This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2009

Meet Ralph Nader’s secret (Canadian) weapon: Toby Heaps

Jessica Leigh Johnston

How Canada’s Rollerblading, CEO-hugging, cartel-busting activist-entrepreneur became Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign manager (and why he did it when there was zero chance of winning)

Toby Heaps demonstrates his style in Toronto. Photo by Steve Payne

Toby Heaps demonstrates his style in Toronto. Photo by Steve Payne

Junue Millan is getting agitated.

It’s a hot day in May 2008, and Millan, an organizer on Ralph Nader’s quixotic presidential campaign, paces a downtown Los Angeles sidewalk. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of the Jeep that has been on loan to the Nader cause this week, shuttling campaign volunteers around the city.

“Where is Toby?” he says to me. “Text him to hurry.” Toby Heaps is the reason I’m here. My old colleague is working for Nader and I’ve come to see how American democracy works — or doesn’t. As I hit “send” on the text message — “ETA? Junue’s getting stressed” — Heaps finally exits an office building across the street at a full sprint.

Heaps, a Canadian activist and entrepreneur, and national coordinator of the Nader 2008 presidential bid, disappeared an hour ago on some last-minute business required to get Nader on the ballot in California. All that needs to happen is for a notary to officiate a batch of campaign papers. Millan doesn’t understand why it’s taking so long.

Without this paperwork, Nader has little chance of getting on the ballot in vote-rich California, required to run a truly national campaign. So if these notarized papers aren’t dropped off at the L.A. County registrar’s office in Norwalk before it closes in an hour, weeks of work will be lost, and the alternative — collecting hundreds of thousands more signatures throughout the state — would cost time and money the campaign doesn’t have to spare.

“Uh-oh,” says Millan, “something is happening. Something bad is happening.”

Heaps is running full-speed across the street, chest out, legs pumping, fear on his face. He dives into the back seat of the Jeep, shouting, “Go! Go! Go!”

The notary, a spindly black man in a too-big, old-timey suit, is in hot pursuit. He looks like Richard Pryor would have had he lived to be 110, and despite his age and seeming frailty, he chases Heaps across the street, shouting clear and loud the whole time, “Call the po-lice! Call the po-lice! Call the po-lice!”

By the time the notary makes it to the vehicle, still shouting, a crowd of onlookers — including security officers, guns drawn — has gathered around the car.

A tough-looking six-foot-plus-tall bystander addresses Heaps, now cowering in the back seat: “Give back what you took from that man. I saw you. You stole something and took off running. Whatever it is, give it back.”

My eyes are fixed on the gun-wielding security officers while Heaps hastily explains that the issue is payment. The notary wanted cash for his services; Heaps had none, so he tried — unsuccessfully — to negotiate another arrangement; an invoice, a credit card, anything. “He just kept saying, ‘I want my money, I want my money,’” says Heaps, the precious sheaf of documents clutched to his chest. “He doesn’t take MasterCard.” Then, turning to me: “Can I borrow $300?”

Welcome to Toby’s world.

Toby Heaps is a bundle of contradictions. Trained in economics, he’s a workaholic idealist with a mischievous streak, a vegetarian who’s spent time in the army, an athlete who won’t lock up his bike because of his fundamental faith in human nature (he’s been through 28 bikes in his 32 years — “not a bad ratio,” he says).

Heaps is best known in Canada as editor of the Toronto-based business magazine Corporate Knights, which focuses on what it calls “responsible business,” and is distributed quarterly in the Globe and Mail. Heaps founded the magazine seven years ago on the philosophy that businesses need to be rated and ranked on the quality of their behaviour. He’s a fan of the “carrot and stick” approach: good companies should be rewarded and recognized; bad ones named and shamed. Corporate Knights does both. The tactic is controversial, but Heaps has surprising influence.

Corporate Knights is a kind of lobby group as well as a magazine, and its full range of activities is not necessarily obvious to those outside its inner circle. Since the beginning, Heaps has sought to use the magazine as a vehicle to influence policy.

