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Meet the chief adviser behind every big move Justin Trudeau makes

Justin Trudeau, right, chats to his chief adviser Gerald Butts after taking part in the the Liberal leadership debate in Mississauga, Ont., on Feb. 16, 2013.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Justin Trudeau's most trusted adviser sent out a warning at Liberal headquarters last week, telling everyone to avoid gloating about the party's momentum in the final days of the campaign.

"Arrogance is the Liberal Party's kryptonite," Gerald Butts told party workers, referencing Superman's only vulnerability, according to Liberal sources.

The warning aimed to showcase the humility that Mr. Butts has tried to instill in the party ever since the start of his friend Justin Trudeau's leadership race in 2012. But there is also a sense of renewed confidence – the polls are positive in the eyes of Liberal officials and Mr. Trudeau is feeding off the energy of crowds of supporters he meets on the road. (Read the latest Nanos Research tracking poll here.)

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With just days left in the campaign, Mr. Butts wants to ensure that nothing disrupts his carefully laid out plans to reshape his university buddy into Canada's prime minister.

If there is to be a Liberal victory on Oct. 19, it will be largely a result of the unique partnership between Mr. Butts and Mr. Trudeau. The two friends come from opposite parts of the country – both in a geographical and a socio-economic sense – and have formed a unique partnership in Canadian political history. Instead of a traditional leader-follower relationship, they operate on a peer-to-peer basis with no formal distance between the pair.

To understand what Mr. Trudeau would achieve in power – what type of government he'd run and what agenda he'd push – one also needs to understand what drives the 44-year-old Mr. Butts.

The platform they, along with a handful of other advisers, have put together was based on a shared, long-held belief in active, interventionist governments. Mr. Butts, for one, was not a fan of the $100-billion tax cut that the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien offered to taxpayers and corporations in 2000, feeling it showcased a lack of ambition in Ottawa. He was still a few years away from making his mark as a top aide to Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, but he was not pleased to see the federal government drastically cut taxes after it had balanced the budget.

"Justin and I are both very traditional, philosophical liberals, in that the individual is paramount, and government ought to be in the business of expanding opportunities for individuals," Mr. Butts once told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

Mr. Butts declined to be interviewed for this story. But conversations with more than a dozen people who have worked or engaged with him reveal a strategist who enacts dramatic policy measures to get voters' attention and who has an ability to transform his organization's central figure into its best weapon.

In his years working full time with the Liberal Party, Mr. Butts has had a hand in every big move made by Mr. Trudeau: launching his leadership campaign in 2012; promising to legalize marijuana; laying down a no compromise pro-choice policy for candidates and axing all senators from the Liberal caucus in Ottawa. Liberals joke that Mr. Butts "shares a brain" with Mr. Trudeau. They are that close.

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Mr. Butts confirmed that he was behind the party's recruitment of Bill Blair, the former Toronto police chief, to run in the riding of Scarborough-Southwest which is currently in the hands of the NDP. Mr. Blair, who has said he had "respectful conversations" with officials from other parties, has played a key role during the campaign in deflecting Conservative attacks on law-and-order issues.

At every stop on the campaign trail, Mr. Trudeau lays out this philosophy in more concrete terms, promising that his party, contrary to the others, would increase spending on a wide array of priorities. "The time to invest is now," he says repeatedly.

Far from being afraid of being cast as tax-and-spend liberals in this election, Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Butts have embraced the charge. The core elements of the Liberal plan are to increase taxes and take away benefits from richer Canadians, in order to redistribute the benefits to lower-income and middle-class families, and borrow tens of billions of dollars to boost spending on infrastructure in coming years.

Senior Liberal officials all agree that the turning point in their campaign came in late August, when Mr. Trudeau announced he would run three straight deficits of up to $10-billion a year, before balancing the budget, to pay for a more ambitious platform. The surprise position forced the NDP to double down on its own promise to balance its first budget, sharpening the contrast between the two parties.

It is not known at this point what role Mr. Butts would play in the event of a Liberal victory. He now lives in Toronto, close to High Park, with his wife, lawyer Jodi Butts, and their two children. While there is no doubt he would continue to be involved with the Liberal Party, Mr. Butts has yet to decide whether he would uproot his family to Ottawa, sources said.

