From there, he grew into politics quickly. At 15, he was a convention delegate for Ontario Attorney-General Roy McMurtry, a Red Tory, in his bid to become provincial leader. He ran for youth wing posts, and won. At 17, he got a job answering phones at night in the office of Defence Minister Perrin Beatty. He stayed on the staff, part-time and then full time, for six years, including a six-month stint in the ministry he now runs. He became president of the provincial Tories’ youth wing.
At Queen’s University, he was a well-known, sociable preppy, moving philosophically farther to the right, and happily disturbing those on the left. He led a campaign to oppose a student-union resolution against the Gulf War and was arrested for hectoring then-premier David Peterson, a Liberal, during a visit to a Kingston shopping mall.
His many years in politics have equipped Mr. Baird with a vast network of friends and acquaintances. He was just 16 when he first crossed paths with his current boss. A close friend had married the son of the Alberta MP for whom the youthful Mr. Harper happened to be working. And who was the friend? Alison Redford, now Alberta’s premier, he says: “Small world, eh?”
Guy Giorno, who ran one of his youth-wing races, went on to become chief of staff to Mr. Harper and last year served as the PM’s campaign manager. Ms. Stanley, his former teacher and mentor, was on hand at Rideau Hall in 2006, when he was first sworn in as a federal minister, because her sister, as government leader in the Senate, was also taking the oath. Mrs. LeBreton says she’s still tempted to call him Rusty during cabinet meetings.
But he found his chief political hero abroad: Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady’s right-wing measures sparked social conflict, but she set a bold course and steered straight ahead. “A conviction politician,” he says approvingly.
A product of her times, she came along when Britain was “on its knees,” he says, which is where he felt Ontario was headed when he first ran for public office in 1995 – the province “required that kind of leadership.”
By then he was a dedicated follower of Mike Harris, and about to play a prominent role in implementing what many consider a radical reduction in the size of Ontario’s government. But he’d first been drawn to Mr. Harris five years earlier by the future premier’s bold approach to what mattered more to Mr. Baird at the time – the party’s machinery.
In 1990, he was president of the provincial youth wing and leaning toward Red Tory leadership candidate Diane Cunningham, when Mr. Harris won him over. “The party was in bad shape ... it needed to be blown up,” he recalls, adding that his new champion “said quite decisively what needed to be done.”
Mr. Harris defeated New Democrat Bob Rae and came to power with 26-year-old John Baird as one of his new MPPs – and a true believer in his Common Sense Revolution.
“It was beyond ideology – it was a plan to make something happen. He was completely into that,” says John Snobelen, a member of the Harris cabinet. “He liked the idea of changing direction for the province. He was a revolutionary in the broadest sense of the word, at that time.
“He always struck me as someone who was looking for the bold things to do.”
Mr. Harris also liked what he saw and four years later made Mr. Lajoie’s civics-class prophesy come true: At 30, Mr. Baird became community and social services minister, and proved to be an eager beaver. “I think he had a list of 300 priority items in his ministry,” says Mr. Snobelen, who sat next to him in cabinet, but he also has “a sense of humour about everything, including about himself.”
Not everyone found him funny. The Harris government slashed welfare payments, targeted teachers and fought pitched battles with unions. It was a little Ontario echo of Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain and, having earned a reputation as an attack dog while a backbencher, Mr. Baird gave critics the impression he was an angry, overgrown frat boy.
Too quick to shoot and unconcerned about hitting bystanders, he employed showy wedge politics that sometimes shocked. Having called for those on social assistance to work for their money and be tested for illegal drugs, he appeared at a news conference with a box of syringes to “stop people from shooting their welfare cheque up their arm, and to help them shoot up the ladder of success.”