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Meet the war room operatives running the B.C. campaigns

VICTORIA — The public face of B.C.’s political parties during an election are usually the leaders and candidates. But behind the scenes, it’s the strategists and organizers who are key to getting out the votes on election day.

The B.C. Liberals have reunited most of the group responsible for the party’s come-from-behind 2013 election victory. The B.C. NDP have brought in an outsider to put a fresh perspective on their campaign. And the B.C. Greens are growing on the fly, as they run their first large-scale election operation.

Here’s a look at the war room generals for the three main political parties:

B.C. LIBERALS

Laura Miller runs the Liberal campaign.

Laura Miller, campaign director: After modernizing and revitalizing the party machinery for Premier Christy Clark, Miller has been tapped to lead the whole campaign this time around. Along with Clark, she’ll call the shots on deploying party resources, advertising buys, volunteers and the campaign tour in key battleground ridings.

At 38, Miller has been a driving force behind the party since the last election, reorganizing its structure, improving its fundraising, sharpening its attacks against opponents and kick-starting its social media and digital presence. 

While other political parties (including the previous iteration of the Liberals under Gordon Campbell) often go dormant between elections, Miller has kept a staff busy, including paid full-time regional organizers who laid the groundwork for the campaign months in advance. Miller is “one of the best in the country” at running a party and she’s left the B.C. Liberals better organized than they’ve been in decades, veteran Liberal MLA Rich Coleman has said.

Miller remains a polarizing figure in B.C. politics. She inspires fierce loyalty among Liberals and the premier, who have chosen to back her despite controversy in Ontario. The NDP have publicly attacked her because Miller is facing a criminal trial in that province this fall on charges of breach of trust and mischief, for an alleged role in the destruction of email records more than four years ago while she worked as deputy chief of staff to then premier Dalton McGuinty. She resigned from the B.C. Liberal party in December 2015 but was rehired in March 2016, with the premier expressing her support that Miller is innocent until proven otherwise in court.

Dimitri Pantazopoulos, pollster: Pantazopoulos returns to the job he held in the 2013 campaign, where he was widely credited for giving the party reliable internal polling that showed the path to victory, despite public polls indicating the NDP had the election won. Pantazopoulos has also served in the past as Clark’s principal secretary, and as a deputy minister. He’s parlayed his success into a government relations business, where he consults on communications strategies and lobbies his old colleagues in government on behalf of organizations like Uber.

Don Guy, senior adviser: Longtime federal and provincial Liberal strategist Don Guy returns as a top adviser to the Clark campaign, in a role similar to 2013. Guy’s federal connections, and his time directing Ontario Liberal campaigns for McGuinty, aligns him politically with key staffers in Clark’s inner circle. At one point dubbed “the godfather of Queen’s Park,” he was described by the Toronto Star in 2011 as “the mystery man of politics, mythologized at 46 and described as scary smart, intimidating, inscrutable, and not to be crossed.”

Mike McDonald, senior adviser: One of Clark’s oldest friends, McDonald was the campaign director in her stunning 2013 victory. Known for his encyclopedic knowledge of B.C. political minutiae, McDonald is a longtime organizer and staffer, serving as Clark’s chief of staff during her early years as premier. He said his new role is flexible and he’s available to help in whatever form is needed.

Michele Cadario, voter identification: For several years, Cadario has been in charge of aggressively pushing Clark’s political agenda inside government as her deputy chief of staff. For the campaign, she’s been put in charge of identifying Liberal voters and getting them out to vote. It sounds like a deceptively simple task, but with voter complacency perhaps the greatest risk facing the Liberals, it’s also one of the most important behind-the-scenes jobs within the party.

Brad Bennett, special adviser: The son of former premier Bill Bennett, and grandson of W.A.C. Bennett, Brad Bennett helped publicly shore up Clark’s conservative connections in 2013, portraying her as the extension of the Bennett Social Credit free enterprise dynasty. After winning, she named him chairman of B.C. Hydro. He returns to travel with her on the campaign bus in 2017.

B.C. NDP

Bob Dewar, who is running the B.C. NDP’s election campaign, talks with Raj Sihota, the NDP provincial director.

Bob Dewar, campaign director: A veteran New Democrat from Manitoba, Dewar brings an outsider’s perspective to the B.C. NDP, which has lost the last four elections to the Liberals. “I do bring fresh eyes because I wasn’t around in 2013, or 2009 or 2005,” he said.

