THE NEW BACKROOM BOSSES
Women take control of the campaigns
For the first time in Canadian history, each of the three main political parties has turned to a woman to run its campaign in this year’s federal election.
The development is being heralded as a major step forward for women as they gain a greater role in political backrooms long dominated by men.
At a luncheon in Ottawa early next month, the three will be honoured as “nation builders” by a group that commemorates the work of the “Famous 5”— a group of Alberta women who won legal recognition for their gender as “persons” in the 1920s.
“This is a thrilling time for Canadian women in politics,” says Isabel Metcalfe, chairwoman of Famous 5 Ottawa.
Her group is honouring Jenni Byrne, the Conservatives’ campaign manager, Anne McGrath, the NDP’s campaign director and Katie Telford, the Liberals’ campaign co-chair.
Byrne, 38, whose political roots extend back to the early days of the Reform party, has become one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s most trusted aides in government. She ran his 2011 election campaign.
McGrath, 57, is a former NDP president. She was Jack Layton’s chief of staff and was at his side throughout the 2011 election’s Orange Wave and in the days before his death from cancer.
Telford, 36, has been a success within Liberal circles for years, first as chief of staff to Ontario’s education minister more than a decade ago and more recently as the woman who ran Justin Trudeau’s leadership campaign.
The March 9 luncheon will be attended by McGrath, Telford and Conservative Sen. Marjory LeBreton, who has been working in political circles for decades. A spokesman for Byrne said she was “honoured” to be chosen but is “unfortunately unable to attend.”
The life stories of the three women being honoured involve some interesting coincidences. Each studied at the University of Ottawa. And in 2008, McGrath and Telford were among the handful of people at the negotiating table where the Liberals and NDP struck a deal to form a coalition government.
“Their integrity is without question,” Metcalfe, a longtime Liberal activist, says of the women.
“Their capabilities are enormous. Their loyalty is consistent. So if you are Justin Trudeau or Thomas Mulcair or Stephen Harper, you know that they would be giving you capable, sound and honest advice.”
Metcalfe says that for many years women have been the “muscle” of political machines — with many of them holding positions as riding association presidents, and many more knocking on doors.
Body: “It’s always been a mystery to me that politics has been so dominated by men when it’s women who vote and it’s women who are so much more interested in public policy.”
Byrne, McGrath and Telford will face many make-or-break operational decisions during the campaign.
How, and when, should millions of dollars be spent on advertising? Which ridings should the leader visit? How should the policy platform be rolled out? How best to mobilize volunteers and raise funds?
But there’s another question which no one seems to be able to answer: Will the traditional rough-and-tumble of election campaigns take on a different flavour with women at the helm?
“I know this is a generalization, but I think by and large women don’t have the same kind of enormous shattering egos a lot of men have in politics,” says deputy NDP leader Libby Davies.
“I’ve seen it so many times. Where it’s really the game that counts for some guys. It’s all about the power plays and the strategic moves. It’s like a sports game.”
LeBreton began working for Progressive Conservative party leaders in the early 1960s and eventually was deputy of chief of staff to then-prime minister Brian Mulroney.
She still vividly remembers a meeting at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier Hotel after Mulroney was chosen leader in 1983 and the party was gearing up for an election.
“There was a huge big square table. There was a woman at each corner. And there were four women in that room of perhaps 80 people.”
LeBreton applauds the fact that women are now recognized for their talents.
“Women by their very nature are excellent organizers. It’s in our genes.”
For years, leaders turned to aging white men to run campaigns.
Before Byrne’s management of the Tories’ 2011 campaign, only
Their capabilities are enormous. So if you are Trudeau or Mulcair or Harper, you know that they would be giving you capable, sound, and honest advice.
one woman before her had done the job. In the 1997 election, Jodi White broke the gender barrier when she ran then-leader Jean Charest’s Progressive Conservative campaign.
She says it is “terrific” that all three campaigns are now being managed by women.
“It reflects the reality that the women today who are running these campaigns have all been involved in different levels of jobs. You pay your dues, and the all the guys who did the jobs had to pay their dues too.”
White says that while there’s evidence in the business sector that women in management can have stronger collaborative skills than men, she’s reluctant to “pigeonhole” politically active women by suggesting this is the only skill they bring to political campaigns.
“Some are (collaborative) and some aren’t. Also, when you are running a campaign you’ve got to be pretty tough. So you can’t sugarcoat the fact that they are making very tough decisions.”