Roy Norton takes on Matty Moroun

An unconventional diplomat

The Windsor Star

Anne Jarvis

He called the owner of the Ambassador Bridge a greedy, manipulative liar. He appeared on Comedy Central’s late-night satirical The Daily Show. He campaigned in the U.S. election.

For a diplomat, Roy Norton isn’t very … well … diplomatic.

When Norton was appointed Canada’s consul-general in Detroit in 2010, then-Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon’s instructions were brief: Get the new bridge.

Norton thought it would be a no-brainer; the Windsor-Detroit border is the largest conduit for the largest trading relationship in the world. Then he ran into Matty Moroun, the billionaire no-holds-barred owner of the Ambassador Bridge who spent tens of millions of dollars on campaign contributions to legislators, misleading ads and a bid for a constitutional amendment, all to protect his monopoly. Getting the new crossing, decided Norton, would require an unorthodox approach. That unconventional approach turned out to be key.

“I don’t think there’s anything to apologize for,” he said in an interview at the consulate in the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit. If the situation had been reversed, he said, “you can bet the U.S. consul-general in Toronto would be doing exactly what I’m doing – taking every opportunity to convey the facts because U.S. interests are under attack.”

At 58, Norton has grey, thinning hair and glasses and wore a non-descript suit. He’s serious and reserved. He’s also interesting. He has several post-graduate degrees in public policy, administration and international relations from Harvard and Johns Hopkins. Originally from Ottawa, he has been a senior bureaucrat and advisor at Queen’s Park and on Parliament Hill, worked in Canada’s embassy in Washington, D.C. and was on one of the negotiating teams for NAFTA.

And he’s funny, with a dry wit.

(Norton likens Canada’s offer to pay for Michigan’s share of the bridge to the movie Argo, about how Canada helped rescue American hostages in Iran. “Whenever America’s interests are threatened,” he said, “it can count on Canada to come to the rescue – or in this case, front the cost of the bridge.”)

When he took over the job in Detroit, people sighed with relief. Norton knew the file, and he knew American politics.

No Canadian consulate in the U.S. is as important as the one in Detroit, which covers Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. More than 17 per cent of all Canadian exports to the world go to these four states.

“This is quite literally where the rubber hits the road for both of our manufacturing economies,” Norton told the Canada-U.S. Business Association in one of his first speeches.

While Norton’s predecessors entertained the principle players at lunches and dinners,trying to get their endorsements, Norton took on Moroun. The new consul-general hit the road, testifying before legislative committees at the state capitol in Lansing, teaming with Gov. Rick Snyder and lieutenant governor Brian Calley and speaking to dozens of groups across the state.

“In no developed country have I ever seen such blatant and comprehensive efforts by a single special interest to bend an entire population to its will,” he told the Southern Wayne County Regional Chamber last fall.

He called Moroun “cynical, manipulative and greedy.” He called his ads “all lies.” He said Moroun had taken Michigan hostage.

It was very undiplomatic. He was accused of slander.

“I call it as I see it,” he told me. “I try to be as frank, candid and forthright as I can. We have to cut through all the chaff and help (people) understand the facts.”

He said he suspects Windsor blogger Ed Arditti is on Moroun’s payroll. He said he reads Arditti’s blog  because “it’s good to hear what the other side is saying.”

“He’s trying to smear me, is he?” Arditti replied.

But he wouldn’t say if he’s paid by Moroun.

“I’ve had that (question) for 10 years,” he said. “I don’t deal with that any more. It’s insulting.”

When the Morouns got Proposal 6, which would have required a referendum for a new bridge, on the ballot last fall, Norton, Snyder and Calley criss-crossed the state, urging voters to defeat the initiative. Again, it was very undiplomatic. The Morouns accused him of trying to sway a foreign country’s  election.

Norton was very effective.

“There is a fair bit of cynicism here,” he told me. “There seems to be a disinclination to believe (politicians). By contrast, I stand up, raise my right hand and literally swear it’s not going to cost Michigan anything, and people seem to take note. Canada seems to have standing in Michigan.”

Norton was “absolutely essential,” said Calley, who invited him to Snyder’s State of the State speech last month, where the governor called him a “tremendous person.” In addition to his standing as the consul-general, he was clear and convincing. He also charmed audiences with his humour. Even his Canadian accent helped, said Calley. It made him sound “very distinguished.”

By far, Norton’s riskiest move was appearing on The Daily Show last month.

“Define zero,” comedian Al Madrigal asks over and over about how much the bridge will cost Michigan.

“Zero. Zero dollars, zero outlays, zero risk, zero liability,” Norton answers, first serious, then wary, then exasperated before finally smiling.

Polls before the show was taped Nov. 5  showed voting on Proposal 6 would be close, and Democrats were likely to approve it. Democrats are also likely to watch The Daily Show, Norton reasoned.

“The Daily Show was another means by which to provide facts to a target audience,” he said.

The show often skewers government officials, but he figured “if (the show) had an opportunity to take down a billionaire monopolist, it was more likely to do that than take down the government of Canada.”

He was right.

Construction of the new bridge will start next year, “absolutely by 2015,” Norton said. A presidential permit is expected in several months. Then Canada will begin buying property for the bridge in Detroit. (Yes, Canada will own land in Detroit. But Norton assured last month, “We are reconciled to the outcome of the War of 1812. We are not trying to take Detroit over again.”)

Moroun owns some of the land needed. Michigan will expropriate it.

Norton still expects Moroun to challenge the agreement to build the bridge, approved without the state legislature.

The U.S. Congress must also approve $250 million for a customs plaza. That could be difficult, Norton conceded. It’s a lot of money in a country with a budget crisis. Moroun will argue his proposed twin span would use the existing customs plaza. Norton will go to Washington this month to start ‘educating’ Congress.

“This isn’t a project for Michigan,” he said. “It’s a project that’s in the interests of tens of millions of Americans.”