In addition to rating Canadian companies in the magazine, CK also does an international list of Global 100 companies, which is launched each year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Three years ago, when Brian Mulroney was named “Greenest Prime Minister” in Canadian history, it was Corporate Knights that was behind the honour. The magazine organized the gala in Ottawa, attended by new prime minister Stephen Harper and hosted by Rick Mercer.

The Tory hugging and business boosting have put off some of Heaps’ leftish colleagues, who accuse CK of corporate cheerleading. An economist for the Canadian Auto Workers, Jim Stanford, for instance, respects Heaps’ entrepreneurial spirit — he thinks the left would be better off if more people were as energetic and creative as Heaps — but the two men do fundamentally disagree.

“The corporations view Corporate Knights, clearly, as a way that they can put an ad in to extol their social consciousness, but without having to do necessarily much more than that,” says Stanford. “The problem is that the whole corporate social responsibility movement is based on volunteerism, public relations, and consumer choice, and explicitly steers away from regulations, taxes, unions.”

But Heaps believes in the work he’s doing and the change he wants to see. He ignores obstacles and is ambitious in the extreme. It makes him a constant source of both frustration and inspiration for those who work closely with him.

“He’s so fast. He sees opportunities and pounces on them at times without thinking. He’s fearless,” says Corporate Knights publisher Karen Kun.

The magazine is just one of many social-improvement schemes Heaps has on the go at any given time, including a geothermal power venture in Canada and a solar-electricity scheme in Ghana. Heaps has built a small activist empire out of his enigmatic persona: he’ll rollerblade to business meetings, and depending who he’s dealing with, they don’t know whether to expect him to arrive in Birkenstocks or a suit. (In fact, he’s a golf-shirt-and-slacks kind of guy most of the time.) For non-crucial meetings, he has a reputation for being late — sometimes by several hours.

“Genius and craziness go hand in hand many times,” says Peter Diplaros, Heaps’ long-time friend and former colleague. “The amount of influence and respect that Toby’s been able to garner is vastly disproportionate to his age, so he must be doing something right.”

“He’s not your typical person,” say Kun, emphatically. “At all.”

Which makes him a perfect match for Ralph Nader.

In all the drama surrounding last year’s U.S. election, it was easy to miss the fact that Ralph Nader was running for president at all. Reviled by Democrats over the perception that he cost Al Gore the White House in 2000, Nader ran again in 2004 anyway and fared considerably worse, pulling in a microscopic 0.4 per cent of the popular vote nationwide.

But he remained undeterred. In early 2008, three days before his 74th birthday, the consumer advocate officially announced his candidacy on MSNBC’s Meet the Press. “Dissent is the mother of assent,” he told host Tim Russert, “and in that spirit … I am running for president.”

It seems inevitable that Heaps and Nader would have met. The two crusaders are obvious kin. Stubborn, relentlessly idealistic, they even look alike. Other campaigners tease that Heaps is the son that Nader never had. When I ask Heaps if he’s noticed the similarities between himself and his mentor, he just grins: “Yup.” That’s all he’s going to say about that. So, what happens, then, when you put Heaps and Nader together to plot something?

“Oh my god. You get chaos. But you get some fireworks … ideas are just coming out rapid-fire,” he says. “But Ralph is as scattergun in his approach as I’ve ever seen. He makes me look like a focused bazooka. But he’s one of these guys who can fire a scattergun and still hit the bull’s eye with most of the bullets. Or at least for a large part of his life he could, when he had the resources.”

The two men first spoke at length in 2002, shortly after Heaps founded Corporate Knights. Heaps wanted to interview his hero for the magazine, but Nader is as hard to reach as Heaps is persistent. “I phoned him about 60 times over the course of a month,” says Heaps. “And then finally he phoned me back while I was out getting a bagel.”

Over the course of the conversation, their shared interests became clear, and a week later a box of assorted books arrived, COD. “Books on credit-card fraud, all kinds of things,” recalls Heaps. “They were pretty good books, but I paid the mailing costs. That’s how he does things. He pays for the books; I pay for the shipping, even though I didn’t ask for them. That’s classic Ralph. He’s cheap, man.”

A few months later, Heaps invited Nader to come speak at a Corporate Knights-sponsored round table. The invitees were mostly CEOs, and Heaps wanted to prevent the conference from becoming too self-congratulatory — the famously blunt Nader obliged with a scolding address.

