Justin Trudeau is banking on multimillionaire Stephen Bronfman to turn around the Liberal Party's financial fortunes in order to take on the formidable Conservative fundraising machine.
Although Mr. Bronfman – a philanthropist and executive chairman of Claridge Inc., the Montreal-based private-equity firm started by his father – is a relative newcomer to politics, he will be a key player for the Liberals. Fundraising is crucial in order to counter Tory attacks in the periods between elections. A long-time family friend of Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Bronfman will also be a top adviser to the Liberal Leader.
Tanned and dressed casually in a blue blazer and crisp checked shirt, Mr. Bronfman exuded confidence Wednesday at the Liberal summer caucus over what he had to do to fill Liberal coffers.
His job is made easier, he suggested, because Mr. Trudeau is a hot commodity.
Mr. Bronfman should know. He is the grandson of Samuel Bronfman, from the storied Canadian family that made its business fortune in Quebec by building the Seagram empire. But unlike most of his family members who have since left Canada, Stephen Bronfman stayed and continues to be a mainstay on the Montreal charity circuit.
"Justin is very, very saleable," he said to reporters. "He's got a great name and people want to find out who he is."
Mr. Bronfman helped raised $2-million for Mr. Trudeau's leadership campaign. In a separate interview with The Globe and Mail, he said that 25 per cent of what was raised then was through on-line donations – an area that will be a focus of his efforts in his new role. It's a way of reaching the younger demographic that seems to be intrigued by Mr. Trudeau.
"It's part of the three-pronged attack," he said. "You have online, you have direct mail, you have private events. Online is something that is growing in every area for anyone in fundraising … smaller donations for a younger demographic. That's how you reach out to the next gens."
Mr. Bronfman said younger Canadians don't respond to direct-mail appeals and can't afford to write a cheque at a cocktail party – but he suggested that they will donate in smaller amounts.
For example, Trudeau officials believe that their leader's position on legalizing marijuana will be an issue that will be a popular one and will help raise money.
But Mr. Bronfman is well aware of what he's up against. The Tories are strong fundraisers and were able to use their war chest to define previous Liberal leaders as weak and ineffective.
Mr. Bronfman was introduced to MPs and senators at the caucus retreat, where they heard about the progress of their fundraising and membership.
The Liberals' supporter class, created to increase flagging membership, has grown to 250,000, from 127,000 last April. As well, there are now 56,000 members, compared with fewer than 20,000 when Mr. Trudeau took over, according to one official.
More importantly, for the first time in years, there were more Liberal donors than the Tories had contributing to their war chest. Elections Canada's second-quarter results for 2013 show that the Tories had 30,437 individual donors and the Grits 38,014.
The Conservatives collected $4.8-million in that second quarter compared with $2.9-million for the Liberals. However, the Grits are still pleased and are working to replicate the Tories' consistent ability to raise funds through small amounts donated by many people. The average Liberal donation now is $77. The maximum allowed for an individual to donate is $1,200.
The Liberals had relied on big corporate donations before political financing legislation that banned union and corporate donations was introduced in 2004 – and later the Tories began phasing out the per-vote taxpayer subsidy. It will be eliminated by 2015.
The changes to political financing hit the Liberals hard, forcing them into trying to build lists of supporters and push for small donations from a bigger pool.
To further beef up his fundraising team, Mr. Trudeau added a full-time fundraising director, Christina Topp. The former World Wildlife Fund official begins next week. She had previously worked with Gerald Butts at WWF. Mr. Butts, Mr. Trudeau's top aide and architect of his successful leadership bid, is also a savvy fundraiser – during his tenure at WWF he helped raise about $25-million a year.
Mr. Bronfman is hoping to win back the Jewish community, whose fundraising dollars have been going more and more to the Tories because of the party's pro-Israel stand.
"We'll work hard on that," said Mr. Bronfman, adding that "Stephen Harper has never been to Israel and I took Justin there five years ago and he was referring at the end of the trip to Israel as 'we.' So I thought that was pretty good."
Mr. Bronfman will be involved with big fundraising events. He is a good friend of environmentalist David Suzuki and sits as a director on the board of the David Suzuki Foundation.
As for selling Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Bronfman said that his candour is "playing well across all ages."
"I think people today want to hear that."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the World Wildlife Fund.