02/11/2013 05:06 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

Lessons For The GOP From Canada's Jason Kenney

How did a 44-year old single white male, who still lives at home with his mom and is sometimes compared to a beaver, become a likely prospect to be the next Canadian prime minister based on "the formidable network he’s built at the heart of ethnic communities"?

Jason Kenney, Canada's immigration minister, did it mostly by pure shoe leather.

Kenney is the subject of a profile in Maclean's that was flagged this morning in Ben Domenech's morning e-mail, The Transom.

The piece, by Alec Castonguay, explains how, with the help of Kenney's leadership, Canada's conservatives "estimate that they captured 42 per cent of the country’s ethnic vote last election—more than 30 per cent of their total vote, and more than any other party."

American conservatives - whose relationship with minorities has gotten worse over the last decade - have taken notice, according to the article. And in fact, Kenney will meet in Washington with Republican officials on March 18, including a meeting at the Republican National Committee, according to an RNC source.

Kenney is a prototype of what I wrote about in my January magazine piece on the need for a shift in Republican culture:

Tactically, they need better candidates, and younger, more diverse people at all levels: political consultants, field operatives, grassroots volunteers. But to attract organic support from young people, women and minorities and continue harvesting new faces, conservatism needs an attitude adjustment: get hungry, get humble, and get to know more people who aren't like you.

A cultural shift in the GOP -- more youth and more real relationships with people outside the traditional conservative demographic -- will go a long way toward fixing the party's other big problem: the idea that you can persuade people by talking at them, and not with them.

Witness the evidence in Kenney's schedule:

He has shaken thousands of hands, put away hundreds of very spicy meals and pulled off his shoes an incalculable number of times in entering mosques, temples or integration centres to give speeches. His methods are old school, far removed from social networks, where human contact, proximity and the fight for values undertaken by the Conservative party have gradually won over a large number of new Canadians.

... The minister has been on the road three weekends out of four. Some Sundays, in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal, he takes part in as many as 20 cultural activities, starting at dawn in a temple and ending in darkness at a partisan reception. “In the last election campaign, I’d done so many that I became confused: I bowed to the wrong God in a church. I looked completely ridiculous,” he admits, laughing.

... It’s a rhythm he manages to maintain, but it doesn’t stop him from bottoming out from time to time. “When I see the weekend arrive with 20 or 25 scheduled events—not counting travel—I sometimes feel a profound fatigue take over. I have to motivate myself by thinking that every gesture will count over the long term,” he says. It’s also a physical challenge. “People from the communities like to touch you, to embrace you, to hug you, and physical contact isn’t my strong suit.”

There are a few other takeaways from the piece:

  1. Kenney figured out a long time ago that the minority vote would take on growing importance, and he had to fight against the instinct of some in his party to dismiss even trying to win them over, an attitude on display among some American conservatives even now.

    Kenney and current Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, at a bar in 1994, discussed the future of the party.

    “Even with a united right,” [Kenney] said, “conservatism has peaked. Votes are becoming stagnant.” Conservatives, he added, would have to cross the “final frontier”: that of immigrants. “Look at demographic trends—it’s the future. Immigrants have the same values as us, we have to talk to them, to convince them.” Harper, skeptical, responded that this very liberal segment of the population would never vote Conservative. Better, in his opinion, to focus on native-born Canadians.

  2. Conservatives have not hesitated to use the advantages of being in power, otherwise known as patronage.

    Six to 10 times per year, his team organizes “friendship days” on the Hill, where leaders from cultural communities—spiritual leaders, heads of community centres, presidents of ethnic chambers of commerce, etc.—can arrange to meet ministers of their choosing. “It gives a chance for the communities to be heard at the highest level in Ottawa, and they appreciate the gesture,” says Agop Evereklian, who was Kenney’s chief of staff from 2008 to 2010 and, until recently, chief of staff to former Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay.

    That access, however, makes teeth grind on the Hill. “They receive unfair treatment—effectively unofficial lobbying,” says one civil servant who requested anonymity.

    ...In 2008, Kenney put in place the Community Historical Recognition Program, with a13.5-million budget to finance commemorative projects and the erection of statues to honour key historical figures. Italian, Jewish, Indian and Chinese communities have all profited abundantly from it.

  3. Canadian conservatives are hiring minorities, and it's making a difference.

    Kenney insisted that all his cabinet colleagues integrate into their inner circles Canadians of immigrant stock. His own staff is one of the most multi-ethnic, with political assistants in all the big cities who make connections with community leaders. It’s a veritable spiderweb that captures information in the field and transmits it to Ottawa every day.

  4. Kenney listens aggressively, as Harper Reed would say.

    The minister follows news first-hand by closely following the ethnic media, which he has translated and reads every morning as he wakes up. “I look at it before I read the national papers,” he says.

A paper from Kenney's office on winning over minorities stated that "once charmed ... ethnic communities could stay loyal for a very long time," according to Castonguay. The GOP has to hope that minorities in the U.S. still feel open to being charmed.



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