Ralph Lean, one of Toronto's best-known political fundraisers who worked against Rob Ford in the last mayoral campaign, has changed his tune and says he will back the mayor in 2014.
Mr. Lean, a fundraising co-chair of George Smitherman's failed campaign in 2010, says he believes Mr. Ford has gotten the "big things" right.
"I loved the first budget where he spent less money than the year before," Mr. Lean said. "I never saw that at any level of government. I loved the two union contracts. Got rid of jobs for life. I love the outsourcing of the garbage. Spectacular."
Mr. Lean is sending an early signal that the mayor could find support in unexpected places when he runs for re-election.
Despite Mr. Ford's gaffes and his shaky leadership of council, the mayor will enjoy advantages in his re-election fight he could only dream of in 2010, when Bay Street money would barely touch the gadfly councillor.
Mr. Lean is senior counsel at Bay Street law firm Cassels Brock and a long-time Tory. When he worked on Mr. Smitherman's campaign, he helped to rake in more than $2.17-million, more than twice the $1.08-million Mr. Ford's campaign raised in 2010.
Despite all the numbers involved, it's hard to quantify the impact of somebody like Mr. Lean, who has chaired or co-chaired fundraising teams for Toronto mayoralty candidates since 1980.
That's because most serious mayoralty contenders spend the maximum amount allowed no matter what they have in their coffers. They generally borrow what they need and work to pay off their debts after the campaign.
For instance, in 2010, both Mr. Ford and Mr. Smitherman spent nearly to the limit.
Mr. Smitherman finished the race debt-free. Mr. Ford finished 2010 with a $639,526.60 debt and is now facing a campaign finance audit that will explore, among other issues, whether Mr. Ford broke the rules by borrowing money from a family holding company.
A "Harmony" fundraising dinner for the mayoralty candidates, which Mr. Lean helped organize, cleared Mr. Ford's debt in one night.
A well-connected volunteer fundraising chief can take some pressure off the campaign staff, according to Nick Kouvalis, who ran Mr. Ford's 2010 campaign and is in the running to return in 2014.
"It makes all the world of difference. When the campaign manager doesn't have to worry about that issue because he has a competent and qualified fundraising chair, then more time can be devoted to the actual nuts and bolts of the campaign," he said.
However, veteran campaign manager John Laschinger warned there are some pitfalls that come with putting prominent volunteers in charge of fundraising.
"One of the advantages of a paid political campaign organizer such as myself is at the end of the campaign I walk away," he said. "My job's done, I got paid for it, thank you very much … without talking about Ralph Lean specifically, that's one of the risks you inherit when you pick a high-profile person like that."
Mr. Laschinger, a Conservative strategist who ran David Miller's campaigns in 2003 and 2006 and Joe Pantalone's in 2010, said Mr. Lean exaggerates his ability to raise funds.
"Ralph raised nothing for us in Miller's second campaign [in] 2006. He had difficulty getting a cheque for $2,500 out of his own company, out of his law firm," Mr. Laschinger said. "He's a legend in his own mind."
Disappointed with Mr. Miller's performance in office, Mr. Lean told Mr. Miller in 2009 that he wouldn't raise money for him if he ran for re-election, then went public with the split.
Mr. Lean said Mr. Laschinger's comments were not "worthy of a response."
"My record speaks for itself," he added.
He referred The Globe and Mail to Robert Foster, the chief executive officer of boutique investment firm Capital Canada Ltd., and a prominent supporter of politics and the arts, who disputed Mr. Laschinger's take.
"My observation would be [Mr. Lean] has been very successful at raising the funds that are required," Mr. Foster said.
However, even Mr. Lean recognizes money only goes so far. Mr. Ford's re-election chances rest on how well he governs and campaigns, and on who decides to run against him.
"I chaired Smitherman's campaign and [Mr. Ford] killed us. We had all the money. But we got killed. Money might be overrated."