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Young Harper aide shatters glass ceiling to run election campaign

Jenni Byrne, now Stephen Harper's campaign manager, helps the Conservatives prep for Question Period on Jan. 27, 2009.

Jason Ransom/PMO

Jenni Byrne emerged this week as the most influential woman in political Ottawa, tapped by Stephen Harper to manage his next election campaign.

With this job, Ms. Byrne, who is both feared and fearless, has crashed through the glass ceilings of the political backroom, taking on a position traditionally occupied by middle-aged white men.

She is 34 years old.

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Described by colleagues as possessing a volcanic temper with a penchant for yelling at cabinet ministers, staffers and senior bureaucrats alike, Ms. Byrne is fiercely loyal to the Prime Minister, his decisions and the small "c" Conservative brand.

It has not gone unnoticed by some staffers that a hakapik, the weapon used to club to death baby seals, sits on her desk.

"She has cultivated a reputation where most people are terrified of being on the wrong side of her," says a senior Conservative official who knows her well.

No wonder then that many of her colleagues who were interviewed for this article asked not to be identified. Ms. Byrne refused to be interviewed.

Few women manage national campaigns, although Jean Charest had a female campaign manager when he was Progressive Conservative leader in 1997.

But this is different. The stakes are higher with the Conservatives in power. And after two minority governments, Mr. Harper is desperate for a majority. As one former official says, he doesn't care whether somebody is a man or a woman, he just wants to get the job done. He's picked Ms. Byrne to do it.

An intensely loyal Harperite now, it was Preston Manning and his Reform beliefs - lower taxes, accountability, abolishing the long-gun registry - that brought Ms. Byrne to Ottawa in the late 1990s from Fenelon Falls, a village in Ontario that is part of the city of Kawartha Lakes.

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Having attended Georgian College and the University of Ottawa, her political education came at the national party office - where she began organizing campus clubs and worked her way up from there.

But it was her stint at the PMO as director of issues management that cemented her reputation as tough but effective.

The job involved daily damage control; she started at 6:30 a.m. with a conference call to ministerial staffers, gauging the issues, troubleshooting and helping to frame the government's response.

"She turned issues management into a tiger operation," says a former colleague.

A senior staffer recalls a conference call during the H1N1 crisis when Ms. Byrne, unhappy with how it was being handled, ordered a plane that was heading from Mexico be turned around after discovering there was no health officer to screen for the virus at the airport.

The whole time the staffer said he was thinking, "Can she do that?"

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In 2009, she returned to the party as director of political operations. Since then she has overseen victories in four of seven by-elections, running them like mini-national campaigns.

When asked what she's like, her colleagues say she's tenacious, a workaholic and has good political instincts.

One friend says she does not defer to the status quo or to bureaucrats and that she is willing to seize on a populist issue to change government policy.

And for many years, Ms. Byrne was considered one half of an Ottawa power couple. She went out with MP Pierre Poilievre, the 31-year-old parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister, who is an equal match to her partisanship. But the two recently split up.

In taking over as campaign manager, meanwhile, she is replacing Doug Finley, who managed the 2006 and 2008 campaigns. She had served as Mr. Finley's deputy.

Mr. Finley, appointed to the Senate in 2009, has cancer and cannot be as heavily involved in the campaign.

With an election widely expected as early as this spring, however, Ms. Byrne is not entirely on her own - Guy Giorno, who recently stepped down as the Prime Minister's chief of staff, was appointed national campaign chair.

"I think bringing back Guy Giorno puts some experience there with her," observes Tom Flanagan, a University of Calgary political science professor, author and former Harper campaign manager, who has known Ms. Byrne for a decade.

"Guy is actually very calm ... which I think is a good balance with Jenni."

Prof. Flanagan has been on the receiving end of her temper and he cautions this is something that she will have to learn to control.

"She's got to put some of that behind her. Not lose the intensity, but she's got to put some of the temper behind her. I think she can."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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