Meet the Harper veterans who could help Patrick Brown become the next premier
Former prime minister Stephen Harper never made Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown a cabinet minister.
But some of Harper’s aides could make Brown the premier of Ontario.
With an eye toward toppling Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals in the June 7, 2018 provincial election, the Tory leader has quietly been assembling a talented team that includes many Ottawa veterans.
“I asked my childhood friend Walied Soliman, as the campaign chair, to construct a campaign team with the best people,” Brown explained in an interview.
“They’re coming from a variety of backgrounds, but I want the best people for each position. Where they got their political experience, where they’ve been involved before, is irrelevant,” he said.
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While Brown was a Conservative backbencher for nearly all of Harper’s nine years in office, the two were never close.
That has not stopped the PC chief from welcoming into the fold some key advisers to the former prime minister.
“If you’re a Conservative leader, you have to draw from people who have been involved in previous Conservative campaigns, whether it’s those who were involved with Brian Mulroney or Bill Davis or Jean Charest or Stephen Harper,” said Brown.
His chief of staff is Alykhan Velshi, who served as director of issues management and parliamentary affairs as well as director of strategic planning and stakeholder relations in the Prime Minister’s Office under Harper.
Since arriving at Queen’s Park in March, Velshi has brought some discipline and order to an office that had been chaotic and reactive.
The leader’s deputy chief of staff and head of communications is Rebecca Thompson, who was Harper’s manager of strategic communications and stakeholder relations.
While the former prime minister was famously prickly in his dealings with the media, Thompson’s revamp of Brown’s communications operation has made it a savvier, press-friendly outfit.
A willingness to be open and accessible to reporters is not the only difference between the PC leader and Harper.
Privately, Brown’s confidants point out that he breaks with federal Conservative orthodoxy by wanting to put a price on carbon.
That measure — to curb greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change — is seen as heresy in some traditional Tory quarters, but the 39-year-old leader believes his party has to side with modern science.
“We want to do our part for the environment,” he has repeatedly said while criss-crossing the province.
Shiv Raj, who was Harper’s manager of tour, is now a senior adviser at Queen’s Park. Raj, a battle-tested campaign pro, runs Brown’s tour and handles community outreach.
Dan Robertson — a partner at Indent Communications, which redesigned the PC Party logo and makes Brown’s TV commercials — is another seasoned Harper alumnus.
Robertson was the federal Conservative Party’s director of advertising during the 2011 campaign and was Harper’s associate director of communications.
Brown has enlisted lobbyist Ken Boessenkool to help the Tories craft a campaign platform.
Boessenkool, a long-time Harper policy adviser, made headlines in 2012 when he was forced to resign as British Columbia Liberal premier Christy Clark’s chief of staff and publicly apologize after admitting he “acted inappropriately” toward a waitress.
Also aboard is Dimitri Soudas, who was Harper’s high-profile director of communications.
Soudas, who broke with the Conservatives after a much-publicized alliance with the federal Liberals several years ago, is back in the Tory camp.
Now working in the private sector, he’s volunteered to run Brown’s election war room, where his rapid-response expertise will be invaluable.
Another conscript is Hamish Marshall, Harper’s Oxford-educated manager of strategic planning, who is helping the provincial Tories with research.
Marshall managed federal Tory Leader Andrew Scheer’s successful leadership campaign earlier this year.
Despite the Harper connections, Brown’s personal political gurus are from an older generation.
“The politician that I’ve tried to emulate, the person that I consider a mentor, is former premier Bill Davis,” he said of the PC titan who deftly governed Ontario from 1971 until 1985.
Brown emphasized that Mulroney — whose daughter, Caroline, is the PC candidate in York-Simcoe — is another inspiration for his work as prime minister between 1984 and 1993.
“You’ve heard me reference Brian Mulroney’s work on apartheid in South Africa, the acid rain treaty, free trade, things that I think are positive for Canada.”