‘HARD-WORKING, TOUGH, HONEST AND WICKED SMART’
In a world of people who make rash decisions, Telford is a careful, precise thinker
On Dec. 6, 2013, the Liberal party posted an “exclusive” online video featuring a pep talk from Katie Telford, a woman few Canadians had likely ever heard of.
In the video, which spans eight minutes and 32 seconds, Telford appears in an office setting — Liberal coffee mug and Canadian flag next to the desk phone — and stands in front of a TV screen bearing Trudeau’s image.
“Let me tell you a little bit about my day,” she says.
“I wake up in the morning and when I first check my BlackBerry the email I look forward most to seeing is a very simple Excel spreadsheet filled with numbers.”
From it, she learns how the party membership is growing, how much money was raised the day before, and whether there are any “dips or spikes.”
“I love the numbers because they don’t lie.”
This, say those who know her, is quintessential Telford.
She has a precise mind and insists on using evidence — not just gut instinct — to guide her political behaviour.
Today, Telford is quickly becoming a powerhouse in Liberal circles. She is the woman who ran Justin Trudeau’s leadership campaign in 2012-13 and is now tapped to cochair the party’s election campaign this year with Dan Gagnier.
In his recent book, Trudeau wrote that Telford is at the “core of my inner circle” and praised her as “hard-working, tough, honest, and wicked smart.”
The 36-year-old, who declined an interview, has never let age get in the way of what she wants to achieve.
At 12, she worked as a page for several weeks in the Ontario legislature when then-NDP Premier Bob Rae’s government introduced its first budget.
By her early 20s, she had reinvigorated a moribund debating society at the University of Ottawa and was representing the academic institution at competitions around the world.
At age 26, she was chief of staff to Ontario’s Liberal education minister and was representing the province in labour negotiations with teachers’ unions.
Gerald Butts, a longtime friend and co-worker of Telford who is a senior political adviser to Trudeau, says she is a “very careful thinker.”
“She is a long-term, multi-move thinker. This is a business that’s dominated by people who make quick, and in my view, rash decisions. And that’s what I’ve always appreciated about working with Katie.”
Telford was raised in Toronto. Her father was Australian and her mother was from nearby Hamilton. Both were public servants.
Her interest in politics only grew after her stint as a page at Queen’s Park.
At the end of Grade 11, she was elected, at age 16, to a one-year term as head of the Ontario Secondary School Students Association.
She travelled throughout the province, giving speeches at youth leadership conferences and promoting youth initiatives to provincial and federal ministers.
While studying political science at the University of Ottawa, much of her time was spent organizing the debating club. The team was the semi-finalist at the North American competition and finished high at the world event in Glasgow, Scotland.
Ranjan Agarwal, her debating partner at the time, remembers that Telford had an “endearing and very attractive personality” which made her a “magnet” for people.
“She had a natural affinity for people. People were drawn to that and as a result she commanded a lot of loyalty and respect from the people around her.”
At the same time, though she would not yell or hold a grudge, says Agarwal, she was “not the kind of person you wanted to disappoint.”
It was during those years that Telford met Butts, who, as a McGill student in the early ‘90s, had won the national debating championships two years in a row.
Soon, they were both working closely together in politics at Queen’s Park.
Butts worked for then-opposition leader Dalton McGuinty, and Telford was a senior assistant to Gerard Kennedy, who was the party’s education critic.
In the lead-up to the 2003 provincial election, Butts and Telford helped craft the education promises for the party’s platform.
Among their pledges: end the labour conflict with teachers; introduce full-day kindergarten; require the mandatory daily teaching of writing, reading and math, and require kids to stay in school until age 18.
When McGuinty won, he made Kennedy his education minister. And within months, just before her 26th birthday, Kennedy made Telford his chief of staff.
David MacNaughton, who was principal secretary to McGuinty, recalls how Telford had a “birth of fire” in government.
“It was a tough position to be in. She was in the policy area that the premier cared most about, and she was dealing with a minister who is very much hands-on.”
MacNaughton says that as Telford began manoeuvring though the political and bureaucratic maze, she had to fight two things: She was young and she was a woman whom some regarded as a “little girl.”
“The tendency in a male-dominated environment is to be aggressive and not expect women to speak up very much. Katie never, ever believed that that was the way she should operate. She always pushed back when she had something to say.
“When she spoke, it was forceful, it was well thought-through. She went from being this little girl, kind of thing, to ‘Holy smoke, this is a very smart woman that we better pay attention to.’ “
When Kennedy sent Telford to successfully hash out a four-year deal with teachers’ union negotiators, some of them initially thought she was too young, says Gene Lewis, former general secretary of the Ontario Elementary Teachers Federation.
But he says Telford impressed them all with her straightforward style and “earned the trust” of unions and school boards.
In 2006, Kennedy quit cabinet to run for the leadership of the federal Liberals, who had been turfed by voters after 13 years in power.
He turned to Telford to run his campaign. Kennedy put more emphasis than other contenders on the need to honestly rebuild the party.
During the race, Kennedy was put in touch with Trudeau by Butts, a close friend of Trudeau from their days at McGill.
At the leadership convention, Trudeau delivered a speech to delegates in which he sang the praises of Kennedy.
But it wasn’t enough, and Liberals chose Stéphane Dion.
Telford joined Dion’s opposition leader’s office and eventually became his deputy chief of staff.
She travelled with him in the 2008 election that saw the Liberals lose even more seats, and she was one of a handful of Liberals at the table who negotiated a coalition deal with the NDP that ultimately fell through.
Amidst the tumult caused by Liberal divisions, MacNaughton says Telford learned some valuable lessons.
“You’ve got to really know in the tough times who are the people you can count on.”
By early 2009, a somewhat jaded Telford left Ottawa to become a consultant at a Toronto government relations and public affairs firm.
But she didn’t leave politics entirely, serving as the president of the Toronto Liberal riding association in the riding where Kennedy was elected an MP the year before.
Telford is married to Rob Silver, who works at a government relations firm in Toronto and who regularly appears as a pundit on TV. They have a son, born in June 2011.
In February 2012, while she was still on maternity leave, she received a call from Butts.
He told her that Trudeau was thinking about running for the federal leadership. She agreed to run his campaign.
By the fall, his bid was official. Telford quickly mounted a modern political campaign to attract first-time supporters and to build a database from which to mobilize them.
She studied how Barack Obama’s campaign got its vote out. She also examined how best to use email blasts to increase the odds a person would donate money.
After Trudeau easily won the leadership, Telford turned her attention to the upcoming federal election.
“She has this amazing ability to intuitively separate the transient from the important,” says Butts.
“She does not get fazed by anything. She’s got very strong nerves and she’ll be one of the people who keeps their head while everybody else loses it.”
She does not get fazed by anything. She’s got very strong nerves and she’ll be one of the people who keeps their head while everybody else loses it.