PM wishes ailing campaign chief well

Ottawa — The Globe and Mail

Conservative campaign manager Doug Finley arrives for a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall on Oct. 30, 2008. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly wished a "speedy recovery" to his long-time campaign manager at the Conservative caucus Christmas party this week, some took it as a signal a federal election is looming.

But sometimes well wishes are just well wishes, and in the case of Doug Finley - Mr. Harper's hard-nosed field general - the Prime Minister owes him a profound debt of gratitude.

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Mr. Finley, 64, is battling cancer.

After missing much of the autumn, the Conservative senator recently appeared in the Red Chamber, gaunt and ashen, to help the Tory-dominated Senate finance committee vote down a bill designed to preserve disability benefits for former Nortel employees.

It's the kind of trench work he's famous for in the capital, even if most Canadians have never heard of the man. Mr. Finley is a critical cog in the Conservative machine.

The Scotsman, who still maintains his native burr, "lives for campaigning" according to Tom Flanagan, Mr. Harper's former chief of staff.

"We could never have won in 2006 without Doug Finley's organizational ability," Mr. Flanagan wrote in his 2007 book Harper's Team.

Like hockey enforcers and drill sergeants, Mr. Finley engenders feelings of either intense loyalty or animosity among those who experience his tender ministrations.

"Around the edges he may be seen as a rough-hewn Scotsman but, like many rough-hewn Scotsman, there are qualities of warmth and elements of loyalty that are rewarded in the people who stand with him," said Tim Powers, a well-connected Tory lobbyist in Ottawa.

"He's also got pretty good sense of humour and is down to earth, which keeps people appreciating him."

Mr. Finley, who is married to Conservative cabinet minister Diane Finley, also has a reputation for doing the job at hand without fear or favour.

His work as the Conservative Party muscle in charge of candidate nominations has left a trail of embittered former and would-be candidates. By all accounts, Mr. Finley plays rough.

Brent Barr and Mark Warner went public in 2007 after being stripped of their party candidacies in Ontario during unpleasant confrontations with Mr. Finley. Both complained of concerted smear campaigns.

Mr. Warner, a Toronto lawyer, described a full-throated dressing down by Mr. Finley at the party's Ottawa headquarters that he said left him none the wiser on why he was being cut out.

Mr. Finley is also the master of the button-pushing, Conservative Party fund-raising letter.

A 2007 letter under his name lambasting a CBC reporter for feeding questions to a Liberal MP raked in donations from inflamed partisans. Mr. Finley neglected to inform the party faithful that the reporter at issue was the paramour of a prominent Conservative MP.

At a Wednesday night Christmas soiree at a downtown Ottawa hotel, Mr. Harper dedicated The Proclaimers tune I'm On My Way to his "favourite Scotsman."

It may not mean an election is imminent, but Conservatives can only hope Mr. Finley is ready to answer the bell whenever the writ does drop.

"He's proven that he knows how to win and that's a very valuable commodity in politics," Mr. Powers said.

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