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The Globe and Mail

Doug Finley: mastermind of Tory election triumphs

Senator Doug Finley in his office on Parliament Hill in 2011.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The first time Doug Finley applied to work for Stephen Harper, he didn't get the job.

Mr. Harper, then the Leader of the Canadian Alliance, and Don Plett, who was the party's president, were looking for a director of political operations. Mr. Finley was interviewed "and we didn't hire him," says Mr. Plett.

But Mr. Harper saw something in the gruff Scot. Despite the initial rejection, he asked Mr. Finley in 2003 to come to the rescue of a by-election campaign in Southwestern Ontario that was falling apart.

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"All I know is that, when Doug arrived, suddenly so did volunteers … and suddenly organization emerged," says Ian Brodie, Mr. Harper's former chief of staff, who had been on the ground since the vote was called.

"We didn't win," said Mr. Brodie. But Mr. Finley's political skills could not be denied. And Mr. Harper gave him a top job in the team that helped him become leader of the newly formed Conservative Party.

Mr. Finley was subsequently named field director for the Conservatives during the 2004 election campaign and fashioned a breakthrough for the party in Ontario. Then, as national campaign director, he engineered a victory in the general election of 2006 and again in 2008.

Mr. Finley, who was named to the Senate by Mr. Harper in 2009, died in Ottawa on May 11, after a long and public battle with cancer. He was 66.

Even his detractors admit Mr. Finley was one of the best Canadian political tacticians of the modern era. Beneath the "pit bull" exterior, he was a generous and warm-hearted man who loved a dram of Scotch, a smoke, and his soccer teams, the Glasgow Celtic and Manchester United. But he really, really loved politics.

"He woke up in the morning and he was political and he was still political at 2 a.m. the following morning," said Mr. Plett who ended up being one of his closest friends. "And he just talked politics. I have been doing it since I was 15 years old, but I learned more from Doug Finley in the last 10 years of knowing him than I did in all of the years previous."

Mr. Finley was born in Exeter in England on July 25, 1946, and his family moved to Scotland shortly thereafter.

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When his parents and siblings emigrated to Canada in the 1960s, Mr. Finley stayed behind to finish a university degree. His sister, Maureen Todd, remembers him as being the "coolest" of older brothers – a massive fan of the Beatles who had an encyclopedic knowledge of music.

Mr. Finley eventually followed his family to Montreal. "I think he saw, right from the beginning, just what [Canada] offered as far as opportunity and the lifestyle. He definitely embraced it," said Ms. Todd.

He quickly became involved in politics, a passion he inherited from his mother, Amelia, with whom he had regular and rousing debates.

Mr. Finley campaigned for the Liberals when Pierre Trudeau was in power and went door to door in support of Rod Blaker, the Liberal who represented the Montreal riding of Lachine for 16 years. But his friends say Mr. Finley was never a Liberal at heart.

He was "staunchly, staunchly fiscally Conservative," said Mr. Plett.

While working at Rolls-Royce in Montreal, he met a young summer intern named Diane Dennis. The romance "was almost immediate, I would say," said Ms. Todd. The couple were married in December, 1982.

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"There were no two people so incredibly suited" as they were, said Ms. Todd. "Diane is just a amazing crafts person; she loves to knit and crochet and quilt and he would shop for hours with her for wool. We travelled all over Scotland together and he went to all the wool mills with her."

Friends say Doug and Diane Finley were deeply in love throughout their more than 30 years of marriage. They had one daughter, Siobhan.

They also had in common their love of politics. Ms. Finley is now the Human Resources Minister. And they shared a commitment to Mr. Harper.

After leaving Rolls-Royce as a senior executive, Mr. Finley served as president of Standard Aero, senior vice-president of AvCorp Industries and chief operating officer of Fernlea Flowers, a large growing operation in Southwestern Ontario.

But his primary job, since the creation of the Conservative Party, was winning elections.

The first two years of the new party were rough ones for Mr. Harper. Doubts were being expressed, even from within, about whether he was the right man for the leader's job. In May, 2005, Belinda Stronach crossed the floor to the Liberals, and morale was low.

"Doug is the one that held it together that summer. He put the PM on the road for the summer barbeque tour, and branded the summer with a launch event at the Westin [hotel in Ottawa] to put an end to all the 'where was Harper?' stories," said Mr. Brodie. With Mr. Finley as campaign manager, "the new team congealed quickly. And we never looked back."

Not that there weren't a few bumps along the way – some of them serious.

In February, 2009, he and Irving Gerstein, the head of the Conservative Fund and chief fundraiser for the party, were charged with willfully breaking elections laws as a result of their involvement in the so-called "in and out" scandal during the election of 2006.

Money was transferred between candidates and parties, resulting in the Conservatives spending more than they were allowed during that campaign. The charges against the two men were eventually dropped in a deal that saw the party fined $52,000 for breaking election rules.

But despite campaigns that pushed the boundaries, Mr. Harper and his party had found a winning formula with Doug Finley calling the shots.

John Walsh, president of the Conservative Party, said Mr. Finley would be the first person to give Mr. Harper credit for the party's victories. But "Doug was certainly the midwife of that success," said Mr. Walsh. "He really did an unbelievable job in taking this fledgling party and bringing it right to the forefront of a more professional and modern-thinking party when it comes to campaigning."

Shortly after Mr. Finley was named to the Senate, Mr. Walsh and his two sons were visiting Ottawa and they met with him at his office in Parliament's East Block – rooms once occupied by another Conservative Scot, Sir John A. Macdonald. Mr. Finley broke off from what he was doing to take the boys on a tour of the building, including the bank vaults in the basement that few people get a chance to see.

"Doug was happy to be a warm-hearted, gracious gentleman with people whether it mattered to the cause or not," said Mr. Walsh.

Majory LeBreton, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, said there are days when her job has been a challenge. "And I would get home at night and I would get an e-mail from him and it was just the nicest [thing], giving me a couple of suggestions, just very supportive, very helpful."

In 2010, Mr. Finley was told he had cancer. At one point in the months that followed, he thought he had it beat. But, in January of last year, he was told it was back and it was incurable. He was open about his disease and its finality. But he tried not to let it slow him down. Three days before he died, he was speaking in the Senate about a bill on bulk water.

"He was such a fighter," said Ms. LeBreton.

"When he was in the hospital a couple of weeks ago, I got an e-mail and he was telling me they were trying to figure out a way to manage the pain so he could get on with his life."

But it is the fight he put into electoral campaigns for which Mr. Finley will be remembered by most Canadians.

Dennis Travale, the mayor of Norfolk County in Southwestern Ontario, says Mr. Finley "used me as one of his training wheels" by running his mayoralty campaign in 2000 – a campaign that Mr. Travale ultimately lost. But he went on to win the next election and the one after that.

"Doug instilled in me certain things," said Mr. Travale. "First and foremost, it was all about 'this is not a game you go into lightly, this is something you go in to win.'"

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