Opinion

Meet Christy Clark's Inner Circle

Clark. Haakstad. McDonald. Mentzelopoulos. Millar. White. The power six behind BC's premier.

By Sean Holman 24 Oct 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Sean Holman is a syndicated columnist, talk show host and the editor of Public Eye, a prominent online journal covering provincial politics. He teaches journalism at the University of Victoria. Find his other Tyee stories here.

image atom
Who's standing in the shadows behind our premier? Photo by Justin Langille.

On Friday, The Tyee took a look at how Christy Clark has gone from winning the Liberal leadership to having a higher disapproval rating than her New Democrat competitor Adrian Dix.

Today, following a four-week investigation that included background interviews with sources who've been part of or close witness to Clark's ascent to power, we name the six most influential politicos in the premier's inner circle.

Bruce Clark

When asked to name the most influential people surrounding the premier, everyone interviewed for this story put her brother Bruce high on their lists. But that's not how Clark sees himself.

"I'm quite surprised by anyone who said that," he said in an interview with The Tyee. "I'm flattered to think I'm influential but I don't think I am -- unless I'm doing all this stuff by the ether and through mind-meld."

Indeed, he also added his reputed role as one of her biggest fundraisers has long been "eclipsed" by a "very strong team of people who do that."

As for his life outside politics, Clark is now in the green power project business via his presidency of a holding company called Broadwing Renewables Inc. But his business career didn't start out that way.

Described by The Province back in 1995 as a "pub entrepreneur," Clark was also the voluntary chair of the Hospitality Industry Group of British Columbia -- an organization that represented the sector's views on smoking bans in pubs, hotels, restaurants, casinos and bingo halls.

Up until the late '90s, he also worked with the Winfield Group, which he described to The Vancouver Sun as distributing and operating "postal and card-vending machines, kiddie rides, anything that's not distasteful that takes a coin."

But he took a step up when Winfield invested in Canada Payphone Corp. and he was named the pay phone provider's president and chief executive officer in November 1998.

Clark's term with the company, whose board of directors included lobbyist and BC Liberal Party éminence grise Patrick Kinsella, ended in 2000.

A few years later, according to the statement of facts filed in court following the conclusion of the Basi-Virk case, he worked as a consultant for Washington Marine Group. But Clark said the truth of the matter is "absolutely not as the statement of facts represents," adding he was "never a consultant for Washington."

But, referring to the statement, he said "there's nothing you can do about those things without spending an inordinate amount of money, which I don't have."

Around the same period, he became involved in founding Green Island Energy Ltd. That's the company that has been working since 2002 to develop a waste-to-energy power project in the Village of Gold River, partnering with Covanta Holding Corp. in 2008.

But, by the time of his sister's swearing-in as premier, Clark had resigned his position as Green Island's vice-president.

As for his other power ventures, Clark said he no longer has any direct interest in proposed projects that "require discretion" on the part of the British Columbia government, rather than just routine regulatory approvals.

"My exit from my British Columbia projects was something that was a priority when Christy made the decision to get back into politics."

He said he exited those projects to guard against any appearance of conflict of interest.

Clark was also formerly the fundraising chair for the Liberal Party of Canada British Columbia, as well as heading up the party's Laurier Club in this province. The club's members must make an annual donation to the Liberals, which presently must total $1,100.

Kim Haakstad

The organization chart for the premier's office makes it appear as if Haakstad, the premier's deputy of staff, operations, reports to the premier's chief of staff Mike McDonald. But Haakstad could arguably be just as influential as McDonald.

Haakstad has long played a key role in Clark's political decision-making, being both a workhorse and body man -- accompanying the premier wherever she goes.

That role dates back to June 2001, when she was named executive assistant and later ministerial assistant to Clark, who was then a cabinet minister and the Campbell administration's deputy premier.

Haakstad left the legislative precincts just three months after her boss announced she was quitting provincial politics, working first as executive director of the Liberal Party of Canada British Columbia and then later as a senior manager with former MLA Karn Manhas's small business, the Karyon Group.

After that, between July 2007 and February 2011, Haakstad was the executive director of the Alliance of Beverage Licensees, British Columbia's private liquor lobby.

