he was Mr. Nice this time around. Dion’s campaign stayed positive, avoiding any criticism of other candidates that could alienate potential delegate support on later ballots.
Marissen made sure to keep on good terms with organizers and delegates in all camps throughout the campaign. If their candidate faltered, he wanted them to have lots of reasons to look to Dion as a second choice. When the fourth-ballot votes were counted, Dion had won. The campaign was important for Marissen’s reputation, says Sean Holman, editor of publiceyeonline.com. Critics had claimed his successes in B.C. were based on hardball tactics and skilled collaborators. The Dion campaign “demonstrated that he does have political talent in his own right,” says Holman, a former Liberal activist himself. If this were a movie, Marissen’s triumphant Dion moment would be the end. Roll credits as Mark, Christy and five-year-old son Hamish walk into the sunset.
But it’s real life, and there are some dark clouds blocking the sunset. While Marissen is trying to figure out how to get Dion into Sussex Drive, some of the people who helped Dion capture B.C. are trying to figure out how to handle their coming B.C. Supreme Court appearances in a political corruption trial. Dave Basi and Bob Virk are former ministerial assistants to provincial cabinet ministers, charged with accepting benefits to provide a BC Rail bidder with inside information.
Both were also lieutenants in Marissen’s federal Liberal operation. Basi, in particular, had a reputation as a go-to guy when it came to signing up new party members to help in a close vote. Dhaliwal blames Basi for the takeover in his riding. Worse, the prosecutors say the benefits came from Eric Bornmann, another key member of the Marissen team. His lobbying partners included Jamie Elmhirst, former B.C. president of the federal Liberal Party. The investigation took police to a number of senior Liberals, including a visit to Marissen’s office looking for information. No reflection on Marissen or the party, perhaps. There have been no allegations he did anything wrong.
But the case is still likely to raise some questions about Marissen’s organization – and about this new generation of professional, perpetual campaigners, whose career fortunes are so linked to seeing their party in power. Ruff says the power shift has had a major impact on politics in Canada. “They’ve become the new elite....It’s a much harder group to get some circulation and new ideas.” But Marissen has little time to worry about such criticisms. He has another campaign to run.