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Andrew Bevan, right, Premier Kathleen Wynne's Chief of Staff is pictured during a photo op with Toronto Mayor John Tory at the Ontario legislature on Sept. 7, 2016.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell delivered a Speech from the Throne on Monday, one person seemed to pay closer attention than anyone else in the room.

Sitting in the front row of the makeshift seating filling the floor of the Ontario legislature, the bespectacled man with the hulking 6-foot-1 frame and shaved head had good reason to hang on every word: He is counting on the address for political salvation.

Andrew Bevan, Premier Kathleen Wynne's chief of staff and principal secretary, is the most powerful person in Ontario most people have never heard of.

Ms. Wynne's confidant for some 15 years, the English-born 49-year-old is at the centre of every piece of her ambitious agenda. He has guided the Premier's $29-billion transit expansion plan, overseen a wide-ranging strategy to fight climate change and worked on an expansion of the province's pension system.

But along the way, as he has helped Ms. Wynne with her grander ambitions, more day-to-day concerns have gotten away from them. A series of ethical imbroglios – culminating in a scandal over the provincial Liberals' cash-for-access fundraising system – and pocketbook pain, particularly over the province's high electricity rates, have conspired to drive down the government's poll numbers, costing them a crucial Scarborough by-election earlier this month and threatening their re-election in 20 months' time.

Hence the speech, signalling a government reset, including a subsidy for hydro customers, a campaign-finance crackdown and new daycare spaces.

For Mr. Bevan, this is a critical moment. He's learned the hard way the political cost of losing touch with reality while getting caught up in big-picture policy adventures.

His previous high-water mark was as chief of staff to Stéphane Dion during the latter's stint as federal Liberal leader nearly a decade ago. Mr. Bevan helped craft Mr. Dion's signature Green Shift climate plan, only to watch his boss flounder as he ran up against an electorate more worried about day-to-day concerns in the face of a shaky economy.

Today, Mr. Bevan is the sort of aide who can guide a roomful of bureaucrats in mapping out a plan to electrify the GO commuter-train network one day, then work behind closed doors with Rob Ford's office the next to kill a light-rail line to win a by-election.

It helps that he has stayed firmly in the background. While he may be all-powerful in the corridors of Queen's Park, you won't find Mr. Bevan on televised political roundtables or arguing with pundits on Twitter.

Those who have worked closely with him describe a man unusually easygoing for a high-powered political aide. But his amiable personality belies an intense work ethic and a desire to be directly involved in virtually every one of the government's files – a trait he shares with Ms. Wynne.

The stakes have never been higher for him. Implement Ms. Wynne's agenda and see her re-elected in 2018, and he will have left an indelible mark on the country. Fail, and he could watch another government erase his legacy and that of the Premier he serves.

From rugby fields to halls of power

On the rugby pitch at Appleby College, a private boarding school in Oakville, the teenaged Mr. Bevan stood out as much for his courteous demeanour as his rough-and-tumble play.

A small, slim, 13-year-old when he arrived at Appleby in 1980, shortly after moving from Hampshire in southern England with his mother and younger brother, he started as a back before his growing physical heft allowed him to claim a place in the scrum. By the time he graduated five years later, he had moved up to the punishing, physical role of No. 8.

"He always epitomized to me the spirit of the game. Play very aggressively and tackle wholeheartedly – then leap back to your feet, help the opposing player up and carry on with the game," recalls Aran O'Carroll, who was two years behind Mr. Bevan. "A lot of the older kids in high school were super intimidating and would take the mickey out of younger kids, but Andrew was never really like that. He was always a total gentleman."

His best friend at school, Rod Taylor, remembers that Mr. Bevan's left-of-centre political views were already formed. The pair often wandered down to the lake after dinner to hash out the issues of the day.

"He was very political. We were at opposite ends of the spectrum – he was very liberal, I'm conservative," he says. "From Grade 9 all the way up through 13, we would have heated discussions."

After finishing at Appleby in 1985, Mr. Bevan moved on to political science at the University of Toronto. In his early post-university years, he worked odd jobs in construction and tended bar at The Fireplace, a watering hole on Toronto's Jarvis Street, while looking for a way to get into politics.

Mr. Bevan's break came in 1993, when he signed up to volunteer for John Godfrey, the Liberal candidate in the federal Toronto riding of Don Valley West. He arrived with a resumé, complete with two references, for the unglamorous and unpaid job of knocking on doors and pounding in lawn signs.