But through it all, Haakstad has been there to support Clark's political ambitions -- being the campaign director for her failed bid to be the Non-Partisan Association's mayoral candidate and later her aide on the Liberal leadership trail.

Mike McDonald

Clark's description of McDonald as "one of my oldest friends," as well as the twosome's legendary road trip to recruit BC Liberal candidates for the 1991 election, have been well publicized.

But, according to those interviewed for this story, what's been less well publicized is that McDonald's current central role in Clark's political decision-making appears to be a relatively recent development.

In part, that's because the Georgia Strait separated them for long stretches of their careers. But what changed that is the Vancouver Island resident's involvement with Clark's leadership campaign.

McDonald was named co-chair of that campaign -- and later became its manager and then the premier's chief of staff -- because he was the party insider among a team of comparative outsiders, having been involved with the BC Liberals in a way many of Clark's other longtime supporters hadn't.

That involvement includes working for Clark's predecessor, Gordon Campbell, in 1992, back when he was Vancouver's mayor. McDonald then supported Campbell's successful bid to become leader of the Liberals in 1993, with The Vancouver Sun describing him as a "campaign director."

His support for Campbell ultimately resulted in him being named director of outreach and special projects in the premier's office when the Liberals won government in 2001. But he left that centre of power after just nine months, becoming director of caucus communications before departing the legislative precincts altogether in December 2003.

Nevertheless, the fact he had made a "major contribution" to the Liberals at that time was indisputable, with Campbell also telling the legislature McDonald had "been a mentor; he's been a friend; he's someone who's always been there for us."

McDonald went on to work as a consultant under the name Rosedeer Strategies Inc., partnering with Innovative Research Group Inc. -- the company headed by 1996 Liberal election campaign director Greg Lyle -- to deliver polling services. That partnership deal was struck in 2005, the same year McDonald's then-wife Jessica was appointed the premier's deputy minister.

It was around this period that McDonald became more involved with the private sector, being a member of the team that was looking to -- as the Times Colonist put it -- "transform Ladysmith's polluted harbour from a mess of weeds and industrial garbage into a $300-million sprawling marina, hotel, residential and commercial village."

Coincidentally, according to the paper, one of the now defunct project's principals was John Haibeck, who is married to the premier's outreach director Pamela Martin.

But McDonald continued to have a hand in politics, including working on former Ontario premier Bob Rae's unsuccessful bid for the federal Liberal leadership in 2006 -- putting him at odds with Clark's ex-husband, Mark Marissen, and his candidate Stephane Dion.

It wasn't until last year, though, that he stepped back into the spotlight, providing a familiar face for provincial Liberal members and MLAs nervous about Clark, her bid to succeed Campbell and later occupancy of the premier's office.

Athana Mentzelopoulos

It wasn't a surprise when it was announced Mentzelopoulos had joined the premier's office as Clark's deputy minister of corporate priorities. But what was a surprise is that it took until Aug. 15 -- nearly six months after Clark was elected leader of the BC Liberals -- for that appointment to happen.

After all, Mentzelopoulos is one of the premier's closest friends, having been a bridesmaid at her wedding to Marissen. The two also served in Ottawa together following Chretien's election victory in 1993.

According to a federal phone directory from that time, while Clark was working in Transportation Minister Doug Young's office as his special advisor, western region, Mentzelopoulos was doing a similar job for Public Works and Government Services Minister David Dingwall.

Mentzelopoulos -- who is known for her tough management-style -- went on to serve in several other federal posts. They included being the press secretary to senior cabinet minister David Anderson and the regional director of policy and communications for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

But, by April 2004, she had joined the provincial public service as the Campbell administration's deputy minister of intergovernmental relations.

Five months later, Mentzelopoulos -- who is married to then Vancouver Sun deputy managing editor Stewart Muir -- took on additional responsibilities as the head of the government's public affairs bureau.

But, by June 2005, Mentzelopoulos had been discharged of those responsibilities and eventually replaced by Linda Morris, who had formerly worked for the new minister in charge of the bureau, Carole Taylor.

