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Liberal VP and Trudeau insider Suzanne Cowan gunning for top party job

By Charelle Evelyn      

The Grits will vote in Halifax in April on Anna Gainey’s successor as president of the Liberal Party.

Suzanne Cowan, the daughter of former Liberal Senator James Cowan, played key roles in Justin Trudeau’s leadership campaign and in the party’s 2015 general election win.
Photograph courtesy of Suzanne Cowan

One of the architects of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s successful Liberal leadership and 2015 election campaigns, Suzanne Cowan, is hoping to help give the Grits another mandate in 2019 as Liberal Party president.

Currently serving as the party’s English national vice-president, Ms. Cowan is the first to throw her hat in the ring to replace the outgoing Anna Gainey in a contest that will be decided at the Liberals’ policy convention April 19 to 21 in Halifax.

“We need a strong apparatus at the party level to make sure we’re ready for 2019,” Ms. Cowan said in an interview. “And that’s where I see the job as the president—as the chief volunteer in a volunteer organization.”

The Nova Scotia-born daughter of former Liberal Senator James Cowan, Ms. Cowan has spent time working both on Parliament Hill—in the offices of former Liberal Senator Bernie Boudreau, the late Liberal deputy prime minister Herb Gray, and Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett (Toronto-St. Paul’s, Ont.) when she was minister of state for public health in the mid-2000s—and at Queen’s Park for former premier Dalton McGuinty. Other Trudeau insiders who come out of the former Ontario premier’s office include Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary Gerald Butts and chief of staff Katie Telford.

In 2012, Ms. Cowan was recruited to volunteer for Mr. Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) Liberal leadership campaign. “I had met Justin when he was a Member of Parliament, and before that had friends who are friends with him,” Ms. Cowan said. “I had worked with a number of people who were involved with launching his leadership campaign and they were looking for people to get involved.”

It’s a rare thing to be involved in a leadership campaign from its infancy, she said, and “once you help launch it, you’re not going anywhere. You’re going to see it through.”

Ms. Cowan continued to see it through, and took on the role of senior adviser and director of advertising for the Liberals’ 2015 campaign, where she said she learned the importance of making people feel as though they’re being heard and “having what they said be reflected back in whether it’s communications or outreach or advertising or [the] leader’s messaging or anything like that.”

Suzanne Cowan with Justin Trudeau, now prime minister, and his current principal secretary Gerald Butts, right, during the 2015 election campaign. Photograph courtesy of Suzanne Cowan

After the election, Ms. Cowan said she “decided not to move to Ottawa,” opting against uprooting her two young daughters, now aged six and 11, from Toronto. She took a job in March 2016 as vice-president of business development and corporate affairs with Park Lawn Corporation, the funeral, cremation, and cemetery provider. But she stayed involved with the party and, after being approached, ran to be a party vice-president in 2016, after which she helped overhaul the Liberal constitution and bylaws.

Despite her proximity to the prime minister and his inner circle, Ms. Cowan said her main contribution to the position of party president would be the relationships that she’s forged in all pockets of the country.

“Over the course of working on the Hill and working at Queen’s Park and in the private sector, I‘ve managed to build a strong network across the country. I obviously know the leader, I know some of his people in the Prime Minister’s Office and other places, but I think the important thing I bring to the table is that network across the country built over the last 25, 35 years of being involved in politics.”

A major plank of Ms. Cowan’s presidency platform revolves around building the team on the ground in advance of the next general election, ensuring they’re properly trained and prepared. She’s opted to not name campaign chairs, instead relying on “dozens” of people in every province—such as riding association heads and MPs—to help do the groundwork to get the word out and get people signed up and attending the convention.

She also acknowledges the need to strengthen the party’s fundraising apparatus and wants to see an expansion of the Victory Fund, which allows donors to make an automatic monthly donation to both their riding and the national group, beginning at $10 per month. The party has lagged behind the Conservatives in quarterly fundraising totals, despite having the advantage of being in government.

Candidates for positions on the Liberal national board have until March 14 to submit applications. The board oversees and guides the party in terms of organization, finances, and strategy.

Ms. Cowan said she hasn’t yet heard any other names in the running to replace Ms. Gainey, who has served the allowed two consecutive two-year terms. But Ms. Cowan said she is “working like someone is going to get into the race.”

Halifax to be convention central

When the three-day Liberal National Convention kicks off on April 19 in Ms. Cowan’s hometown of Halifax, it will be the first under the party’s new registration rules, which did away with a membership fee in 2016.

“As a result, over 90,000 Canadians have now registered as new Liberals since the summer of 2016,” party spokesperson Braeden Caley said in an email. The same constitution overhaul also removed the previous delegate selection process for the convention, meaning registration for the event is now open to all registered Liberal members. The regular registration fee for the convention has also been reduced by 54 per cent from the 2016 event, he said.

“With more than two months of registration still to come, well over a thousand Canadians have already registered to attend,” Mr. Caley said.

It will be the first of two major political events held in Halifax’s new convention centre. The Conservative Party will also hold its national convention at the venue in August.

cevelyn@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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