Angelo Persichilli does not fit the Harper mould.
The 63-year-old, Toronto-based journalist is replacing Dimitri Soudas as the Prime Minister’s director of communications. Mr. Soudas, the 32-year-old Harper loyalist, announced just after the May election that he was leaving.
Mr. Persichilli is the eleventh person to serve as Stephen Harper’s senior communications aide since he returned to politics in 2002, and the sixth person to act as his director of communications since he became Prime Minister.
But Mr. Persichilli is different from Mr. Soudas and the legion of Harper communicators before him. He is not a Conservative partisan (at least not overtly) and can claim bragging rights to the fact that he is the first to come from outside the Conservative family.
What is going on in the Harper PMO?
First of all, the journalist may not have been first choice. There was a fairly wide search for Mr. Soudas’s replacement, and Mr. Persichilli was not the only one being pursued.
Harper officials considered former ministerial communications strategists and they looked to the business world in search of a professional communicator in the mould of Harper chief of staff Nigel Wright, who was plucked from the senior ranks of Bay Street last year.
Given that the Tories now have a majority government, some observers suggested there would be less politics to play and more policy to talk about. So a Soudas-like partisan was no longer required. Someone who could simply tell the government’s story, and avoid conflict with the opposition, was.
However, with the Harper government’s strict conflict-of-interest rules limiting what senior staffers can do when they leave government, and with the demands of working for Mr. Harper, the pool of candidates was likely diminished greatly.
So what to make of Mr. Persichilli’s appointment as the Harper Conservatives approach their first full season as a majority government?
Many believe it signals a new direction in tone and tactics. Mr. Soudas’s blind loyalty to the Prime Minister caused friction between the PMO and national media.
One Tory close to the search for the new DComm noted that putting in someone who isn’t seen as a big-C Conservative in a position so close to Mr. Harper is a relaxation of the partisanship that has characterized this PMO.
It’s an appointment too, a veteran Tory MP says, that appeals to the broader public. Mr. Persichilli knows how to communicate, the MP says, through both conventional and ethnic media.
(Although, maybe not. This week he attracted controversy for a column he wrote in the Toronto Star criticizing Quebec.)
His work, however, in the ethnic media, as the former political editor of Italian-language newspaper Corriere Canadese and as a commentator and senior official with Omni-TV, is what likely sealed the deal.
The Harper Tories have aggressively courted ethnic Canadians, and their work paid off with their successes in Toronto in the May 2 election.
“Prime Minister Harper usually likes to send a message with his senior staff appointments,” said Jim Armour, a former Harper DComm. “This one is all about consolidating gains in the Greater Toronto Area and solidifying support in the various ethnic communities that voted Conservative for the first time in May.”
But there’s more to it. In addition to Mr. Persichilli’s appointment, there was also the announcement that Andrew MacDougall, who had served as Mr. Soudas’s deputy, is now the associate director of communications and spokesperson.
“You need to look at the two of them as a tag team,” Mr. Armour said. “MacDougall will handle the day-to-day operations and be the bridge with the national press gallery. He’s very capable, bilingual and well liked by reporters.”
Mr. Armour said Mr. Persichilli’s role will be “more focused on the long term and will likely involve increased outreach to the multicultural media.”
Tom Flanagan, the former Harper chief of staff and current political science professor at the University of Calgary, also stresses the dual approach. He says it is “a return to the model that Stephen has always preferred, which is to have two senior figures in communications.”
But there is a new feature: the ethnic focus. “This represents the new reality – that ethnic voters are now the pivotal swing element in the Conservative voting coalition,” Prof. Flanagan said.
For his part, Mr. Persichilli is remaining non-committal about how he’ll approach his new job. Asked if he will be any different than his predecessors, especially Mr. Soudas, Mr. Persichilli noted their age difference – he’s 30 years older than Mr. Soudas.
“I cannot have all the energy that Dimitri has,” Mr. Persichilli said. “I have the utmost respect for him. I have known Dimitri for 10 years. I know what he is capable of and I hope that some of his experience is transferred to me.”