His followers say, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." He is not the one giving speeches, certainly not the one whose name will be on the ballot for Alberta's May 5 election.
And for that, Randy Dawson is likely grateful. His job is to ensure Jim Prentice garners the support he needs to serve as the province's 16th premier. As things stand, the Tories and Mr. Prentice are in a knock-down, slug-it-out campaign that could see them left with a minority government – or even no government at all.
But as the man with his hands on the party's political machinery, Mr. Dawson is unafraid and resolute. You can tell because he isn't saying anything publicly, nor is he panicking behind closed doors over the latest poll, which has the Tories lagging behind both Wildrose and the New Democrats.
To hear one party insider tell it, Mr. Dawson is exuding full confidence in a "We got 'em right where we want 'em" kind of way – understandable given that the Progressive Conservatives have run Alberta for nearly 44 years straight.
"Some PC candidates are scared [of losing in their riding] but the brain trust isn't," said the insider who asked that his name not be used. "Prentice's nature is to entrust Randy Dawson. Prentice trusts Dawson absolutely. They go way back [to Prentice's 10 years as an MP for Calgary Centre North]."
That's hardly a disparaging quote, yet the request for anonymity shows that speaking out of turn is simply not acceptable, even if it is to say nice things about Mr. Dawson. Since the April 7 call for an election, media outlets have tried to get him to talk on record, with no luck. (For this story and others, The Globe and Mail left messages for Mr. Dawson without hearing back.)
That silence has created a mystique about the man who regularly makes bad things go away and better things happen – and the Prentice campaign has presented Mr. Dawson its share of challenges.
Last week, former Tory deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk spoke off-script, saying he favoured higher corporate taxes. In another matter, Mr. Prentice rescinded one of his budget items: He chose to continue to allow Albertans to claim 21 per cent on charitable tax donations over $200, after initially planning to slice that figure to 12.75 per cent. Mr. Prentice used last Thursday's leaders' debate to say switching back was his way of listening to the people, then giving them what they wanted.
Mr. Dawson has been giving his clients what they want for more than 30 years. During that span, he advised Alberta's finance minister and Canada's minister of constitutional affairs, and was an influential figure on behalf of then-Alberta premier Ed Stelmach. He later worked as an advice-giver to former premier Alison Redford and provided what was called "general communications services" to Saskatchewan Party Leader Brad Wall in his successful bid for the premier's office. Outside of politics, Mr. Dawson ran specialized liquor stores before selling them.
All of this comes from Mr. Dawson's bio at Navigator, a public-relations firm that says it deals with issues management, crisis response and reputation recovery. Mr. Dawson is a managing principal at Navigator, whose motto serves as a mantra: "When You Can't Afford to Lose."
Mr. Dawson is on leave from Navigator to run Mr. Prentice's campaign. On Tuesday, the firm was identified as a beneficiary of sole-source contracts handed to them by former health minister Fred Horne; the CBC confirmed that after obtaining government documents. Navigator is also working with the town of Okotoks, Alta., in its bid to have a pipeline built to bring in water from Calgary. The water is needed to enable the town of 27,000 to reach its projected growth of 80,000, which can only get done if the province agrees to help.
Alberta Venture magazine did a 2008 story on Mr. Dawson and his two business partners (Jason Hatcher and Susan Elliott) headlined "The New Kingmakers." It provided a glimpse into how Mr. Dawson went about crafting the political fortunes of two PC leaders who couldn't afford to lose.
In Mr. Stelmach's case, the campaign pitch was Change that Works, which meant selling him "as the agent of change." There were television ads showing the candidate in a Calgary coffee shop mingling with the people, answering their questions. Suddenly, a provincial politician few knew about was being shown as a good listener and, more importantly, as a man who would not betray public trust.
In Ms. Redford's case, she was doing poorly in the 2012 polls and losing ground to Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith. With a late twist, the Tories played up Wildrose as a band of extremists, people you wouldn't want running the province. The scare tactics worked. Ms. Redford became premier of the party's 12th majority government until her own faults forced her to step down.
Mr. Dawson is a strong believer in doing things his way, and that has not gone over well with everyone. Stephen Carter, a political strategist who has worked with him in the past, remembered a conversation the two had after Mr. Carter had helped Naheed Nenshi win the 2010 Calgary mayoral race, an unexpected result.
"The PCs were listless and I went to Randy and asked if he wanted my help [in the lead-up to the 2012 provincial election]," Mr. Carter said. "He told me all the things Nenshi should have done and needed to do well. We've just had the biggest upset campaign in Calgary history and all Randy wanted was to push me away."
For now, the focus is solely on this election. With the clock ticking down, PC members have been left to think Mr. Prentice's best hope is to win over the significant number of undecided voters – as much as 20 per cent, according to one poll – or to wrestle votes away from Wildrose. It worked before and it might work again. The man behind the curtain is pulling every lever and pushing every button to make it happen.