"He's just one of those quietly efficient people and doesn't make a lot of noise, doesn't say more than he needs to, but is so well-organized," Mr. Godfrey says. "He imperceptibly rose through the ranks to become deputy campaign manager."

When Mr. Godfrey won, he hired Mr. Bevan as his constituency assistant. The job mostly involved solving constituents' day-to-day problems and building the party's organization in the riding. Occasionally, it also brought the chance to work on larger files: In the summer of 2002, for instance, he helped Mr. Godfrey organize a successful caucus petition to get then-prime minister Jean Chrétien to ratify the Kyoto Accord.

During one local campaign – an unsuccessful 1999 bid by Paul Davidson for the provincial equivalent of Mr. Godfrey's seat – Mr. Bevan became friends with a particularly enthusiastic volunteer: an education activist named Kathleen Wynne. In the next election Ms. Wynne, by then a school trustee, sought the seat herself and asked Mr. Bevan to work on her campaign. She won in a landslide as Dalton McGuinty's Liberals swept to power.

In 2004, then-prime minister Paul Martin elevated Mr. Godfrey to cabinet as Minister of State for Infrastructure and Communities. Mr. Godfrey brought Mr. Bevan to Ottawa to run his ministerial office.

Jane Karwat, chief of staff to Toronto's then-mayor David Miller, remembers Mr. Godfrey and Mr. Bevan as responsive and "very easy to work with" – a contrast with some federal politicians who see municipal governments as trivial at best and a nuisance at worst.

"You could go to them and say, 'This is what we want to do, this is why we want to do it and can you help?' They were always very approachable," she says.

This taste of power was brief. The hung Parliament lasted just 18 months, and the subsequent election brought Stephen Harper's Conservatives to office.

Mr. Bevan joined the leadership campaign of Stéphane Dion, who ran on a green-tinged platform. One of Mr. Bevan's roles was as liaison with leadership candidate Gerard Kennedy's camp, a relationship vital to the convention deal that saw Mr. Kennedy bring his support to Mr. Dion. Mr. Dion subsequently appointed Mr. Bevan chief of staff.

At first, Mr. Dion says, some veterans were skeptical of his decision to put a relatively inexperienced staffer in charge, but Mr. Bevan's even-tempered style won them over.

"He was very professional, very competent, calm, he had a strong sense of team spirit … he imposed himself with his own style, without antagonizing anyone," Mr. Dion says. "When he started, I had a senior Liberal who told me, 'Who is this guy? He's a junior, what are you doing with him?' By the end, nobody was saying that."

The job also quenched Mr. Bevan's thirst for hefty policy, as he got to work on the Green Shift, Mr. Dion's marquee environmental program that included a carbon tax.

But Mr. Bevan's career high quickly crashed. In the 2008 federal election, an electorate worried by a looming recession had little time for such big-picture goals – particularly if they included more taxes. The Liberals were decimated.

How much responsibility Mr. Bevan bears for Mr. Dion's failure is a matter of debate. Some insiders say Mr. Bevan was largely sidelined during the election, and Mr. Dion and his hired campaign team disregarded his advice to put less emphasis on the Green Shift on the stump – a version of events Mr. Dion does not dispute. Nevertheless, Mr. Bevan was Mr. Dion's policy guru and ultimately failed to restrain his boss from running a disastrous campaign.

What Mr. Dion remembers most about Mr. Bevan in that election has nothing to do with tactics or policy. Instead, he says, the memory that stands out most is how Mr. Bevan offered moral support at the nadir of the campaign: During an infamous interview with CTV in Halifax, Mr. Dion struggled to understand a grammatically incorrect question about the economy. He twice asked for the question to be repeated, and viewers watched him stumble through two wince-inducing false starts.

"I was really upset. It was five days before the vote, and it had a disastrous effect on us. Andrew told me: 'Stéphane, it's because you always want to understand the question. Other politicians don't do that, they answer whatever they want no matter what they're asked, but you want to understand,'" Mr. Dion recalls. "He had a strong sense of psychology. He knew me very well and he was able to analyze what was happening and give me advice about myself."

After Mr. Dion's fall, Mr. Bevan went first to Sustainable Prosperity, an environmental think tank at the University of Ottawa, then to the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, a partnership between environmental groups and forestry companies that runs conservation programs.

