Mike Magee: Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Right Hand Man

City Hall’s secret war room is tranquil this day. Here on the third floor, tucked into the back of Mayor Gregor Robertson’s compound, Mike Magee leans back in his chair and speaks in a voice appropriate to the cool-down segment of a yoga class. Even when he refers to one problem person as an “idiot” and “complete motherfucker,” his tone is gentle, reflective. Things seem under control—for the moment. Last week, he squired Robertson around San Francisco, a tour that included a Twittered and photographed meeting with his doppelgänger, good-looking, progressive mayor Gavin Newsom, whose priorities happen to be the same as Robertson’s: homelessness and making his city the greenest in the world.

Earlier today, Magee monitored a special council meeting on the dangers of oil-tanker traffic—a topic that generated a pleasing amount of media coverage—before heading off to a joint meeting to plan Robertson’s fall business trip to China. Two days hence, according to Magee’s plan, the combative head of the Vancouver athletic commission will be fired and replaced by the city’s former Olympics planner. And, as the afternoon winds down, the sun filtering onto the room’s few objects—an abstract painting of a Downtown Eastside alley, piles of paper, an empty Fresca can, a glass coffee mug with its oily dregs—city manager Penny Ballem steps in for a two-minute conference on the tactics for getting a particular motion to council before the summer break. Such strategizing happens dozens of times a month, and it always involves the man whose job it is to make sure the mayor looks good, the deals get done, and the revolution at City Hall is carried out with maximum efficiency.

Enter the Rainmaker

Chiefs of staff are stock characters in every political drama—mysterious but powerful Rasputins, alleged puppet masters of hapless politicians. There’s truth in there, for sure: they have to be the bad cops in every administration; control freaks—every bump is the end of the world; and master media wranglers, developing relationships with key reporters. They need to know what their politicians are going to think and say before those politicians know it themselves. With their bosses hindered by a time-sucking toll of meetings and ceremonial duties, the chiefs are key to the essential task of politics—turning the platform into reality—while emptying the fire extinguisher on unexpected eruptions. Magee occupies that role fully. He’s at the mayor’s side constantly, often seemingly mesmerized by his BlackBerry but with an ear cocked for problems. He quietly figures out when the mayor should avoid reporters with career-ending questions and when he should apologize. He castigates those who’ve blundered (including Robertson) and talks tough with other levels of government. He’s gone from saying he would stay in the job for only six months to becoming so enmeshed in the workings of city hall that people in the party have to remind him he’s supposed to be a strategist, not a bureaucrat.

When the mayor’s “fucking NPA hacks” comment exploded during the dog days of summer, it was Magee who was directing strategy (stay calm, remember the West End renters support us, let’s figure out a better way to talk to this group) while giving developers advice about how to deal with rough waters ahead. But he’s taken the role to another level because he’s so tight with the mayor and hypnotic in his ability to paint detailed, compelling visions of a progressive new nirvana. He also draws on a new power base of funders and green entrepreneurs. “Mike is very much a rainmaker in the way I could never be. He’s very gifted. He’s able to put people together and move files,” says city councillor Geoff Meggs, who has been chief of staff to both a premier (Glen Clark) and a mayor (Larry Campbell).

Magee has connected Robertson with not just the likes of San Fran’s Newsom but big fish like Sir Richard Branson. Many of Magee’s contacts were developed through Joel Solomon, the wealthy and influential patron of social-enterprise investment in Vancouver, who has developed enormous faith in Magee’s ability to carry out complex, politically challenging ideas. “He’s always shown this quality of strategic astuteness,” says Solomon. “He has very strong instincts about how to get things done.” Solomon adds, in his tactful way: “And he’s unafraid to express himself”—an understatement to anyone who’s received one of his blistering emails. Not everyone is enchanted. Some describe Magee as prone to unnecessary cry-wolf crisis generation, information hoarding, and believing that a considerable proportion of the world’s population is not all that smart. But no one is willing to cross him.

