Ottawa Citizen


Feared and respected in equal measure by Tories, Jenni Byrne is the most powerful woman in Ottawa right now


By the time Jenni Byrne began the conference call every weekday at 7 a.m., she had been up for at least three hours scouring the news media for political landmines.

She placed the call from her office in the Langevin Block, the imposing sandstone building across from Parliament Hill that houses Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s staff.

On the line were between 20 and 30 political assistants to cabinet ministers — many of them still at home in their pyjamas.

Each was expected to be aware of any politicall­y dangerous news that might affect their minister that day.

Byrne, then Harper’s director of issues management, was central to upholding the prime minister’s credo: maintain strict message control, avoid political surprises, stay out of trouble. With high standards for her own work ethic, Byrne expected everyone else to have done their homework and to brief the team.

She was unforgivin­g to those who were unprepared and was ready to ban anyone from future calls if they didn’t stack up.

It was a tough approach that, during her years in the PMO, made her one of Harper’s most trusted aides. It has also made her the most powerful woman in political circles in Ottawa today.

Byrne is both feared within Conservati­ve ranks as someone you don’t cross, and respected as someone who genuinely cares for the grassroots volunteers in her party.

She puts out political brushfires and lights a fire under Conservati­ves who dawdle when told to do something.

She also has a knack for knowing how to run campaigns, and at 38, is set to manage her second for the party.

Within Conservati­ve circles, she has detractors who complain of her brusque management style and her lack of life experience­s because politics has been the only career she has ever known. Others praise her strong work ethic.

“I think she is very level-headed, extremely hard-working and pragmatic,” says Sen. Marjory LeBreton.

“She keeps her head about her. She doesn’t go out and seek a lot of attention to herself. She just gets the job done. And I’m sure that’s why the prime minister has such high regard for her.”

Byrne, who declined an interview, comes from Fenelon Falls, Ont., a town of about 1,800 in the province’s Kawartha Lakes region. Those small-town roots – an instinctiv­e feel for what matters to many communitie­s – still define her, say her friends.

Her father was a carpenter, her mother a school teacher. Growing up, she went hunting and fishing with her dad, Jerry Byrne. By adolescenc­e, she was learning about politics by debating it with him.

At the age of 16, with Preston Manning’s Reformers emerging as the country’s new conservati­ve voice, Byrne joined the party.

After high school, she attended Georgian College, then the University of Ottawa. She studied nursing, but did not complete the academic program.

In the 1997 federal election, she jumped on board a “Reform Youth Bus” that travelled to ridings throughout the campaign. It was filled with dozens of energetic, like-minded young people.

Among them were Ray Novak, who would become a close aide to Harper and is now his chief of staff, and Kory Teneycke, who would become the prime minister’s director of communicat­ions and later vicepresid­ent of Sun News Network.

Six months later, as president of the Reform party club at the University of Ottawa, Byrne spoke to a reporter about why she joined the party as a teenager.

A newspaper story said she was a believer in debt reduction and tax cuts, and that Byrne said her parents seemed willing to accept life as it is, even though they weren’t “living as well today” as they were when Jean Chretien’s Liberals took power four years earlier.

“It’s great for them to say don’t cut here or there, but they won’t be the ones affected by (the debt),” said Byrne, then 21.

“They’re in their late 40s and they will probably still benefit from government programs. But Canada looks like a bleak place for me by the time I’m their age.”

Byrne spent the next few years learning the ropes as a political organizer — first for the Reform party, then from its successor, the Canadian Alliance.

She supported Harper when he ran for the leadership of the new Conservati­ve party in 2004. Eventually, her work was noticed by senior organizer Doug Finley, who promoted her to running the candidate-support desk in the 2006 election.

Harper won that campaign, and Byrne’s career began to take off, with a job in the prime minister’s office as an assistant to chief of staff Ian Brodie.

Keith Beardsley, who was deputy chief of staff, says Byrne worked hard and was willing to take on the “rotten jobs.”

“It developed over time that she wasn’t afraid to do the types of jobs where you’re disciplini­ng someone, hauling them on the carpet, or going after them for screwing up. Those are the types of unpleasant jobs that people shy away from.”

Her clout grew. Before long, he says, everyone from junior staffers to cabinet ministers knew how to react to her phone call.: “If Jenni calls, you’re going to listen.”

In the summer of 2008, she was promoted to director of issues management within the PMO.

The routine, and pressure, were relentless. After her early-morning call with ministeria­l staffers, she was often briefing the prime minister by 8:30 a.m.

At noon, she prepared him for question period, which begins at 2:15 p.m.

At 1 p.m., every cabinet minister was required to attend a meeting in the third-floor cabinet room just steps from the House of Commons chamber.

There, Byrne peppered the ministers with questions they should expect from the opposition and coached them on how to reply.

Bruce Carson, who worked in the Prime Minister’s Office, said Byrne developed the reputation of someone who was highly competent and knew how to “deliver on the party line.

“She knew how to identify an issue, how to attack an issue. She instinctiv­ely knew whether you made it worse or better by how you reacted to it.”

Rahim Jaffer, who was then chair of the Conservati­ve caucus, says her influence on Harper was clear.

“I remember in meetings that I would chair, he wouldn’t look at anyone else.

“Harper is very careful as to who he opens up to and trusts 100 per cent in his inner circle. She’s one of them.”

Byrne, who is single and has no children, continued to work tough hours.

In the 2008 election, Byrne was campaign manager Finley’s deputy. The next year, she left the PMO to work full-time in the Conservati­ve party as its director of political operations.

As the 2011 election approached, with Finley ailing from cancer, Harper appointed Byrne campaign manager.

The successful campaign, which delivered Harper a majority, was a textbook case of how the prime minister and Byrne work together.

There was firm discipline on the campaign’s central message: Harper’s experience.

There was a tight rein on the media, with travelling journalist­s allowed to ask four questions a day of Harper.

And there was firm supervisio­n of Conservati­ve candidates.

By the summer of 2013, Harper’s government was in a political tailspin over the Senate spending scandal. The prime minister had lost his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, and had replaced him with Novak.

He brought Byrne back into the PMO as deputy chief (where she stayed until earlier this year).

LeBreton wasn’t surprised that he brought her back.

“Jenni is not the kind of person that is going to gild the lily. I think the prime minister appreciate­s people who are honest enough to tell him what they actually think — not what they think he wants to hear.”

Harper is very careful as to who he … trusts 100 per cent in his inner circle. She’s one of them.

 ??  ?? Jenni Byrne, here with Stephen Harper, knows ‘how to identify an issue, how to attack an issue,’ says Bruce Carson, who worked in the Prime Minister’s Office. ‘She instinctiv­ely knew whether you made it worse or better by how you reacted to it.’
Jenni Byrne, here with Stephen Harper, knows ‘how to identify an issue, how to attack an issue,’ says Bruce Carson, who worked in the Prime Minister’s Office. ‘She instinctiv­ely knew whether you made it worse or better by how you reacted to it.’

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