For now, he is full time on the campaign tour with Mr. Trudeau, along with other key advisers such as Quebec specialist Robert Asselin and chief of staff Cyrus Reporter. The other top Liberal operative, campaign director Katie Telford, is based in Ottawa during the race, overseeing the on-the-ground organization.

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While the Liberal team is said to be very horizontal and colloquial, Mr. Butts is widely credited in Liberal circles as being the "first among equals" in the coterie of advisers, the one with the "biggest voice" when it comes to offering advice to the Leader.

In a sense, Mr. Butts benefits from an unfair advantage. Both born in 1971, Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Butts met at McGill University and quickly became friends when they were in their early 20s. Over the years, they roamed the streets of Montreal and went on to travel the country together, developing a bond that lives on to this day.

Looking at them operating on the road in this campaign, there is no doubt that they are more complementary than similar. While they are both tall and fit, anyone would wager that Mr. Trudeau is the gifted scion of a famous millionaire politician, and that Mr. Butts is the scrappier son of a coal miner. Mr. Trudeau snakes through crowds and shakes every hand thrust his way, while Mr. Butts looks on from the sidelines, seemingly planning the next step.

Many of Mr. Trudeau's political views flow from his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, while Mr. Butts was chiefly influenced by his aunt, a Roman Catholic nun named Peggy who was an educator and social-justice activist in Nova Scotia known as the "rebel with a cross."

To this day, he views education as means of lifting people out of poverty. He and his four siblings each earned at least two degrees – the means to get out of Glace Bay and prosper in the wider world.

George MacDonald, Mr. Butts's high-school guidance counsellor, believes he was the only one from his class to go to McGill. "They weren't fixed with money, his father was a coal miner and so on … but he wanted to go to McGill and that was his goal," said Mr. MacDonald. "What impressed me was that a little boy from Cape Breton would go to McGill and get mixed in with all the elite."

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While Mr. Trudeau became a teacher after university, Mr. Butts became a senior adviser in the office of Mr. McGuinty, overseeing communications and policy. Their political careers came together in 2012, when Mr. Trudeau, after four years as an MP, formally launched his leadership campaign. At the time, Mr. Butts was thriving in the international echelons of the World Wildlife Fund, as president of WWF-Canada since 2008, but he decided to stay in Canada and work on Mr. Trudeau's campaign.

The pair's biggest success to this point has been to run consistently on two core issues: helping the middle class and offering positive politics. The call was made from the start, and the party has stuck with those themes as it developed its platform.

The stable strategy is similar to what the Conservative Party has offered in recent years, but stands in contrast to the New Democrats' campaign. After running on a campaign of balanced budgets, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has shifted tactics in the final leg, focusing his attacks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, to deal with slumping poll numbers.

This is exactly what Mr. Butts was hoping for in the spring, when the Liberal Party was stuck in third place and trying to restore Mr. Trudeau's credibility after a series of gaffes. His analysis was that a majority of Canadians wanted a change of government, which meant that the first challenge for the Liberals during the election was to offer a better alternative to the Conservatives than the NDP.

All of that seemed in peril in early May when Mr. Trudeau launched the first major plank of the Liberal platform – a new tax bracket for Canadians making more than $200,000 a year combined with lower taxes for most others – at a family diner in Gatineau, Que.

The following day, the NDP's Rachel Notley made history in Alberta, ending a 44-year-old political dynasty by defeating Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservatives. The electoral stunner created the sense, for the first time, that the New Democrats could beat the Conservatives on the national stage.

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As the NDP surged nationally, Mr. Butts and Ms. Telford spent a lot of time studying the numbers. They were convinced that the support wouldn't last. However, they also operated on the principle "that the NDP thought their numbers were solid," a Liberal source said.

The NDP went on to run as a risk-free alternative to the Conservative government, presenting Mr. Mulcair as a prime-minister-in-waiting. Mr. Butts, on the other hand, was part of the team that convinced Mr. Trudeau to gamble on a bolder platform, and to run as the energetic opposite of Mr. Harper.

Mr. Trudeau is now acting like he believes that he could win. At a stop in a traditionally Conservative riding of Fundy Royal in New Brunswick last week, he predicted a Conservative defeat.

"The Conservatives will throw every nasty ad, every dirty trick in the book, at us. That is the way they came into office, that is the way they governed," he said. "And that is the way they will go out."

While Mr. Butts has warned Liberals not to sound cocky, it appears as if his partner in politics did not get the memo.

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