The man who was the brains behind Rob Ford's campaign for mayor is now backing potential Ford rival John Tory.
Nick Kouvalis was at Mr. Ford's side as he rose from a cranky suburban councillor who no one took very seriously to a front-runner in the 2010 campaign and finally to mayor of Canada's biggest city. He helped fashion the populist Ford Nation movement, with its slogans like Stop the Gravy Train and Respect for Taxpayers.
Now, fed up with Mr. Ford, he has joined a backroom effort to support Mr. Tory if and when he decides to run against Mr. Ford in this October's election.
Those close to the Tory organization say that the high-profile political operative has been acting as an adviser, talking to Mr. Tory about why he should run and how he might shape a campaign and also talking to fellow Tory supporters about tactics and timing.
"He has been involved very actively in framing up the campaign," says city councillor Jaye Robinson of Ward 25 (Don Valley West). "I would say he is a key adviser on the campaign."
Mr. Ford fired Ms. Robinson from his cabinet-like executive committee last June after she called on him to give fuller answers about reports of a crack video. She says she approached Mr. Tory last summer and has met with him twice since then to talk about a mayoral run.
"I kind of see John as the whole package – socially liberal and fiscally conservative. He has that whole statesman thing going on." As for Mr. Kouvalis, she said: "I think that it's very telling that the man who successfully brought Rob Ford to power is now on John Tory's team."
Telling, it is. Mr. Kouvalis was briefly chief of staff for the mayor after Mr. Ford took office in December, 2010, and continued to advise him and his brother Doug. But he soon began to differ with the Fords, telling them they were bungling things by failing to build support on city council on key votes.
Last summer, Mr. Kouvalis was telling people he would neither work for Mr. Ford in 2014 nor join a rival campaign. But by the fall, Mr. Kouvalis was meeting with Tory supporters.
Asked on Tuesday about his role, Mr. Kouvalis said, "The only thing that I would say is that if John Tory decides to run, he's going to be the mayor. I think he can get things done. It takes votes on council to get things done."
The irony is rich. One of his tricks in the 2010 campaign, Mr. Kouvalis once boasted, was a bluff intended to spook Mr. Tory out of running against Mr. Ford. A Ford campaign member called Mr. Tory's talk-radio show and questioned his integrity. Mr. Tory later said the call did not affect his decision to pass on running in 2010.
Whether Mr. Tory will pass again this year is the $64,000 question. Neither he nor Olivia Chow, the NDP MP considered to be Mr. Ford's other big-name potential rival, has declared an intention. But Mr. Tory, a former Ontario Conservative leader who came a close second in the 2003 race for mayor, has a strong and experienced group of backers with ties to both the Liberal and Conservative parties.
It is hard to say for sure till he announces something whether Mr. Tory will throw his hat in, but if he does, it won't hurt to have Mr. Kouvalis on his team. For Mr. Ford, on the other hand, it is a bitter blow indeed.