Jenni Byrne, one of Ottawa’s highest-ranking tacticians, does not speak to reporters. But 14 years ago, she was both less powerful and less reticent. And so when an Ottawa Citizen reporter sought out young people to comment on the growing number of conservatives under the age of 30 in Canada, Byrne was willing to explain herself. Described as “a believer in debt reduction and tax cuts” who joined the Reform party at 16, she was then the 21-year-old president of the campus Reform club at the University of Ottawa. “It’s great for them to say don’t cut here or there, but they won’t be the ones affected by [the debt],” she said then of her parents. “They’re in their late 40s and they will probably still benefit from government programs. But Canada looks like a bleak place for me by the time I’m their age.”
That sentiment sounds similar to the doom Stephen Harper presently foretells if he is defeated by one or all of his political opponents. A doom that Byrne, as director of the Conservative campaign, is now charged with ensuring never comes to pass.
“I think she’s long since established herself as Harper’s single best political organizer,” says Ian Brodie, Harper’s former chief of staff. That is no small compliment given the vaunted nature of both Harper as a political operator and the Conservative party as a partisan machine. And it is part of a reputation for both political skill and strident partisanship that precedes the low-profile Byrne.
Since joining the Reform party, she has been well-placed to witness the chaos and rebirth of the conservative movement in Canada. Like many of those around Harper, she has been through the years in the “wilderness,” as Brodie puts it. “This town and this country are littered with people who gave up on the conservative movement and the Canadian Alliance as part of it and then kind of came back into the fold later,” says Mike Storeshaw, the former director of communications for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. “You can’t count her among that number.”
In the years between leading the campus club and directing the national campaign, Byrne worked as a volunteer, organizer and aide within the party apparatus, Harper’s leadership campaigns and, later, the Prime Minister’s Office, steadily advancing up the hierarchy. She was a deputy to Doug Finley when he ran the Conservative campaigns in 2006 and 2008, and an adviser to Brodie when he ran the PMO. For a time, she oversaw “issues management”—the department charged with internally managing day-to-day crises and headlines. When Finley was appointed to the Senate in 2009, she became the director of political operations for the party and when Finley’s treatment for cancer made it unclear how much he could participate in an election, she took over the national campaign. “She’s as well prepared as anybody would be for this particular job,” says Brodie.
She is undoubtedly committed to the cause and, in fact, rather close to it—her sister Jerra is an aide to Lynne Yelich, the minister of state for western economic diversification, and Byrne was, in the past, romantically linked to Pierre Poilievre, currently the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretary. She brings, as well, a tenacity for which she is at least as famous, or perhaps infamous. “She has a single-minded unwillingness to put up with people screwing around. In politics, there’s a certain number of people who are from time to time screwing around. And she’s totally, totally, totally intolerant of that,” says Brodie, laughing.
Indeed, she seems to have built a somewhat daunting reputation—”a hard-ass with a temper,” as one Conservative describes it. But whatever questions there may be about her management style, her word is, as another Conservative notes, “gospel.” “It’s abundantly clear what her agenda always is: it’s to help get the Prime Minister elected,” says Storeshaw. “People get can pissed off about her style, but understand that it’s implementation of something. It’s not just her being grumpy and wanting something, it’s because this is coming from somewhere a little higher up.”
As a pursuit of higher power, this election may represent Harper’s best and perhaps last chance at a majority government. And not yet in her 40s, Byrne now has a chance to ensure the future is more to her, and Harper’s, liking.