Brad Bennett, heir of the Social Credit dynasty that occupied the B.C. premier’s office for three decades, stood on a sidewalk outside a coffee shop on B.C.’s north coast with his eyes closed, listening to BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark speak to the crowd inside. It was the first week of the B.C. election campaign, and he was intent on absorbing the reaction of her audience.
Over on the NDP’s campaign bus, it is Marie Della Mattia who offers a sounding board for Leader John Horgan, ensuring he maintains the right balance between staying focused on the party message, but also keeping him buoyant throughout the pressure of a 28-day campaign where much rests on his shoulders.
The campaign for the May 9 election puts the party leaders in the spotlight, but behind the scenes, people such as Mr. Bennett and Ms. Della Mattia play crucial roles in shaping and recalibrating campaign messages, selecting campaign tour stops, making sure their candidates put their best foot forward – and sometimes cleaning up when they put out the wrong foot.
Christy Clark’s BC Liberal team
Mr. Bennett is Ms. Clark’s constant companion on the tour and her confidant in between campaigns. He sits with her after each event to review her speeches, to assess which lines were most effective and which still need polish. He learned his political craft at the knee of his father Bill Bennett and grandfather W.A.C. Bennett who each served as premier, building the Socred party that held power through nine elections. The Socreds eventually morphed into the party that Ms. Clark leads. He did not step into the political spotlight until the run-up to the 2013 election, when Ms. Clark called and asked for his help to repair a badly frayed tent – the coalition of centre-right interests that was threatening to split apart. He was one of the key figures in the return of the so-called free-enterprise vote to the BC Liberal banner.
In this campaign, he is playing a less public role. The coalition is no longer at risk, but Ms. Clark keeps his counsel and in the rural parts of B.C. where the Socreds built their base, she frequently invokes the Bennett name as the builders of the province’s prosperity. She has named Mr. Bennett the chair of BC Hydro, which is currently overseeing the largest public infrastructure project in the province’s history. The Site C dam will complete the massive hydroelectric projects on the Peace River launched by W.A.C. Bennett more than half a century ago. Mr. Bennett has recused himself from his role at BC Hydro for the campaign, and both he and Ms. Clark pointedly avoided a visit the dam construction site during a campaign swing to the nearby communities of Fort St. John and Dawson Creek to avoid accusations of using BC Hydro as a political prop. But Ms. Clark has used the dam – which has been criticized by by the NDP and the Green Party – as a symbol of her effort to uphold the Socred mantle.
Ms. Miller’s promotion to the senior post in the campaign has to be measured against an unusual set of circumstances. This fall, she is set to go to trial on a criminal charge of breach of trust in Ontario, stemming from a police investigation into the deletion of e-mails about the Ontario Liberals’ costly decision to cancel two gas plants before the 2011 election. But Ms. Miller has been instrumental in building the BC Liberal Party under Ms. Clark, and was only temporarily sidelined as she prepared her defence after the criminal charges were laid late in 2015.
Ms. Clark has stood by Ms. Miller, describing her as “a person of the utmost integrity.” Ms. Miller rose in the ranks of Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario Liberal government from the party’s youth wing – she served as president of the Ontario Young Liberals. She came to B.C. and set to work transforming the party apparatus under Ms. Clark’s leadership, with a focus on ensuring the party had an army of committed volunteers – five times as many as they mustered in 2013 – and an overflowing war chest. Her success in reinvigorating a grassroots base is part of the reason she has earned Ms. Clark’s loyalty despite the baggage she has brought from Ontario.
Senior communications adviser
When the campaign is not running, Ben Chin is executive director of communications and outreach in the premier’s office. After years in front of a camera as a television reporter and anchor, Mr. Chin tries to stay out of the spotlight now, but is closely involved in the day-to-day operations of government.
Mr. Chin arrived in Ms. Clark’s office late in 2012 with federal and Ontario Liberal credentials, signalling a shift from the Stephen Harper loyalists who had served in Ms. Clark’s office until then. Mr. Chin was head of media relations to then-premier Dalton McGuinty and he worked on Justin Trudeau’s party-leadership bid. Then, Mr. Chin left the fast lanes of Toronto to settle in the B.C. Interior town of Vernon, population 40,000. It was a chance meeting with Ms. Clark’s long-time friend and campaign mastermind, Mike McDonald, that secured his position in the Premier’s office. Mr. McDonald ran into him and invited him to lunch at Vernon’s Predator Ridge golf resort. Mr. Chin rolled in looking decidedly uninterested in a job – wearing a T-shirt with an FC Bayern Munich soccer-team logo. But his confidence and understanding of both sides of the media business secured him a position in Victoria. And in a job that came with a revolving door, he has shown remarkable longevity.
Mr. Pantazopolous cut his political teeth with Preston Manning’s Reform Party in the 1990s, serving as a policy adviser. He worked for a Republican polling firm before returning to to Canada and establishing himself as a pollster for political parties and candidates of the right: the Canadian Alliance, Toronto’s Rob Ford and the Harper Conservatives.
