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Lunch with Liberal Dominic LeBlanc: from Justin Trudeau’s babysitter to behind-the-scenes tactician

Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc speaks to reporters following Question Period in the foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. .
Liberal MP Dominic LeBlanc speaks to reporters following Question Period in the foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 24, 2013. . Justin Tang / The Canadian Press

OTTAWA – Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc starts his day at 8 a.m., when he chairs a half-hour tactics meeting to discuss the day’s events.

With a handful of senior Liberals and staff, such as deputy leader Ralph Goodale and party whip Judy Foote, he goes over the lineup for question period.

READ MORE: How one Conservative MP has taken question period to a place no other MP has before

What are the issues of the day? What is happening in Parliamentary committees? How will the third-party whittled down to 34 MPs use its precious nine allotted questions?

The affable five-time MP for Beausejour, N.B. –  “Hi Marjory,” he beams, as a certain Conservative senator walks by – arrives at the Parliamentary dining room a bit late, a bit out of breath. He’s come directly from the meeting, and is supposed to leave at 1 p.m. for rehearsal.

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It’s a familiar setting: LeBlanc used to dine here as a teenager when his father, Romeo, was an MP in the Pierre Trudeau Liberal government.

Ordering “un diet Coke,” he also asks – perhaps out of pity – for a glass of Chardonnay, which he generously donates. “You wouldn’t want to be the only journalist sober here at lunchtime,” he says.

On this particular day, the Liberals are tackling the issue of veterans services, following a rash of solider suicides.

READ MORE: National Defence releases name of fourth apparent soldier suicide

I ask him if he is the one who decides on the questions.

“Um. You’re taping, eh. Ah,” he says, hesitating for a good 13 seconds before explaining that ultimately he “sort of calls” the decisions.

What about Justin Trudeau?

“He doesn’t participate in that,” says LeBlanc.

“Sometimes he will ask us…to give him advice on where we thinks he should start. Like, what subject should he start on.”

LeBlanc – who is 45 with dark brown hair, a wide smile, and what appear to be chewed fingernails – has known Trudeau since infancy, but the bond began before they were born.

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His father was Lester B. Pearson’s press secretary (LeBlanc was born the day Pearson resigned, with the Ottawa Citizen headline declaring: “Press secretary loses a boss, but gains a son”) before becoming an MP, Senator, and then Governor General.

Perhaps most metaphorically, LeBlanc used to babysit the Liberal leader whom he now calls boss.

So what is Trudeau doing while his caucus prepares for the day?

“He’s probably dropping his kids off at school,” LeBlanc says, insisting neither Stephane Dion nor Michael Ignatieff attended such meetings.

“I mean, I don’t know what he’s doing at 8 o’clock.”

NDP: ‘the sanctimony brigade’

The Liberals came within 389 votes of the incumbent Conservatives in last month’s Brandon-Souris byelection in Manitoba – not bad for a party that won only five per cent of the vote in the 2011 general election.

READ MORE: Conservatives claim Brandon-Souris byelection win

“We lost our deposit,” LeBlanc says, of 2011.

“We came after the Green Party last time. You have to have 10 per cent of the vote to get back your thousand bucks. It discourages nut bars from running.”

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He sees the leap – from 5.4 to almost 43 per cent of the vote this time around – as a sign the Liberals are making inroads in urban western Canada.

“If somebody had said to you a year ago, that we could even conceivably come within 400 votes of winning in Brandon, Man., I would have burst out laughing. It would be a punch line,” he says.

“You can suddenly say you know what, I want to be a Liberal candidate in Regina or Saskatoon.”

Trudeau has drawn “an avalanche of people” interested in running for the party, LeBlanc says. He names one: Camille Theriault, the former Liberal premier of New Brunswick, who is eyeing Conservative Tilly O’Neill Gordon’s Miramichi seat.

LeBlanc prides himself on his bipartisan relationships: Justice Minister Peter MacKay (friend from back east), Treasury Board President Tony Clement (knew him at the University of Toronto), New Brunswick NDP MP Yvon Godin (a lot in common).

But when asked about the recent uproar in political circles over Trudeau’s use of the late NDP leader Jack Layton’s “hope is better than fear” line in a victory speech from the Montreal riding of Bourassa, LeBlanc asks slyly, “Wasn’t that a (Wilfrid) Laurier quote?”

“(NDP leader Tom) Mulcair is 50 times more negative, and vindictive and nasty than Justin’s ever been,” he says.