But Mr. Bevan didn't stay out of the political game for long. He kept in touch with Ms. Wynne over the years and, when Mr. McGuinty announced his resignation in October, 2012, he was the first person she called to discuss a run for her departing boss's job.

For the next three months, he served as a strategic adviser on her come-from-behind bid, shaping policy and communications. Mr. Bevan also helped Ms. Wynne craft her crucial convention speech – a rhetorical barn-burner that helped win over other candidates' delegates and clinch her victory. Mr. Bevan followed her into the Premier's office as principal secretary.

The Liberal linchpin at Queen's Park

Kathleen Wynne describes herself as an "activist" politician – someone who believes in the power of government to do big things, and has a lot of ideas on what those should be. Mr. Bevan is involved at every step, the details guy who must make her ideas work and push them through the system. So in tune is he with Ms. Wynne's thinking that some insiders refer to him as "the Premier whisperer," and joke that the two "share a brain."

On a typical day, Mr. Bevan wakes up at the Riverdale home he shares with his partner, municipal civil servant Melissa Armstrong, and their six-year-old son.

The first item on his agenda is a meeting or telephone call between Ms. Wynne, Mr. Bevan and four other top advisers: deputy principal secretary Karim Bardeesy, deputy chief of staff Patricia Sorbara, communications director Rebecca MacKenzie and David Herle, the Liberals' pollster and chief electoral strategist. This is followed by an 8:30 meeting of senior staff.

Many of Mr. Bevan's days include a "four-corners meeting," involving some 40 people from Ms. Wynne's political staff, a minister's advisers and bureaucrats from both Cabinet Office and a ministry. They gather in Room 6501 of the Whitney Block, the art-deco provincial office building across the street from the legislature, to sort out how a policy will move forward. Mr. Bevan sits at the end of the table as civil servants explain the details of a complicated project, such as electrifying a line of the GO regional rail network.

"The officials come and say, 'You can't do that, it's going to cost this much, or the tracks aren't available,' but he always brings it back to: 'What is our commitment? Why are we doing this?' And he steers the officials back in the right direction," says one Liberal insider.

Mr. Bevan also meets weekly with all ministerial chiefs of staff to issue marching orders.

But he frequently likes to operate outside these official structures, kicking around ideas with policy staff, either in informal meetings or over e-mail. Nearly everyone who has dealt with him regularly, from staffers to stakeholders, says he is hyper-responsive on e-mail, typically replying within minutes. And cabinet ministers often come to see him for help pushing their policies forward.

"A lot of people go to Andrew to have a conversation about files that they're working on. So Andrew really does have an open-door policy," Deputy Premier Deb Matthews says.

Much of Mr. Bevan's job also involves dousing fires. He will often be in his office working on a file when someone rushes in to inform him of a salvo from the opposition or an unfavourable breaking news story, insiders say. Mr. Bevan stops what he is doing, formulates the government's response to the problem in a matter of minutes and gives orders on how to deal with it, then turns back to what he was working on before.

Several people in government say the 2014 budget showed the height of Mr. Bevan's skill.

The Liberals knew they were unlikely to get another spending plan through a fractious minority Parliament. Mr. Bevan's job was to take the government's long list of policies and shape them into a budget that could double as a campaign platform and serve as a blueprint for the next term.

He put together a comprehensive package, with a plan for building transit; a $2.5-billion Jobs and Prosperity Fund; and the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, designed to supplement CPP for the roughly four million Ontarians without workplace pensions.

Mr. Herle credits Mr. Bevan with melding it into a single package and driving it through a civil service which, he says, had little appetite to put in so much work for a government that might not be re-elected.

"For Andrew to have delivered that budget out of the system – he's somebody who understands what has to happen politically, and what has to happen in policy terms," he says. "I don't actually know anybody else that could have done it."

For all his big-picture policy smarts, however, Mr. Bevan has also evinced a calculating, cynical streak. Nowhere was this more evident than in the politically expeditious deal he cut on the Scarborough subway.

In early 2012, Toronto City Council and the province agreed to replace the aging Scarborough Rapid Transit train with a new light-rail line. Then-mayor Rob Ford opposed the move, arguing for a subway extension instead. Over the course of the next few months, several city councillors who had voted for the LRT changed their minds and started pushing for the more expensive subway, too.

At first, Queen's Park refused to change plans, reasoning that if the province allowed the city to cancel transit projects on a whim, nothing would ever get built.

Then, Liberal MPP Margarett Best resigned her Scarborough seat, setting up a by-election in the summer of 2013. The Progressive Conservative opposition made the subway a wedge issue.