Dewar will preside over a campaign team that’s different from previous elections, in part because many prospective NDP strategists are working in Alberta, where Premier Rachel Notley has forbidden them from taking leave to help the B.C. party because of leader John Horgan’s opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

Dewar, 64, has deep NDP roots. His brother is former NDP MP Paul Dewar. He was chief of staff to then Manitoba Premier Gary Doer from 1999 to 2003 (and also his campaign director), and he spent almost two decades with the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union.

As campaign director, he oversees the entire party effort, the almost 50 campaign staff, and issues like focus group results and advertising messaging. The goal is for a quick, flexible, nimble campaign, he said.

“Campaigns now, as you know, can change in a minute and you have to be able to pivot,” he said. “Something you might have decided upon a week or so ago is the way we’re going, something happens and you have to change immediately. I’m involved in that to make sure it runs smoothly and nobody notices.”

Dewar is not a longtime friend of Horgan, but his name was suggested through mutual acquaintances last year when Horgan was looking for a chief of staff. “I liked him immediately,” said Dewar, who was hired in September and moved to campaign director in March. “John has got the royal jelly.”

Glen Sanford, deputy director: If Dewar is the outside help, then Sanford is the B.C. veteran. The son of former Comox MLA Karen Sanford, his work for the party dates back to polling and organizing while in high school in the late 1970s, and stretches into provincial, municipal, Yukon and federal contests. Sanford’s focus is campaign operations, coordinating the communications, rapid response, field data and digital departments. Between elections, he works at the Comox Valley Art Gallery.

Raj Sihota, provincial director: Sihota runs the party machinery, even when there’s no election, handling administration and staff. She began the role in August, after Michael Gardiner departed. She’s the first South Asian woman to hold the top job at a B.C. political party.

Marie Della Mattia, special adviser to the leader: A key adviser to leader John Horgan on the campaign bus, Della Mattia has been working with Horgan for several months on his public speaking and delivery. She’s also assisted on policy and the party platform. Della Mattia is a veteran campaigner, having provided advice to seven winning NDP campaigns in four provinces. She also helped run NOW Communications for almost 14 years, the longtime PR firm that received millions in provincial contracts during the 1990s B.C. NDP government.

Ryan Sudds, director of field operations: The NDP learned from its mistakes in the 2013 election, and this time is decentralizing some of its campaign resources from headquarters to more regional operations. The regions help different parts of the province get enough leaflets, press releases, candidate scripts, phone bank time and canvasser staff, as well as assist campaigns in interpreting the party’s policies and platform for local audiences. They report, daily, to Sudds, who is a former assistant to a federal NDP MP.

B.C. GREENS

Taylor Hartrick is running the B.C. Green election campaign.

Taylor Hartrick, campaign director: Once an assistant in leader Andrew Weaver’s office, Hatrick is now running the big show for the Greens in 2017. After two years working for Weaver, Hatrick, 30, got his master’s degree in political management at Carleton University, learning campaign strategies from Guy Giorno, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He’s also trained in the U.S., attending courses with staffers who worked on Hillary Clinton’s Super PAC and Bernie Sanders’s digital campaign. Now, he’ll oversee the most ambitious election effort in B.C. Green history, with a 15-person staff, a leader’s tour bus, candidates in most ridings, focus groups and polling by EKOS Politics.

“My job is to make sure all those different components are working in sync,” he said. “In many ways with the B.C. Greens, it’s like running a startup in a sense that we recognized early on if we wanted to be successful in this election we had to increase our capacity.”

“The party has never run a campaign of this scale before, so this is really a first,” he added. “You look at who our candidates are, we’ve got seven people with PhDs, four former municipal or current councillors, a couple of school board trustees. They are all wanting to run bigger campaigns than our candidates in the past have, and that requires more sophisticated tools.”

Liz Lilly, platform director: A retired civil servant, Lilly has helped the party for more than a year craft its ambitious election platform. She worked 25 years within the bureaucracy, ending her career as executive director in the Climate Action Secretariat. The Greens are hoping to tap her lengthy experience — which spans Social Credit, NDP and Liberal governments — to help craft a platform that appeals to voters outside of traditional environmental groups.

Evan Pivnick, field director: Pivnick, also a former Weaver staffer, is in charge of local campaign support, hitting the party’s voter contact targets, and mobilizing the get-out-the-vote machinery to physically get Green voters to the polls. He also helps supervise the candidate selection and recruitment, as well build a voter contact system for internal use. 

Laura Lavin, executive director: The administrator of the party, especially during non-election years, Lavin keeps the lights on and the bills paid. She’s a former editor of the Monday Magazine in Victoria and a former editor of the Oak Bay News.

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