A ‘Shark Tank’ celebrity hopes to emulate Trump’s path from reality TV to political power
Special To The Washington Post · Alan Freeman · WORLD, THE-AMERICAS · Jan 22, 2017 – 11:09 AM
Special To The Washington Post
OTTAWA, Canada – “Canada’s Donald Trump” may seem at first like a contradiction in terms. But Kevin O’Leary, another brash businessman and reality TV host, has entered the race to lead Canada’s Conservative Party in what some see as an effort to capitalize on Donald Trump’s political success south of the border.
“I am the only one that can defeat (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau,” O’Leary, 62, said after announcing his candidacy to succeed Stephen Harper as the leader of Canada’s center-right Conservatives.
O’Leary is an entrepreneur and investment manager best known to the Canadian public as the often-abrasive personality on “Dragons’ Den,” a reality TV show that runs on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The show features would-be entrepreneurs pitching their ideas to a panel of business investors. O’Leary spent eight years on “Dragon’s Den” before transferring his success to ABC’s “Shark Tank,” a similar show produced by Mark Burnett – the creator of “The Apprentice,” Trump’s vehicle to stardom.
O’Leary has praised Trump and said he would have voted for him in November, but he tried to distance himself from the new president after his announcement. “The only commonality I have with Donald Trump is that we both worked for Mark Burnett and we both got famous on reality television. That’s it,” he said.
But some stylistic similarities are hard to ignore. O’Leary bluntly portrayed potential showdowns between Trump and Trudeau as “Godzilla versus Bambi,” adding that “it’s going to be ugly.” He also told the CTV television network that people shouldn’t take his past statements literally, something Trump advisers have also said about their man. “I expect them all to be regurgitated. They don’t mean anything. They’re not policy,” said O’Leary.
The contours of the race are also similar to how the Republican primaries shaped up in the United States. O’Leary, a political neophyte who has been mulling his bid for over a year, is now the 14th candidate for the Conservative leadership. He’s competing in a crowded field of members of Parliament and former cabinet ministers, most of them little-known to the public.
“Most people don’t know who they are,” said Toronto pollster Lorne Bozinoff of Forum Research to The Washington Post. He said that O’Leary topped a survey of candidates a few months ago when his name was included. “O’Leary has name recognition and he’s running in a weak field. It’s exactly what happened in the States with Trump.”
While Prime Minister Trudeau remains popular with Canadians and his Liberals have a clear lead in polls showing how people intend to vote – an election isn’t expected until 2019 – Bozinoff said the “bloom has started to come off the rose” for Trudeau. In recent months, Trudeau has been hit with controversies over the Liberal Party’s fundraising among wealthy donors and that possibility that his family’s holiday at the Bahamas home of the Aga Khan, a Muslim spiritual leader, violated ethics laws.
Yet the path to victory for O’Leary will be challenging. The Conservative leader is chosen by party members who vote through their home constituencies, not by primary voters at large. O’Leary has never been active in the party and will have to build an extensive organization from the ground up, while most of the other candidates have been at it for months.
O’Leary has also angered party members in French-speaking Quebec by dismissing the need for a potential prime minister to speak French, one of the country’s two official languages. O’Leary was born in Montreal but doesn’t speak French. He waited until after Tuesday’s French-only leaders’ debate before declaring his candidacy and now claims he’s intent on becoming bilingual.
Rival candidates are obviously worried. Even before O’Leary officially entered the race, Lisa Raitt, a member of Parliament from Ontario, launched a website that attacks O’Leary for a number of controversial positions. In 2011, for instance, O’Leary said: “Elect me as prime minister for 15 minutes and I will make unions illegal. Anyone who remains a union member will be thrown in jail.” Last week, he even suggested that he would make changes to Canada’s Senate, whose members are appointed by the government, by selling off seats to the highest bidder.
Although O’Leary jokes that he’s “extremely right,” National Post columnist Andrew Coyne said that the TV personality has few serious policy ideas and doesn’t have much of a chance of success: “What we’ll be left with is a campaign that depends almost entirely on name recognition and shock value. If his track record is anything to go by, O’Leary can be relied upon to say a half dozen offensive or crazy things a day.”
O’Leary is peaking at the University of Texas at Arlington in February: