Tom Allison won’t take the bait; won’t admit how sweet it must feel right about now. Instead he stumbles through a few half-completed sentences, then gives up. “I can’t find the words,” he concedes.
He could be forgiven if he gloated. Only a few months ago, he thought his career at Queen’s Park was over, after Dalton McGuinty’s officials told him he was no longer wanted as chief of staff to a minister. Then the Premier announced he himself was done, and just as Mr. Allison was moving out his boxes, he got an invitation to manage a leadership campaign. So this week, he walked back into the legislative building alongside Mr. McGuinty’s replacement, Kathleen Wynne.
If Mr. Allison were inclined toward bitterness, though, he wouldn’t have been able to mastermind the charm offensive that helped Ms. Wynne triumph at last weekend’s Ontario Liberal leadership convention. That he was able to walk into the first meeting of her staff and volunteers, proclaim that hers would be the “friendliest” campaign, and then make good on it had much to do with professional experience to which other Liberals are able to relate, and personal struggles they’re barely able to fathom.
After enlisting as a junior provincial staffer in the mid-1980s, the 53-year-old worked on countless campaigns for countless Liberals. A couple of memories – running Joe Cordiano’s bid in the 1996 provincial leadership that Mr. McGuinty won, and playing a senior role on Michael Ignatieff’s unsuccessful 2006 federal effort – stuck in his head.
“We were so determined to win at every step,” he recalls. “The problem is that if you get very competitive, your elbows get up, and you end up arriving at the convention to discover you don’t have enough friends.” That meant frontrunners wound up falling to underdogs like Mr. McGuinty and Stéphane Dion, who in turn had to spend years trying (unsuccessfully, in Mr. Dion’s case) to paper over rifts.
But there may have been another reason why Mr. Allison was able to bring a degree of maturity to Ms. Wynne’s campaign for which political operatives, let alone those cast out by their own party’s elites, are not typically known.
Walking home from Queen’s Park one day in 1994, Mr. Allison felt an unbearable pain in his chest. He walked straight into an emergency room, and learned he was suffering an aneurysm caused by Marfan Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder with which he had been diagnosed as a teenager.
Fourteen years, three more aneurysms and a couple of surgeries later, Mr. Allison found himself in a hospital room in Houston. He was supposed to have been the first person in Canada to undergo a procedure that involved having his entire aorta replaced with dacron; his doctor decided he was too high-risk, and shipped him south.
Mr. Allison expected to be in an induced coma for up to 10 days. Instead, it lasted 4 1/2 weeks, during which he had six separate trips to the operating room.
“To be honest, if I had known what I was going to go through, I wouldn’t have done it,” he says. “I lost a year of my life; I’m in pain right now.”
But for all of its misery, the ordeal also brought some perspective to someone who had previously gained a reputation for his prickliness.
“I remember visiting him in the hospital, and thinking, ‘Wow, his personality has really changed,’” recalls Tom Jakobsh, a long-time friend who worked alongside Mr. Allison on past campaigns. “He was a mellower, more thoughtful person. He was more patient. And he developed an ability to be polite and respectful to people he didn’t like or respect.”
Mr. Allison is characteristically circumspect, but it’s obvious the carloads of Liberals who visited him in Texas affected him. “I felt so supported by my Liberal family – it was extraordinary,” he says. “I’ve always believed the best part about being involved in politics is the friendships. And it just reinforced that in the best possible way.”
With time, after the surgery, Mr. Allison went back to being what many in his party refer to as a “hired gun.” When Mr. McGuinty vacated his job, several would-be successors thought he might run their campaigns – including Glen Murray, the minister who had unsuccessfully pushed back against the Premier’s office’s instructions to replace him.
Mr. Allison concedes it was “extremely difficult,” even “hurtful,” to explain to Mr. Murray that he needed to go to more of a contender. “I said to Glen, it’s really important for me to manage a campaign where I truly believe my candidate can win – I need that to get up every morning and go to the campaign office.”
Nor does he pretend that he went to Ms. Wynne because of a “close personal friendship”; she was just “smart enough to want somebody who had a lot of experience.”
And yet speaking to those who worked under him in that camp, there is an appreciation for the way he pushed back against the inclination of a governing party filling a leadership void while trailing in the polls to turn on itself. “He led by example,” says a campaign worker. “If he overheard any conversation that was negative toward other Liberals, he shut it down immediately.”
Maintaining that culture now that Ms. Wynne is leading the Liberals will be considerably trickier. Mr. Allison is now expected to step into the “operations” role in the Premier’s office, a highly political job that previous occupants have used in part to crack down on dissent.
It could be him, next time, who has to decide that other staff have outlived their usefulness. But for now, he’s trying to stick to his hard-learned lessons.
“When we had our first transition meeting, I said the same thing I said at our first campaign meeting,” he recounts. “If we are known as friendly, it will pay dividends.”