Mentzelopoulos continued on as deputy minister of intergovernmental relations before going on maternity leave. But, when she returned, it was to head up the B.C. Progress Board and the government's board resourcing and development office before leaving for the federal bureaucracy.

Now, however, like McDonald, she's back at centre of provincial power to help her friend Clark keep it.

Don Millar

Millar, who was a key part of Clark's leadership campaign team, made a name for himself as an environmental communicator. But he's now advising a premier whose rhetoric has, at times, put economic development ahead of the environment.

Millar was the former president of The Element Agency, a Vancouver and New York-based firm that was founded in 2003 and helped "businesses go green," as well as environmentally friendly politicians and parties.

Those politicians have included organic juice manufacturer and former New Democratic Party candidate Gregor Robertson during his successful first run for the Vancouver mayoralty, as well as Dion.

Millar supported Dion's 2006 bid to win the federal Liberal leadership -- a campaign that was coordinated by Marissen. In addition, The Element Agency was responsible for the party's advertising in the 2008 election.

That was the same election where the Liberals advocated for a carbon tax.

By contrast, Clark has told oil and gas executives she's "tired" of hearing people say, "No, I don't want those trees cut down," supported the controversial Prosperity Mine proposal during the leadership race, and recently rolled out a jobs plan that was light on green jobs.

Nevertheless, Millar, who recently departed the company that bought out The Element Agency in late 2008, is nothing if not a political professional.

He was involved in several campaigns for Dion's predecessor, Jean Chretien, according to marketing magazine. But it was in the competitive world of American politics that Millar -- who first worked for Clark during her bid for the Non-Partisan Association's mayoral nomination -- cut his political teeth.

In 1995, The National Journal described Millar as having been deputy national field director for Dick Gephardt's failed 1988 Democratic presidential nomination bid.

After that, between 1991 and 1994, Campaigns & Elections reported he "produced hundreds of radio and television spots" at political consulting firm Fenn King Murphy Communications before setting up Gorman Millar Media with then American vice president Al Gore's lead advance man Tom Gorman and, by 1996, the Conover-Millar Group.

But it remains to be seen whether all that experience will be enough to keep Clark in power.

Sharon White

White was on the team that won the Liberal leadership race... but she almost wasn't.

She was set to co-chair powerful cabinet minister Rich Coleman's campaign to succeed Gordon Campbell. However, when Coleman decided not to step up to the starting gate, White ended up doing the same job for Clark.

That was good news for the then-CKNW talk show host, whose supporters had been looking to recruit politicos with right-wing credentials to counterbalance their candidate's federal Liberal connections.

White, who is said to have gotten to know Clark after working on her bid to win Port Moody-Burnaby in the 1996 election, fit that bill -- both personally and by pedigree.

Her father Cyril had unsuccessfully run as a Social Credit Party candidate in Vancouver Centre in 1958, 10 years before the government named him chairman of the Workers' Compensation Board.

He was credited, in a Vancouver Sun obituary, with changing the Crown corporation from a "bureaucratic and paper-oriented organization into one that became service-oriented."

According to the paper, the government also put White in charge of a special provincial judicial panel in 1970 to overhaul the provincial court system before he briefly became its chief judge and then later president of the Vancouver Stock Exchange.

For her own part, White -- like her father -- ran unsuccessfully for the Socreds, succeeding Grace McCarthy as the party's candidate in Vancouver-Little Mountain during the 2001 election.

Also like her father, White is a lawyer -- chairing the securities and corporate finance group at Richards Buell Sutton LLP where she is a partner.

And she's had her own share of provincial and federal government appointments, having been a Partnership British Columbia director, a member of the public service commission and chair of Farm Credit Canada.

The federal New Democrats blasted that later appointment, made in 2006, along with several others doled out to Conservative supporters as being at odds with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's promise to end "patronage pork-barrelling."

But now White, who hails from the federal party's Progressive Conservative side and is reputed to have a good relationship with Kinsella, has an even bigger job.

As BC Liberal president, she's going to be responsible for seeding the grassroots of a party where none have flourished for a very long time.

[For more Tyee stories like this, see: Politics.]  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox

LATEST STORIES

The Barometer