Hamilton

Burlington mayoral candidate slams election survey's 'inflammatory' claims about her

A Burlington mayoral candidate is seething over an election-focused telephone campaign that she says makes false statements about her positions on domestic violence, the hijab, and unemployment.

City coun. Marianne Meed Ward says she is being targeted in a defamatory phone poll

Burlington councillor and mayoral candidate Marianne Meed Ward is seen here at a news conference at Queen's Park about school closures from 2017. Meed Ward says she is being targeted by a defamatory phone survey in the lead up to the municipal election. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

A Burlington mayoral candidate is seething over an election-focused telephone campaign that she says makes false statements about her positions on domestic violence, the hijab, and unemployment.

Ward 2. Coun. Marianne Meed Ward says she first received word from residents on Sunday afternoon she was being mentioned in a telephone survey conducted by Toronto-based consulting firm Campaign Research — which counts controversial conservative political strategist Nick Kouvalis as one of its heads.

Meed Ward called the statements made about her "untrue, inflammatory and defamatory." Campaign Research denies that.

"This is heinous and it needs to stop," Meed Ward said.

Burlington resident Jim Young told CBC News that he received a call Monday afternoon.

It started off like a fairly regular political poll, he said, consisting of rating candidates on a scale of one to 10, and indicating how certain he was that he would support a particular candidate.

It was when Young said that he planned to vote for Meed Ward that the tone of the questions the person was asking changed, he said.

I think it's absolutely cowardly that whoever is doing this is hiding in the dark shadows and refusing to say who they are.- Marianne Meed Ward, Burlington councillor and mayoral candidate

"At that point, the questions became very strange," Young said. The woman conducting the poll said she was going to give several statements about Meed Ward, and instructed Young to indicate on a scale of one to 10 how likely he was to change his vote because of them.

Young said he did not record the conversation, but started taking notes on the back of an envelope because the questions seemed so shocking.

'I was absolutely horrified'

In one instance, he said, the woman conducting the interview said Meed Ward once said abused women should "put up with abuse to save the marriage."

In another, she said Meed Ward believes that "all development should be opposed." In yet another, she said that Meed Ward believes that women who are "forced to wear the hijab find it liberating," Young said.

"I was absolutely horrified. It almost seems like character assassination," Young said.

Nick Kouvalis owns a campaign marketing and research firm and is a veteran of Conservative party campaigns. (Nick Kouvalis/Facebook)

He told the woman conducting the survey as much, and she said it was being carried out by Campaign Research. She then offered a telephone number in case he wanted to complain.

Young said he called the number, and got an automated recording for Campaign Research.

Meed Ward said she wants to know who hired the company to carry out the survey.

"I think it's absolutely cowardly that whoever is doing this is hiding in the dark shadows and refusing to say who they are," she said.

Company denies survey was defamatory

In an email, Campaign Research Principal Richard Ciano said the company will not "disclose, discuss, confirm, or deny the existence of any matter relating to who its clients are, or may be, or any work Campaign Research Inc. may perform on behalf of its clients unless specifically required to do so by law, or unless specifically directed to do so by our clients."

In a statement sent to Meed Ward on behalf of Campaign Research that was shared with CBC News, lawyer Evan Presvelos said, "We vehemently contest your characterization of the subject statements as 'defamatory.'"

He also said the poll was conducted for "another market research firm, whose identity we cannot disclose due to confidentiality."

Burlington Mayor Rick Goldring says he had nothing to do with the phone survey. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

In his email, Ciano also provided previous articles written about, or by, Meed Ward. One was a Toronto Sun opinion piece from 2004, wherein Meed Ward describes the hijab as "the new symbol of female empowerment."

"Even though I choose not to wear one, I celebrate the goals of hijab: See me not my makeup; don't hate me because I'm a woman; I refuse to conform to impossible Western standards of external beauty; beauty is inside," she wrote.

In another article that Ciano said came from a 1998 issue of Christian magazine Faith Today, Meed Ward talks about divorce from an evangelical perspective.

"I don't believe divorce is always wrong," she wrote. "Most of us can accept divorce arising from infidelity, abandonment or physical abuse. Even so, my first choice is always to encourage the couple to try very hard to work through these difficult situations."

Meed Ward said the things the survey claims she said are completely untrue, and not supported by the materials provided by the company.

Mayor says he had nothing to do with poll

In a statement, Meed Ward's camp said they believe the survey might violate campaign finance rules, as only registered candidates and third-party advertisers are allowed to spend money to influence the outcome of an election — and there are no third-party advertisers registered in Burlington.

Burlington Mayor Rick Goldring, who is running for reelection against Meed Ward, said he had nothing to do with the poll.

"It was definitely not me. It's certainly not my style," he said.

Campaign Research said it "cannot account for whether candidates or third parties comply with the Municipal Elections Act."

"It is the responsibility of each candidate and/or third parties to ensure they observe the said legislation," Presvelos wrote.

Kouvalis, and by extension his company, is no stranger to controversy.

He's a political strategist who has worked for late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, current Toronto Mayor John Tory, and former federal Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch.

He resigned as Leitch's campaign manager in early 2017 after he called a constitutional expert who was critical of Leitch's policies a "cuck" — short for cuckold — on Twitter. The term is used online by white nationalists and members of the alt-right.

Kouvalis also courted controversy in an interview with Maclean's magazine earlier this month when he admitted to putting "fake news" on Twitter, accusing the Trudeau government of giving $351 million to Hamas, which is listed as a terrorist organization by Public Safety Canada. 

He told the magazine he made the false claim simply "to make the left go nuts."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

With files from Peter Zimonjic

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