So Mr. Bevan plotted with Mr. Ford's chief of staff, Earl Provost, to pull off an about-face, sources with knowledge of the discussions say: The province would agree to cancel the LRT and promise a subway extension instead, but city council had to give them political cover by first voting in favour of the move. This would allow Ms. Wynne to spin her sudden change in policy as an act of listening to a local council. It worked.

The manoeuvring allowed Liberal candidate Mitzie Hunter to ride to victory as a self-styled "subway champion" and let Mr. Ford claim a badly needed win in his flagging mayoralty.

But the fallout has been brutal: Three years later, the price tag for the subway extension has ballooned to $3-billion, even as planners have cut back its proposed length and reduced it to just one stop. To many transit experts and urbanists, the project is a waste of money that typifies the city's haphazard, politically motivated planning.

Low polls and high stakes

Listening to the Throne Speech, Mr. Bevan has never been more powerful. At the start of this year, Tom Teahen, a Queen's Park veteran who served as Ms. Wynne's chief of staff for her first three years in office, left for a job as CEO of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. Ms. Wynne gave Mr. Bevan the job on top of his principal secretary role.

In addition to his previous duties – steering policy, communications and issues management – he is now also in charge of administrative matters: Hiring and firing staff, handling caucus and managing the logistics of the Premier's schedule.

The expansion of Mr. Bevan's powers is certain to further stoke criticism from some insiders of his hands-on style.

"There's so much stuff that goes through him, it just becomes a bottleneck," says a Liberal source who has worked closely with him. "Every policy thing goes through him. Every communications thing. No matter how smart you are, you have a finite amount of time."

And the risk of losing it all has never been greater. Most polls put the Liberals a full 10 points behind the PCs. And just 11 days before the Throne Speech, the Liberals lost a by-election in Scarborough-Rouge River, a seat they had held for 17 years, after the Tories successfully hammered them over high electricity prices.

On some days, it seems the government is grappling with a never-ending series of crises.

The Liberals' privatization of electricity utility Hydro One has proven unpopular, with polls showing between 60 and 80 per cent of Ontarians opposed to privatization, and the NDP and unions stoking public furor with an anti-sell-off campaign.

Ethics controversies – over the alleged bribery of a Liberal candidate in a Sudbury by-election and a campaign-finance system in which companies and lobbyists paid thousands of dollars for face time with Ms. Wynne and her cabinet – have consumed much of the government's time and energy.

Perhaps his highest-stakes test – and the one by which Mr. Bevan himself will likely evaluate his success – is the government's plan to battle carbon emissions.

The policy itself is the most comprehensive environmental program in Ontario history, with a cap-and-trade system, incentives for electric cars and policies to switch homes and buildings from natural gas to solar and geothermal heating.

Adding to the difficulty of implementing such a massive strategy has been the unpredictability of Environment Minister Glen Murray. He has rubbed some cabinet colleagues the wrong way by not listening to their input. After a fire-breathing speech to the Empire Club last spring in which he chastised the auto industry for not doing enough to build electric cars and mused about shutting down nuclear plants, Mr. Bevan gave Mr. Murray a stern talking-to, sources say, and obliged him to sign a letter to the auto industry reassuring them the government wouldn't come after them under the climate plan.

But the rollout of the policy showed Mr. Bevan had learned the lessons of his stint with Mr. Dion: The Liberals made no mention of carbon pricing during the 2014 election, and chose cap-and-trade over a direct carbon tax. Unlike a carbon tax, which is a straightforward charge on consumers, cap-and-trade imposes costs on businesses, which then pass them down to customers in an often hard-to-trace way.

"That was influenced by him and his experience getting beaten down by the Green Shift – anything that's a consumer-visible tax is scary," said one insider with knowledge of Mr. Bevan's thinking.

These dual imperatives of policy and politics were also evident in the Throne Speech. The high-minded rhetoric was still there – government as a "force for good in all our lives" – but the headline items were distinctly tangible and direct. An 8-per-cent cut to electricity bills; more child-care spaces; shorter waiting times for patients to see a medical specialist.

"The choices your government has made to develop its balanced plan are working," Ms. Dowdeswell said. "A renewed sense of energy and confidence can be felt."

As one of the people who helped write those words sat less than 10 metres away, listening closely to every last one of them, it was hard to escape the feeling that he's hoping they apply not only to the province, but to himself, too.

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