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The Top 100: Zita Astravas, the trouble-shooter

By Laura Ryckewaert      

'In one word I would describe Zita’s approach as dogged. She is a nose-to-the- grindstone, don’t-miss-a-detail, don’t-drop-a-thing worker,' said Scott Reid, who has worked with Astravas.

Zita Astravas, director of issues management in the PMO, with Michael Wernick, clerk of the Privy Council. P&I photograph by Jake Wright

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s political trouble-shooter, issues management director Zita Astravas is key to keeping the government on track, and she takes a “dogged,” quick-acting and multi-dimensional approach to the role, say sources.

“In one word I would describe Zita’s approach as dogged. She is a nose-to-the- grindstone, don’t-miss-a-detail, don’t-drop-a-thing worker,” said Scott Reid, who’s worked with Astravas in his role as a consultant with Feschuk-Reid and was director of issues management to former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin.

“From personal experience, when it comes to issues management, you desperately want people like that, because that don’t-leave-a-single-stone-unturned attitude is precisely what you need when you’re contemplating how might an issue unfold,” he said.

It’s a role that’s evolved and been refined since first being formalized under the Martin Liberal government a little over a decade ago, said Reid, and in today’s political climate, issues management is the “province of veterans,” and a “central” role in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

“Life in the PMO is life on the battlefield,” said Reid, and issues management is about dodging or quickly patching-up political hits. It requires cutting across various sectors of government—from senior communications and policy people, to cabinet chiefs of staff, to the bureaucracy—to get a “complete understanding of how something’s going to play out,” he said.

“And that’s all in prep. Then there’s the question of when it hits the fan, because that’s when life gets interesting.”

By necessity, the role is a 24-hour one— as issues won’t wait until the work-week or day begins to unfold—and success means constantly being on top of news, predicting potential pitfalls, and taking that crucial “quick first step” when things turn south, said Reid.

“It’s something that in many respects is almost innate: some people have got it, some people don’t,” he said.

“Poorly managed issues out of the PMO are the things that take governments right down a rat hole.”

An avid runner and cook, Astravas—who is notoriously private and declined an interview with P&I—is a Calgary native and was an active Liberal during her university days, including as president of the University of Toronto Liberals while completing her undergrad studies at the school.

Gabe De Roche, who succeeded Astravas as president of the University of Toronto Liberals (after she helped convince him
to join) and who also worked with her at Queen’s Park, said that during their days in “youth politics, Zita was always taking on more … we were all very impressed by that.”

While at university, she worked in then- Ontario Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty’s 2007 election war room. During the 2008 federal election that followed, Astravas was part of the Ontario tour team, and later landed a job as a research analyst in the Ontario Liberal caucus services office at Queen’s Park.

In 2009, Astravas made her way to Parliament Hill for the first time as a researcher in then Liberal official opposition leader Michael Ignatieff ’s office. She helped wrangle media as deputy wagonmaster on Ignatieff ’s 2010 ‘Liberal Express’ summer tour, and was team lead for media research during the 2011 federal election campaign that followed.

Summa Strategies’ Lindsay Doyle worked alongside Astravas in Ignatieff ’s OLO and said she was “extremely hard-working” and a “well-liked and–respected” member of the team, with an aptitude for anticipating issues and rapid response.

“She has a dry sense of humour that quickly cuts through a difficult room, and a fierce loyalty for her political bosses,” said Doyle.

After the Liberals were reduced to third party status in the House in 2011, Astravas returned to Queen’s Park, briefly serving as legislative affairs adviser to then Ontario environment minister John Wilkinson before joining the central campaign team during the provincial election that year.

De Roche, now an account director at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, said Astravas is “very effective at building friendships and earning respect,” and proved her capabilities as press aide to Matthews during controversy over Ontario’s Ornge air ambulance service.

“I think that that experience and her effectiveness in that role is directly responsible for her being appointed press secretary to the premier,” he said, adding she demonstrated an “ability to manage stress” and stay on top of complex issues.

Astravas took on the role of press secretary and director of media relations to Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne in June 2013, and served in a similar capacity during the 2014 provincial election.

Throughout her years at Queen’s Park, Astravas worked alongside a number of other senior Trudeau staffers, including PMO chief of staff Katie Telford and principal secretary Gerald Butts.

Come the 2015 federal election, Astravas took leave from her job with the premier to serve as campaign press secretary to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, and was subsequently recruited to serve as director of issues management in his office as prime minister. In the PMO, she oversees issues advisers Ryan Dunn, Michael Jones and Sandra Aubé, along with special assistant Michael Power.

“The fact that people trust her as a staffer, but they also like her as a person, and like her as a friend—I think that makes her even more effective and more influential,” De Roche told P&I.

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