Belinda Stronach could become Canada’s version of Arnold Schwarzenegger if she wins enough votes of paid-up party members to become head of the country’s new Conservative Party in a March election. Only 37, she’s rich, glamorous, photogenic, designer clad, and the daughter of an Austrian immigrant who is worth $600 million. If she becomes party leader, she will be its candidate for prime minister in elections later this year.
For the last two years Stronach has served as CEO of Magna International, the $13 billion auto parts manufacturer her father founded. She’s the only woman CEO of a Fortune Global 500 company based outside the U.S. Completely untested in politics, she shares with Arnold both celebrity status and a famous Democratic political connection in the U.S.: the Washington Post reports that she has a close personal and business relationship with Bill Clinton, with whom she has been constantly linked in gossip columns. She has told friends that Clinton inspired her to enter politics.
“She could become Canada’s Arnold or a morph of Bill and Hillary Clinton,” says a Conservative Party activist. “But it’s the Clinton connection that really worries Canadian conservatives.” Ms. Stronach was asked about her friendship with Clinton at her campaign launch in January. The National Post reported the exchange: “Had she consulted with pal Bill Clinton on her campaign? Next question please, she fumed.”
Four days later she did appear on the record, “I think he is a great communicator,” she told the Toronto Star about Clinton. “The American people have a lot of respect for that. He tried very much to deal with women’s issues, with minority issues. They call him the first, you know, black president of America, so you know I respect that.” Sounds like Belinda has been taken in by the Clinton blarney.
STRONACH’S TOUCHINESS IS understandable. She recently divorced her second husband, a Norwegian four-time Olympic gold medal-winning speedskater. She is thus the most eligible woman in Canada whether or not she ever becomes prime minister.
Her friends have gone out of their way to downplay salacious thinking about her friendship with Clinton. “They are good friends,” a close friend of Stronach’s told the CanWest News Service last year, “but there is not a romantic linkage. It’s just not that way.… You shouldn’t jump to conclusions that they are having a serious fling,” though the friend added Stronach is attracted to Clinton. Another friend told the wire service that Stronach is “intrigued” by Clinton’s “charisma and brainpower, particularly his knowledge of world events.” Stronach, according to that friend, said of Clinton: “‘The guy is really smart and he really knows a lot of stuff.'”
A Magna spokesman says the two met when Mr. Clinton spoke at a company event at its private golf course three years ago and characterized their friendship as a “business relationship.” Clinton spokesman Jim Kennedy said last year that the former president “has met with Ms. Stronach and her father several times over the past year to discuss the Clinton Library and Foundation.”
Last year, the two were also spotted dining together at a Toronto restaurant and sharing the Stronach family’s box at the Preakness horse race. Frank Stronach, Belinda’s father, owns Pimlico Race Course, where the Preakness is run. Last November, Ms. Stronach was being honored with a humanitarian award at a Toronto dinner when a cellphone rang. The caller was instantly connected to a speaker phone. It was Bill Clinton calling from 12 time zones away in China to congratulate Stronach and express regret for not being able to be there in person.
NONE OF THIS IS REASSURING to Canadian conservatives. Ms. Stronach wants to lower taxes but avoids talk of any budget cuts. She is running on a vague quasi-Clintonian platform of fiscal conservatism and social moderation, which includes support for gay marriage. That mixture is likely to appeal to many in the new party, which is a merger of the Canadian Alliance, a populist party based in the western provinces, and the Progressive Conservatives, a party that is strong in eastern Canada and governed the country under former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney from 1984 to 1993.
Conservative skeptics point out that Ms. Stronach’s two most high-profile supporters on the right, Mr. Mulroney and former Ontario premier Mike Harris, sit respectively on Magna’s corporate board and its international advisory committee. Other political figures are more skeptical. Joe Clark, a former Progressive Conservative prime minister and no right-winger, has attacked her inexperience and refusal to participate in more than two debates. Others are even harsher. “Her father sought to lead the Liberal party in 1988,” says one Canadian Alliance member of parliament. “Clinton adviser James Carville was a key speaker at last year’s Liberal convention and has consulted with them. The last thing we need is Clinton influence in both of our major political parties.”
Her two major opponents for the party leadership are Stephen Harper, the head of the Canadian Alliance, and Tony Clement, a former health minister in Ontario. Both are serious policy wonks and are frustrated at Stronach’s ability to avoid most debates and pour vast amounts of money into her campaign for the votes of the party members who will decide the leadership contest in March.
Supporters of both men are quietly trying to undermine the Wonderwoman image the Stronach campaign is projecting. One points to a profile in the National Post that hints that Magna is still effectively being run by her father and that her “exposure to the financial community has been limited to conference calls in which she often relies on others to field queries.” Indeed, her campaign office routinely deflects requests for interviews, including one from me. Another critic hands over a Canadian newspaper that characterizes her campaign as “Paris Hilton starring in The Simple Political Life.”
BUT THERE IS NO DENYING that she generates excitement on the campaign trail. In Calgary, a record 1,350 people bought tickets last month to her speech at the Chamber of Commerce. A poll of a sample of all Canadians in late January by Northstar Research Partners found that 41 percent would prefer Stronach to lead the Conservative Party, 28 percent would back Harper and only 9 percent plumped for Clement.
The poll generated a lot of buzz until Charles Adler, a columnist for the Winnipeg Sun, poured ice water all over it. He noted that Northstar is partly owned by John Laschinger, a Progressive Conservative campaign manager who nonetheless moonlighted last year in a successful effort to elect union-backed left-winger David Miller mayor of Toronto. Laschinger is now Stronach’s campaign manager. In his book, Leaders and Lesser Mortals, Laschinger wrote that in a campaign “one recourse is to leak to the press internal polls, if they are more favorable than the public polls. If they are not, another recourse is to fib (or quote selectively) from the findings of internal polls.” I don’t believe most of the salacious stories about Belinda and Bill, but it’s clear her spin-driven campaign is Clintonian to the core.