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In part, LeBlanc blames Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whom he accuses of debasing the political debate.

“It becomes like a race to the basement, that’s the problem. Mr. Harper sets the tone,” he says. “The Conservatives are vicious.”

But the NDP have a “monopoly on virtue and sanctimony.”

“They are the sanctimony brigade,” he says.

“They were bragging six months ago about how tough and aggressive their leader was…this is a guy with experience of going for the throat, he can take on Stephen Harper.

“Now they’re having trouble, they’re trying to erase all that and pretend that he’s actually a very, very warm and affectionate adorable character,” he says.

“He appears to have a short temper. I’ve never seen Justin Trudeau lose his temper.”

But what’s so bad about that – especially when the anger is directed at Harper?

As he bites into a pappadum served with his chicken curry, LeBlanc explains the entire Trudeau ethos.

“He’s not running to be prosecutor,” he says.

“People want to think that the future of the country is in the hands of somebody who reflects their values and their demeanour and their dreams and their hopes and their fears.”

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On leadership: ‘I wouldn’t have won’

When LeBlanc was 13 or 14, a few years older than Trudeau and his brothers, he used to babysit the boys – in the broadest sense of the word.

“What do you do when you’re 13 years old?” he says.
“You phone people, you play telephone jokes. ‘Is your fridge running? Yes. You better go catch it.’ Giggle and hang up the phone. Ring doorbells and take off, another thing we did.”

He grew up in Ottawa’s well-to-do Glebe neighbourhood but spent a majority of his time as a teenager in and around Parliament Hill, bringing his homework to his father’s office in Centre Block.

But it wasn’t Romeo LeBlanc who inspired him to get into politics. It was another Liberal: former prime minister Jean Chretien.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, LeBlanc got a call from Chretien to come work for him in Ottawa.

It was the summer of 1993, and Kim Campbell was prime minister.

“He said, look, you can always go to court to defend a drunk driver or do somebody’s property transfer or write up a client’s will. He said you can always do that. But you’ll never have an opportunity to work on a national election campaign like the one I’m offering you.”

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When Chretien won, LeBlanc stayed on as his Atlantic adviser.

“I got the bug when I worked for Mr. Chretien, much more than my dad.”

He recalls Chretien as a very disciplined and productive leader: he would get up early and call a 9:30 a.m. meeting, go home for lunch at noon, and leave the office at 5 p.m. – bringing his files to work on in front of the baseball game on TV.

In 1997, LeBlanc ran for office, but lost to the NDP – the first time the Liberals lost the riding in a century.

He was hit with the “parachute” label, and Chretien told him if he wanted to run again, he had to move to the riding, set up a law office and establish his bonafides as a “local guy.” It paid off in 2000, and ever since.

Governor general at the time, Romeo LeBlanc couldn’t even celebrate with his son.

“Election night he was hiding in the basement of a friend’s house in Shediac, N.B., with the police parked outside, waiting for the results. It was sort of awkward,” says LeBlanc, sipping curried carrot soup.

The elder LeBlanc was also at the beginning stages of dementia. He died in 2009.

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“After 2005 I’m not sure he focused on very much,” says LeBlanc. “The election before he died, I didn’t even get him to vote.”

And no, LeBlanc doesn’t have a soft spot for the Senate – but he does see a place for it in Canadian society.

“As long as it’s unelected, and bogged down in the ethical mess they have now, it won’t be able to exercise any political legitimacy,” he says. “My preference would one day to see some reformed Senate that would give the smaller provinces a real role in the federation.”

A “dying breed” in his party –  elected to a francophone, rural riding – LeBlanc’s interests lie in procurement, unemployment, infrastructure. “I come from a province that can’t pay [its] own bills.” He admits the party needs stronger, dynamic female candidates, too.

LeBlanc has twice shelved his own leadership aspirations: in 2008, when he threw his support behind Ignatieff, and again last year, when he decided not to run against Trudeau.

“I wouldn’t have won, but I shouldn’t have won, because he was clearly the best person at that moment,” he says.

For now, LeBlanc appears happy to work behind the scenes – “completely serene” with how his world’s unfolded.

More than any other factor in the past decade, he says, Trudeau has positioned the Liberals to reap electoral benefits.

“Politics is about winning; there’s no prize for second. I’m tired of having moral victories,” says LeBlanc.

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“And he is the single best asset that we could have imagined.”