He was hired as the pollster for Ms. Clark when she launched her leadership bid for the BC Liberals in 2011 and, when she won, served for a short time as principal secretary to the new premier. He then left government to work as the party pollster in charge of voter contact in the 2013 election. He is now listed as a partner in Maple Leaf Strategies, where he trades on his success in the BC Liberals’ surprise 2013 electoral victory. “Dimitri … received national accolades as the only pollster to accurately predict the outcome of the provincial election,” the firm’s biography notes. “Dimitri’s extensive research into public attitudes guided the formulation of the strategy and messaging that contributed to the successful election of Premier Christy Clark.” It is a role he is expected to reprise, and the BC Liberals have far more money to spend on polling and data mining in this campaign. But whatever his polling is telling the Liberals, he is not revealing now – those internal numbers are a closely guarded secret.
John Horgan’s BC NDP team
Bob Dewar compares political campaigns to the ups and downs of a roller coaster. “You’ve got good days. You’ve got bad days. In a successful campaign, you have more good days than bad days.” The experienced political operative says things have – “touch wood” – been better than the alternative. He sees his job as looking at the big picture, and ensuring everyone in the process is sticking to the agreed-on message. “I really believe in messaging. It’s really critical in campaigns to have a coherent message.” He also works with John Horgan, talking through daily developments.
Mr. Dewar, the brother of former NDP MP Paul Dewar, has been in the political fray before, working as chief of staff – and campaign director – to former Manitoba premier Gary Doer. In February, 2016, John Horgan called him up and asked whether he wanted to come to work for him – “I’d never met the man” – and he ended up as chief of staff. More recently, Mr. Dewar switched over in March to run the campaign. He entirely missed the 2013 campaign that haunts many B.C. New Democrats, but has heard the stories. “I’ve heard people’s different opinions. It varies with whom you speak,” he said. “But we’re running a 2017 campaign with John Horgan and that’s what we’re all about.”
Raj Sihota was born in Kamloops and, as she puts it, was “raised a Socred.” The NDP wasn’t her first political home but she notes she was in high school when Bill Vander Zalm was education minister – a situation that led her to the party. “I became quite politicized,” she says of those early years. And she has never looked back, rising through the ranks with assistant roles for Jenny Kwan, Joy MacPhail and Carole James. As provincial director, she has been in charge of preparing the party for the election, sharing resources with various departments, so the party is ready to execute the campaign plan. She says Mr. Dewar is more in charge of the daily message. “My job is more focused on making sure we’re targeting our resources, financial and human, to the places we need.” The first South Asian woman to hold the top job in a B.C. political party came on board to her current job in September. In 2013, during the last election, she worked on three ridings in Vancouver and Burnaby that the NDP won. She said you learn from mistakes and try not to make them in the next campaign. “We’re doing a much better job in 2017 of holding the premier accountable for the decisions she has made,” Ms. Sihota said.
MARIE DELLA MATTIA
Special adviser to the leader
Every politician needs a sounding board. NDP Leader John Horgan has had Ms. Della Mattia, who has been travelling with him during the election leaders’ tour. “Every leader needs someone they have confidence in who they trust, who can help make them laugh, and make them focus at the same time and they can have a comfortable safe conversation with that they feel helps them go out and do their very best,” she said. “Every leader needs someone like that. I wouldn’t say they need a Marie Della Mattia because I am unavailable.”
Mr. Horgan’s tour days include rallies, news conferences, round tables and other moments of connecting with voters, the media and stakeholders. During this campaign, Mr. Horgan has generally been walking a line between sticking tightly to key campaign messages and expressing some side of his gregarious personality. “I am working with John on his announcements and what he is communicating to connect with people in different communities all over B.C.” Since March, Ms. Della Mattia has been working with Mr. Horgan after wrapping up work last fall as owner of the Now Group, focused on issue and opinion advertising. She previously worked in politics, with roles in seven winning NDP campaigns between 1991 and 2011 in B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia. She said bad experiences in the fall with health care for family members, including her mother, prompted her to consider an active role in the election. “That was pretty motivating for me.”
Mr. Sanford is in charge of campaign operations, a responsibility that includes focusing on communications and outreach to media and stakeholders. “I’m working to make sure we’re all in sync – the different departments,” he said in an interview.
The veteran political operative, the son of former North Island MLA Karen Sanford who has worked on campaigns for former veteran MP Libby Davies and would-be federal NDP leader Brian Topp among others, worked in a more modest communications role in the 2013 campaign the NDP expected it would win. However, he started this new assignment last September. “This is a new level of responsibility for me,” he said. Mr. Sanford’s day job, so to speak, is at the Comox Valley Art Gallery.
“I’ve worked in all facets of campaigning. I’ve worked in local campaigns. That’s where I cut my teeth. But I’ve also worked in central roles. I have an understanding of the various departments we always have in campaigns, ranging from community to field operations to working with the candidate.”
While John Horgan has been the lead voice of NDP efforts to win power for the first time in 21 years, Mr. Sanford has often provided the media with more expansive information than the leader has.
Illustrations by Jérôme Mireault / Colagene for The Globe And Mail
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