Politics, along with trouble-making and agitation, are in Heaps’ blood: his great-grandfather was A. A. Heaps, one of the leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike, who later became an MP and helped bring about Canada’s old-age pension and unemployment insurance. His father, Adrian Heaps, is a Toronto city councillor. Most of the people close to him believe he will go into politics. Maybe, he says, but not for a while yet. “It would be way less interesting to go into politics without substantial accomplishments behind you and a real steely resolve for a couple of things you wanted to do,” he says.

“If you get in without that, you end up doing not much of anything, I think. Which is what most politicians do.”

Nader, of course, is an exception. In 2003, Heaps offered to help Nader out in the event of another presidential bid, not really expecting to be held to his promise. “I tried to encourage him to run with Erin Brockovich in 2004 as his running mate,” says Heaps. “I told him if he ran to give me a call — I had no idea at that point what I was committing myself to.”

When Nader called a year later, “I just took off,” says Heaps. “I had my BlackBerry and my laptop and I was living in a tent for a while, so I was running Corporate Knights out of a tent with a BlackBerry.” Heaps criss-crossed the United States, collecting nomination signatures in mall parking lots and county fairs. “The agreement was that I’d go down for a few weeks. And one turned into two, turned into three, turned into four,” explains Heaps. “So I spent about six weeks with my car rental — 24,000 kilometres later I brought it back.”

After the election, Heaps returned to running CK and pursuing his other projects, but in summer 2007 it all started again with a call from Nader’s assistant asking for help. “I see the number and I’m like, ‘Aw, bugger.’ I know what it’s about,” recalls Heaps. Even through it would overturn his life yet again, it didn’t take Heaps long to commit to hitting the Nader trail one more time — his respect for the man and the mission trumping his better judgment.

“His fingerprints are everywhere on any kind of case law, and on any kind of progressive bills that have been passed in the last 30, 40 years,” Heaps says. “Nader is the most qualified human being, given his experience in America, to be president.”

While Heaps and Nader make a great team, on the surface their politics don’t exactly match. The overall pro-business outlook of Corporate Knights stands in stark contrast to the anti-corporate rhetoric of the Nader campaign. During the appearance on Meet the Press where he announced his candidacy, for instance, Nader referred to Washington as “corporate occupied territory,” referred to “corporate crime,” and used that favourite term of the anti-free-trade movement, “corporate globalization.” Despite the apparent differences, Heaps is happy straddling two roles, alternating between boardroom schmoozer and anticorporate crusader. He sees the two worlds as intimately connected. “Ralph’s saying, let’s fix the system — and he means right from the top, from the White House, which is the ultimate governance structure,” he says. “Whereas Corporate Knights, at least by its name, is more focused on changing that system within the boardrooms of corporate Canada. It’s not one or the other. You’ve got to do both.”

Working for Nader, Heaps gets to let loose a bit, too. “The rhetoric is a bit more anti-corporate than I think is fair, or than I believe myself,” he says. “But because I try to be so careful about the corporate egos [in Canada], it’s kind of fun to go into a world where the egos just have big bull’s eyes on them, and there are no rules about going after them … Basically, we’re playing chess here in Canada and when I go to work for Ralph, the gloves come off. The brass knuckles come on.”

In May 2008, I travel to Los Angeles to see what my friend and former colleague is up to in the United States. Our original plan had been to meet up in Washington, D.C., but Heaps called at the last minute to say he was on the West Coast instead, working on a plan to get Nader on the ballot in California. I’m not surprised, so I’m not annoyed. With Toby, sometimes it’s best to be Zen.

As my plane taxis to the gate at LAX, I give him a call. “Okay, so where am I going?” I ask.

“I’m in South Central L.A. You know, where the Rodney King riots happened,” he jokes. “I’m in a grocery-store parking lot. You’ll have no trouble spotting me — I’ll be the only honky here.” An hour later, I arrive at the Superior Super Warehouse at Western and Manchester, and Heaps, wearing a blue Nader ’08 Tshirt, is indeed easy to spot as he chugs a mango energy drink, kicks an errant soccer ball back to a child, and registers a voter. He is grinning, as usual.