The Roots of Change

He wasn’t always thus, this 45-year-old power broker with his dark-blue suit and white dress shirt (a near-duplicate of the mayor’s outfit today), his silvering goatee, and his gravitas-lending glasses. On my interior film roll, I see another Mike Magee. Back in the 1980s, he was a key player in the Toronto anti-war movement, selling Christmas trees in schoolyard lots to support his cause. In January 1990, he appeared in the pages of the Toronto Star as part of a group of protesters who craftily paid to get into an Empire Club lunch featuring a NATO secretary-general as a speaker and then interrupted proceedings with uncomfortable questions about low-level flights over Labrador.

The questions escalated. As the Star described it, “A plainclothes Metro police officer tackled the first protester, Michael Magee, the Toronto Disarmament Network campaign co-ordinator. They bounced off chairs and tumbled through a door into an anteroom.” Magee, along with others, was taken down to the 52nd Division for breach of the peace but released without charges—one of several encounters with the law in those years.Magee emerged from the working-class Toronto suburb of Weston (father a Kodak employee, mother an Eaton’s clerk) to play junior-A hockey, then got a master’s in political science from York University after a lot of Latin American studies and trips across Central America.

For a decade he worked with activist outfits. At first, it was peace groups of various kinds: after the disarmament network, the White Ribbon campaign (in response to the Montreal Massacre), the Coalition for Gun Control. “Mike’s always been the connector, the people person who brought everyone together,” says political commentator Bill Tieleman, who shared a house with Magee in Toronto in the late 1980s. “Mike showed leadership skills at an early age. People looked to him to figure out the way forward.”Then it was the environment, after his then-partner, Karen Mahon, took a job here heading the local Greenpeace. For almost a decade, Magee, as the communications director and fundraiser for the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, appeared sporadically on the public stage, haranguing NDP premier Glen Clark for insufficient environmentalism, celebrating a legal victory that quashed a mine set to open on Native land, threatening a forest company if it moved into a protected watershed. 

Around 2000, he left Sierra Legal to form Convergence Strategies and disappeared from public view. (His now-wife, Suzanne Hawkes, has since joined, bringing her leadership training skills to their work with a constellation of linked foundations and nonprofits.) He was still working with environmental and Native groups, helping create what would become the Great Bear Rainforest and pulling northern bands together on environmental issues. Magee advised the Taku River Tlingit nation in its fight against the proposed Redfern mine. Travelling frequently to Atlin, he became a friend to the community. Before he arrived, says Chief John Ward, the Tlingit couldn’t get the government’s attention. Magee helped get them in the door. “He just knew the system. We really miss him.”

The Way Forward

In one sense, that Mike Magee has vanished, replaced by this new chief of staff who refers casually and frequently to productive conversations with Premier Gordon Campbell, with Housing Minister Rich Coleman, with mining magnate/philanthropist Frank Giustra. But it’s all really one skill set, whether you’re organizing an anti-war rally with a collection of activists operating at diverse levels of discipline or you’re planning a careful rollout of “greenest mayor in the world” actions, photo-ops, and announcements. You identify a target, keep disparate groups onside, play the media. And just as skills carry over, so do values. A lifetime of deep belief in the inherent problems of militarization, resource extraction, and global energy consumption doesn’t simply end. Instead, it blooms in the presence of the perfect mate and political vehicle—a man like Gregor Robertson, whose values are essentially Green but who is willing to do whatever it takes to change the world a little. Magee—networker, bargainer, cajoler, and, when necessary, enforcer—is at the heart of a group committed to transforming an idealistic young organic farmer and businessman into a winning political brand. Alongside is Bob Penner, the pollster and strategist who loathes being in the public eye but knows campaigns inside out from 25 years of working on them. The two have been entwined for more than two decades.

 Magee’s Toronto Disarmament Network was a floor below Penner’s Canadian Peace Alliance in the late ’80s. They migrated to Vancouver around the same time. Here, Magee met Joel Solomon, who had already built his wealth and connections into a major force, investing in new-style social-purpose businesses and giving grants to old-style environmental and social-justice groups. Magee also introduced Solomon to Penner, who was looking for investors for his polling business; Solomon was happy to put money into someone who was helping NDP candidates and social-action groups push their issues. 

