Ottawa Citizen


Jack Layton’s longtime chief of staff gives the NDP a steady hand on the electoral tiller


My approach is to assemble the best and the brightest around me. And then I make sure they have the latitude and the tools to operate.

When the sun rose on Aug. 22, 2011, Anne McGrath faced one of the hardest days of her life.

At 4:45 a.m. that day, NDP leader Jack Layton had died of cancer in his Toronto home — just 16 weeks after leading his party to unpreceden­ted heights in that year’s federal election.

McGrath had been his chief of staff and was at his bedside two days earlier, helping craft a letter urging Canadians to remember that “love is better than anger” and “hope is better than fear.”

Now it was her job to publicly mourn his death and remember his legacy in countless media interviews throughout the day.

“It’s been an uphill battle,’’ she said of the cancer. “But he was a determined guy and he was doing his best to fight it.”

On that morning, it was hard not to be struck by the unfairness of life, with Layton dying just as he had scored a remarkable political success. But at no time in those dark hours, or in the days that followed, did McGrath allow exasperati­on or anger to rise to the surface.

Instead, she exhibited a quality rarely found among those who make politics their life: calmness. When you have it, everyone around you knows it and appreciate­s it. McGrath, say those who know her, has it.

Now, NDP leader Tom Mulcair is turning to McGrath, 57, as national campaign director for the upcoming election.

New Democrats are counting on her poise as the party tries to improve on its 2011 success.

“A campaign director is like a crane, as you’re trying to build a skyscraper,” says Karl Belanger, principal secretary to Mulcair. “You’re building that piece by piece. That crane needs to be very solidly based in order for it not to crumble at the first windstorm. And that’s what she brings: that stable, grounded persona.”

“In politics, there is often a lot of urgency," McGrath said in an interview with the Citizen.

“I talk about the difference between urgency and panic. I think a campaign has to have a sense of urgency. But it cannot have a sense of panic.”

McGrath was born in the English town of Aldershot. Her parents were both from Ireland.

By the time she was five, the family had moved to Montreal, where they lived for several years before moving to Ottawa. Her father was a principal and her mother was a teacher.

On Oct. 27, 1975, McGrath’s life changed immeasurab­ly.

As she sat in religion class at St. Pius X high school, fellow student Robert Poulin kicked in the door and walked in, holding a sawed-off shotgun. He began firing.

The shots continued until Poulin backed up into the hallway, pointed the gun at his head and killed himself.

In the classroom, five students lay injured. McGrath and others tried to help Mark Hough, who had been fatally shot in the head. “We were trying to wrap sweaters around him,” she said.

A terrified McGrath was among those who jumped out the windows students had smashed with chairs.

Decades later, she says the horror of that day shaped her character. “It taught me to stay calm, to figure out what’s the most important thing to do at any particular moment and to focus on that.”

McGrath studied English literature at the University of Ottawa and was elected president of the university’s student federation. Upon graduation, she moved to Edmonton to work as a field organizer for the Alberta Federation of Students.

She studied for an education degree at the University of Alberta and became attracted to “edgy politics” that appealed to her desire to fight “injustice and inequality.”

In the 1984 federal election, at 26, she ran as the Communist candidate in Edmonton-Strathcona. She finished seventh, with 137 votes.

McGrath doesn’t shirk from answering questions about her brief dalliance with the Communists. “I was young, probably naïve, interested in talking about politics. And very influenced by friends and teachers.”

In 1993 she ran unsuccessf­ully as an NDP candidate in the Alberta election. She tried again in 1995 and fell short.

Later that year, she ran for the party leadership in an effort to oust Ross Harvey.

“We must take risks and say who we are,” she said at the time. “I’m proud to be a unionist, feminist and socialist.”

By 2000, McGrath was back in Ottawa, working as an executive assistant to Canadian Union of Public Employees’ president Judy Darcy.

“She has a personal style that is energizing and collaborat­ive,” says Darcy. “She could be tough and kind at the same time.”

The next year, on an Ottawa street, McGrath and her husband bumped into Jack Layton, who she had already known as a Toronto city councillor.

She had lunch with him that day and eventually worked on his successful bid for the federal NDP leadership in 2003.

Two years later she joined his office as director of operations and earned the affection of her fellow New Democrats.

“She’s the calm in the storm,” says deputy NDP leader Libby Davies. “She’s low-key, a person who makes it work. She’s incredibly politicall­y smart. And she’s the antithesis of the rah-rah-rah big-boy ego.”

During the 2008 election, Layton asked her to become his chief of staff after the campaign. She turned him down, but Layton persisted and she agreed to take the job for just a few weeks.

It turned into a political partnershi­p that lasted right up to Layton’s death.

Within a month, McGrath was at the centre of negotiatio­ns with the Liberals to form a coalition government.

She brought in others – former federal leader Ed Broadbent, former Saskatchew­an premier Allan Blakeney, and former campaign director Brian Topp – to provide advice and help with negotiatio­ns.

Broadbent says McGrath showed a talent for getting people to work well together in a high-pressure environmen­t.

“She drew on people of different talents and often competing views to get the best possible decision made.”

In the 2011 election, Layton travelled the country, carrying a cane he needed because of hip surgery. He presented himself as a fighter who had stayed in politics despite a diagnosis of prostate cancer in 2010.

At every step, he was accompanie­d by McGrath.

“We were very, very close,” she says. “We definitely had the same values. We felt like we had a mission.”

Brad Lavigne, who ran the NDP campaign, says McGrath was critical to the party’s success.

“Having that sure, steady hand – providing good counsel to the leader – regardless of what the events of the day throw at you, it was crucial to have somebody with the political acumen and profession­alism that Anne possesses.”

The party won 103 seats and became Official Opposition. But the joy of that success evaporated in late July, when an emaciated Layton held a news conference to announce his cancer had returned.

When Layton died less than a month later, New Democrats and Canadians from all walks of life were shocked.

“It hit us like a ton of bricks,” says Topp. “It was heartbreak­ing for everybody, including Anne.”

McGrath stayed on as chief of staff, first for interim leader Nycole Turmel, and, temporaril­y, for Tom Mulcair.

Then, exhausted, she quit to take on a job as a consultant at an Ottawa government relations firm.

“I had to get out for a while. I was destroyed.”

The new life gave her more time to spend with her husband, Bruce, a mental health social worker. They have four grown children, two from his previous marriage.

Last year, McGrath acknowledg­ed what she always knew about politics: “It’s in my blood.”

She took on the twin roles of NDP national director (the top official in the party) and national campaign director.

She says she’s ready for what lies ahead.

“My approach to leadership is to assemble the best and the brightest around me. People who I can trust, who know what they are doing. And then I make sure they have the tools and the latitude to be able to operate effectivel­y.”

 ??  JULIE OLIVER/OTTAWA CITIZEN ?? Anne McGrath says a shooting at her high school taught her ‘to figure out what’s the most important thing to do at any particular moment.’
 JULIE OLIVER/OTTAWA CITIZEN Anne McGrath says a shooting at her high school taught her ‘to figure out what’s the most important thing to do at any particular moment.’

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