It’s odd that one of Nader’s right-hand men is a Canadian, but it makes some sense given that Canada has much of what the Nader campaign would like for the United States: single-payer health care, a multi-party system, an international reputation as a peacekeeper, and so on. Heaps’ colleagues on the Nader trail tease him that he’s trying to import democracy from home. His friends in Canada generally think he’s wasting his time.

John, another campaigner, arrives at Superior Super Warehouse from Wal-Mart, where he’s been collecting signatures all afternoon. In order to get Nader on the ballot in California, the team is registering voters, and Nader’s pariah status makes it a difficult sell. John is surprised to see Heaps wearing his Nader campaign shirt because it’s more difficult to get people to stop when they see the candidate’s name.

From the outside, it may seem insane, this persistence in working on an obviously lost cause. But Nader’s supporters (and there are still a surprisingly large number of them) are driven by dedication to the issues he represents and the lack of an alternative. They believe history will recognize their efforts to break open the two-party system in the United States, and they fight hard. These are true believers, which is why they will stand in supermarket parking lots taking abuse and scorn just for the sake of a few more signatures to support their candidate. In the end, they get the signatures they need. Working on the Nader campaign leaves volunteers feeling they have contributed to the world, and it can also make for some great stories. Like that time a misunderstanding with a notary led to guns coming out.

At Heaps’ request to borrow $300 to pay the notary, I put my hand into my bag, and one of the gun-wielding security guards barks, “Don’t go reaching for anything.” I put my hands up, explain that I’m looking for my bank card, and ask for permission to exit the vehicle. A security guard trails me down the block and across the street to the closest bank.

Back in the Jeep, I hand the money to Heaps, still guarding his documents. The cash counted out through the window, the problem is resolved: the notary says a polite thank you and walks away. With the bystander still yelling for us to wait for the police, Millan pulls away and we speed toward the registrar’s office. Traffic is mercifully light, and we make it on time, filing the petitions with two minutes to spare.

Just outside Norwalk, Heaps calls Nader to share the good news. When he hangs up, he relays a compliment that makes the mission feel worthwhile: “Ralph says, ‘Good work, guys.’”

It was a small victory, but as in 2004, President Ralph Nader was never really a possibility.

In January 2009, shortly before Barack Obama’s inauguration, I meet Heaps to talk about the outcome of the election. “Barack Obama won the election in spite of our efforts. Ralph Nader did not,” Heaps deadpans. “We’re all a little disappointed.”

Joking aside, Heaps is still feeling raw from the results. Nader pulled less than one per cent of the total — about 700,000 votes. This despite CNN polls putting him at four per cent a week before the election. He got substantially more votes than in 2004, but that’s because Nader was on the ballot in more states than last time around — California in particular.

I ask Heaps if there was any part of him that believed Nader could actually win, and he takes a long time to respond, thinking, grinning, formulating. “In the very deep recesses,” he says and laughs.

It’s that combination of smarts and naïveté, a faith many would call foolish (the same one that keeps losing him all those bikes), that makes Heaps a force. He lacks that part of the brain that says things are impossible, and while his friends and co-workers sometimes find it maddening, it allows him to accomplish things that others wouldn’t even bother attempting. In addition to the magazine and his green-energy ventures in Toronto and Ghana, Heaps is trying to get a Corporate Knights think tank off the ground. His association with Nader got him a shared byline on a Wall Street Journal op-ed, too, advising Obama to push for an international carbon tax, a policy Heaps has been advocating for years.

Overall, the Nader campaign was worthwhile, Heaps says, if for no other reason than to remind our benighted American neighbours about the important issues the two main parties wouldn’t touch. While Heaps may still be smarting from the election outcome, he’s got plenty of distractions to keep him busy. For example, today he’s waging war against Big Potash — a legal cartel of fertilizer companies that have together raised prices beyond the reach of farmers in the developing world. He’s spent the morning on the phone asking hard questions in his quest for damning information. It’s the kind of chase Heaps lives for, another day in Toby’s world. As he says, “Greed undoes them every time.”

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