He was one of the best minds in the Liberal Party of Canada during the Pierre Trudeau era, but Jim Coutts was never able to make the transition to becoming an elected politician. He died at age 75 yesterday, following a lengthy battle with cancer.
Coutts was a thoughtful, decent man, but also one of keen political skills and a significant amount of cynicism about the process that became his defining identity.
In 1981, in what was considered a very cynical move, the incumbent MP in Toronto's Spadina riding, Peter Stollery, was appointed to the Senate by Trudeau so that Coutts, his key political adviser,could win the seat and join his boss in Parliamentary and, it was widely expected, a senior Cabinet role.
Spadina had been held by the Liberals for about 40 years at that point and the downtown Toronto riding was considered one of the safest in Canada for the party. But there was one very significant impediment to Trudeau's design; the voters in the riding didn't appreciate being used and taken for granted. I know that, because I had just finishing high school at the time and was planning to major in Political Science at university, so it made sense to participate in a political campaign. I volunteered for Coutts, since he was an exceptionally bright man, and the Liberals at the time were the only party that seemed capable of forming a competent, cohesive government.
As a student of Canadian History, the Liberal Party, up until that point, had demonstrated the most consistent and effective ability for governance. It was the party of Laurier, King, Pearson and Trudeau and as a teenager, the opportunity to become part of that was thrilling.
However, canvassing door-to-door, the sneers that routinely greeted me when "Trudeau" and "election" was discussed made it clear the wind was blowing in a different direction, at least in Spadina.
The NDP had nominated Dan Heap, who had been one of the two local city alderman for Ward 6. Heap, a United Church minister, held on to what even then were dated socialist politics, but he was a man of unquestionable integrity who wasn't afraid to have honest discussions. Heap was someone I respected because he had the courage to disagree with constituents instead of the traditional political practice of placating them in public for the sake of votes only to do a subsequent about-face.
Coutts' campaign was in trouble.
Having worked later on with Hollywood movies studios, an analogy between movie stars and directors and big name politicians is apparent.
Just like some very talented directors and movie stars, politicians make what are obviously bad decisions, leaving a lot of people wonder how it is they come to reach such questionable choices. Having seen it up close, it seems to me the answer lies in their being surrounded by sycophants to continuously tell them how brilliant they are, how wonderful every idea is, no matter how clearly ill-judged, and are afraid to contradict them.
Just like Hollywood, politics is filled with such sycophants. One of the things that those looking from the outside may have a hard time relating to is that, when people are constantly telling you that you are in effect an infallible genius, eventually you may start to believe them.
Jim Coutts was surrounded by people who were telling him that he has guaranteed to win the seat and so he ran a by-the book, safe, uncontroversial by-election campaign. As someone on the ground and seeing what he was being told by his senior staff wasn't tallying with what I was hearing from people I was speaking with, I, a nobody high school kid, asked if I could have a private meeting. Somewhat to my surprise, he generously gave me quite a bit of time one afternoon in private to tell him what I thought about how the campaign was going. And I was completely upfront with him.
I told Coutts that people in the riding were upset about the way he was parachuted in and that there was a lot of disenchantment with the Liberals for causing an unnecessary election for his and Trudeau's benefit. Coutts asked what suggestions I had and I told him that running a safe campaign wasn't going to work and that if he didn't shake things up, he would lose on election day. A suggestion I had was that he might suggest decriminalizing marijuana. This was in 1981, and in retrospect, in was clearly extremely naive, if not outright ridiculous to suggest such a thing back then. But I did come up with what I thought was a logical justification in that Spadina included the University of Toronto and legalizing pot would have strong appeal for the tens of thousands of students who were eligible to vote in the riding.
Coutts listened patiently, and not the least bit condescendingly told me that he agreed that marijuana shouldn't be criminalized, but that it was just too radical a move. I told him that failing that, he would need to do something radical or he was headed for a loss. Jim was a pretty low-key guy and he said he could only be himself and leave things to the voters. Whether he was being nice and placating an enthusiastic young campaign worker or whether he believed me, I couldn't say. I do know that if I were in his shoes and my political experts were telling me things were going great while a shaggy teenager I barely recognized was telling me the opposite, I wouldn't change my campaign strategy on the advice of someone who looked like he should be carrying around Scooby snacks in his pocket.
But Coutts lost the by-election to Dan Heap.
He ran again against Heap in the General Election of 1984. For that election, I was Vice President of the riding's youth association and played a bigger role in things. But the same problems persisted. One of the most memorable experiences I have from politics is the time that I tried to explain to one of Coutts' senior campaign advisers that the same problematic issues from the previous by-election race were still facing him. The adviser, who went on to become an MP for the Liberals in her own right, told me that I had nothing to worry about.
At this point I should insert that Spadina in the early 80's had a large Italian-Canadian population and because of immigration policies instituted by Pierre Trudeau, the Liberals assumed they had the ethnic vote, every ethnic vote, wrapped up.
The problem, as she saw it, was that the last election was a by-election and the Italians weren't really aware that they needed to go to the polls. But for the general election, there was enough attention to the race that they would turn up in large enough numbers to elect the Liberal.
I came away from that conversation astounded and shaking my head, knowing that Coutts was heading for another inevitable defeat. After that loss, Coutts gave up trying to win elected office.
Which was really too bad. Because despite his lack of street acumen for politics, he was the sort of person who had the sensibilities and the decency to be able to shape good public policy. Things have changed a lot since then, both for the Liberal Party and for the country. With the death of Jim Coutts, Canada has lost a good man whose behind-the-scenes influence changed the country in many ways, some of which still affects all of us.