Robertson, whose Happy Planet juice company Solomon had invested in early, finished the set. Solomon lacked the skills to navigate the rough world of campaign politics, but he saw that here was a new kind of politician, one he wanted to support: “There’s a need for leaders,” he says, “who are deeply rooted in values and competent enough to do something about them.” (Magee and Penner took some persuading. When Robertson first talked about going into politics, Magee wasn’t bowled over. He admired Robertson’s values, his connections to social-venture businesses, his lack of rigid ideology. “But I thought he was the most unlikely guy. So earnest. And he had no political experience.”) 

Solomon also provided money, contributing heavily to Robertson’s campaign as MLA for Vancouver-Fairview in 2005, which Magee ended up running. The effect of all that cash startled traditional NDP organizers, who were used to working with dedicated volunteers, not campaigns flush enough to hire door-knockers and phone banks. Meantime, Magee had become involved in Vancouver’s political scene. He joined the COPE executive in 2002 as it struggled under the burden of civic victory. “I saw a bunch of people who had really great values and who really didn’t have a clue about how to hold power,” he says. Three years later, he became part of the group that split off to form Vision Vancouver. Many credit him with the skills and focus that turned it into a viable party. Another two years on, it was the perfect landing place for Robertson, who’d become disenchanted with provincial politics. When Vision swept City Hall in November 2008, it altered politics in Vancouver. Not quite left, not quite right, it aimed at a shifting centre that has green ideals and doesn’t like to see homeless people on the street, yet doesn’t want to raise taxes.

Fly United 

If the party thrives, it will be because of Magee’s ability to translate that nebulous political concept into something the public understands and supports. If all works out as they hope, it will be in part because Magee has made Robertson’s future his life, not just a job. They’re enmeshed to a degree unusual even for a chief of staff. They’re friends. They live two blocks apart on the same street, play in the same hockey league, and talk in a way that makes it hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. “Mike has brilliant political instincts,” says Solomon. “He definitely guides Gregor. He tells him, ‘Here’s the outcomes; here’s the background on this guy.’ But Gregor is fierce about what he believes, and if you ask Mike, he’d say, ‘I gave him my best advice—maybe he’ll take it.’ ”Larry Campbell and Sam Sullivan both came into the mayor’s office unprepared, with chiefs of staff they chose in a rush and political colleagues who proved to be their worst enemies.

Lacking a united team, they were never able to challenge the bureaucracy in the way this administration has—firing city manager Judy Rogers and installing a different kind of city manager with orders to remake the culture at 12th and Cambie. “My thing is to try to empower Penny as much as possible,” says Magee. “But we’re very insistent that the bureaucracy take direction from the politicians.”There’s an endgame to all of this. Magee says Robertson is committed to the city for the long haul. “Presumably the province is going to make the four-year change,” he says, referring to the coming shift from elections every three years. “So he’s going to have four years after that. It’s going to take at least that long to make the changes and develop the ideas that he’s got and the team has.”Magee and Solomon see Robertson as growing into his role, learning, getting stronger. “He takes constructive criticism really well. He doesn’t get insecure or defensive. He totally adjusts. You say, ‘You fucked this up—here’s what you need to do next time.’ He doesn’t take it personally. There’s not a lot of people like that in public life.” And beyond City Hall? Provincial leader? Premier? A cabinet post? The team all agree that Robertson has further to go. From Magee’s office, the future looks bright. It’s his job to make it stay that way. VM


To know more about the political agendas of Mayor Gregor Robertson, Mike Magee, or Joel Solomon, check out these articles:

The Unlikely Revolutionary: Joel Solomon has put his millions into a new business-first socialism. By Frances Bula

Electric Cars: How Vancouver’s bringing battery-powered vehicles to our streets. By Budd Stanley

Read up on other prominent political figures and issues:

HST Revolt: Gordon Campbell is suffering through his toughest year as premier. By Jesse Spencer

The Rise Of The Squamish Nation: A First Nation determined to prosper. By Megan Stewart

Nazanin Afshin-Jam: Former Miss World Canada talks about her activism in Iran and the dangers of carrying on. By Gary Stephen Ross

Sadhu Johnston: The new Deputy City Manager on turning Chicago green and sustainable, his middle name, and worms in the basement. By Frances Bula