Brian Topp has made a career of remaining in the background, an admirable and effective trait for a political operative but hardly a winning strategy for someone who wants to lead the Official Opposition.
But in this difficult week for New Democrats that began with the death of Jack Layton and ends Saturday with his state funeral, Mr. Topp has emerged as a top leadership contender.
It is not simply random speculation. His name is being touted by top NDP officials. But during this public mourning period, those officials are refusing to speak publicly about succession.
And it is clear, too, that Mr. Topp, who now serves as the party’s president, was being considered as a leadership contender even before Mr. Layton’s death, given the surprise by some top New Democrats that his name leaked out. One said he was “thunderstruck” it went public.
This begs the question: Who is Brian Topp?
“He is a person of substance and intellect and huge competence,” says Roy Romanow, the former NDP premier of Saskatchewan and a party heavyweight.
Mr. Romanow, who will be an honorary pallbearer at the Layton state funeral, is one of the few who would speak publicly about Mr. Topp. While it is clear he has high regard for Mr. Topp, who served as his deputy chief of staff from 1993 to 2000, Mr. Romanow also made it clear he is not promoting his leadership. Nor does he know if Mr. Topp is even interested in running.
What we do know is that Mr. Topp has much influence in the party and caucus. Along with Mr. Layton, Mr. Layton’s widow, Olivia Chow, and Anne McGrath, the chief of staff, he helped craft the remarkable letter that the NDP Leader wrote to Canadians.
They spent four hours with Mr. Layton last Saturday framing his message, talking about the future of the party and even planning these last few days which saw the Prime Minister offer a rare state funeral to honour Mr. Layton and the huge outpouring of public grief.
What we do know is that Mr. Topp, 51, is from Quebec and is fluently bilingual – so necessary, given the strength of the NDP Quebec caucus.
His political career began as part of the team that saw consumer advocate and author of the Lemon-Aid car guides Phil Edmonston win a by-election in 1990, becoming the only Quebec NDP MP. Mr. Topp moved to Ottawa in 1990 to work for him.
Much later, he was instrumental in all of the Layton election campaigns, including the party’s breakthrough on May 2 to Official Opposition status. After the election, he was appointed party president.
In addition, he’s got the labour side covered, having worked for the Credit Union of Central Canada and now as the executive director of ACTRA (the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists).
But it was his involvement in the 2008-09 negotiations for the coalition between the NDP, Liberals and the Bloc Québécois that caused some in political Ottawa to take notice of Mr. Topp. (He later wrote a book about this experience.)
“He’s a little mysterious in mainstream political circles,” says Paul Zed, the former chief of staff to Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. “When Brian emerged, it was kind of like ‘who is this guy and where does he come from?’”
Mr. Zed recalls a meeting in early 2009, after Stéphane Dion had been replaced by Mr. Ignatieff as leader, between he, Ms. McGrath and Mr. Topp over the upcoming Harper budget.
Mr. Topp wanted to know if the Liberals would work with the NDP to vote down the budget, defeat the government and form a coalition.
Coalitions were, after all, old hat to Mr. Topp, who had helped negotiate a working arrangement with the Saskatchewan Liberals after the 1999 election that saw the Romanow government reduced to a minority. Several Liberals were appointed to his cabinet.
“What struck me about him was the degree of confidence with which he spoke, which told me that he was in lockstep with Jack,” Mr. Zed says.
As well, Mr. Zed remembers “really, really well” that Mr. Topp repeatedly said, “Michael Ignatieff can become Prime Minister.” Mr. Layton would have served in the cabinet.
In the end, the Liberals weren’t interested in working with the NDP and supported the Harper budget.
While Mr. Topp is many things – strategist, bilingual union organizer and Layton inner-circle member, he is not elected, which could prove a liability.
Mr. Romanow says Mr. Topp would never make a decision to seek the leadership “hastily.” He adds, however, if anyone can make the tricky transition from the political backrooms to the House of Commons, Mr. Topp can.
“Of all of the people I have seen trying to make them… my hunch is that Brian would be one of the easiest to make it of the ones I have seen,” Mr. Romanow says.